The art and practice of reflection

We talk a lot about reflection with our clients, both in the context of leadership development and coaching. The term reflection has become more acceptable in the context of work and organisations in recent years – it’s not necessarily just instantly dismissed as new age waffle! Although that being said, it is not necessarily something that is well-understood or consistently practiced. It can be tough to embrace the idea of personal reflection in our typically task-focused super-busy work environments, especially for those with significant leadership responsibilities.

It can also be hard to understand the value in it – even if you think it might be worthwhile it can be difficult getting your head around what it really means in practice. On the face of it, it sounds pretty simple but how does it work in practice? So I thought it might be useful to explore some basic questions in relation to reflection.

What is it?

At its core I would describe reflection as making sense of your experiences:

Reflection = Sense-making

It means gaining a deeper understanding or insight into why something happened or is happening in a situation, your role in it and considering what it might mean for future actions you take.

There are two dimensions in which reflection might happen:

  1. Past. The most obvious type of reflection (and usually assumed) is reflection on the past – after an event or incident has happened or an experience has been had. Typically you’ve been involved in a situation (usually something not going as well as you might have hoped) and soon afterwards you may reflect on it to explore what happened and identify what you learned.
  2. Present. The other dimension for reflection is reflection in the present, or what is sometimes referred to as reflection-in-action. This is where you are able to reflect in the moment as the situation is unfolding, come to some insights about ‘what is going on here’ and then adjust your words and actions as a result of these insights. This form of reflection requires you to simultaneously be present whilst also taking a helicopter view of the situation. This is much harder to do as it takes a high level of self awareness and deliberate in-the-moment attention.

inner voiceWhy do it?

When thinking about reflection I’m reminded of the T.S. Elliot quote:

We had the experience but we missed the meaning

It’s worth thinking carefully about that statement for a moment. We have experiences all the time, but how often do we take the time to consider what insights we gained from the experience. This is where the real learning occurs, much more so than in a formal training environment!  Those that master the practice of reflection learn faster, become more capable more quickly, avoid repeating mistakes, build better relationships and become more effective problem solvers and innovators because they are using everyday experiences to drive insight, learning and better action.

At a personal level for me I regard reflection as the single most important skill that I have developed over my working life. It is more powerful and useful than any specific skill because it enables continuously learning and fast-tracking across a range of capabilities.

How do you do it?

Strange as it might seem, there is a discipline to the practice of reflection. The most important principle to apply is to fundamentally have a learning mindset. So, if we firstly refer to the concept of reflecting on a past event or incident, it is not thinking about something that has happened and just playing it over in your mind where you might beat yourself up, feel guilty about what happened, bask in the glow of your own brilliance, worry about the consequences, seek to blame someone or even replay different actions you could have taken. It’s gone, it’s happened, it can’t be changed. The real question is:

What did I learn?

In many ways it is a form of self-coaching – some simple questions you might reflect on include…

  • How do I feel about what happened?
  • What might this be telling me?
  • What worked and what didn’t?
  • How might have others involved viewed the situation?
  • How might have I contributed to the situation?
  • What are my key insights/learnings from this experience?
  • What might this mean for future action?

These questions can be applied both to negative as well as to positive experiences. There is learning to be gained from both. Aside from the opportunity for learning from reflection it can also help you to move on from negative experiences more quickly or to not linger too long in self-congratulation for positive experiences.

As you build experience in practicing post-event reflection you will contribute to your capacity to be able to also reflect-in-action.   In addition a key element to reflection-in-action is being able to be observant of yourself and others in the moment – recognizing how you are feeling and reacting to others and how others are reacting to you and the choices you are making in that context. Allow yourself to be thoughtful in the moment and even to openly express and explore doubts and concerns with others about how the situation itself is unfolding, not just the topic at hand. Another key strategy is to just stop talking and start listening!

How do you make it part of your practice?

In order to make reflection part of your practice you just need to get started. Here are a couple of suggestions:

  1. In the next few weeks deliberately reflect on two or three experiences using the questions above. Ideally select experiences where you have had some intensity of feeling – good or bad – and take 5 – 10 minutes to reflect soon afterwards. It can be extremely helpful to write down some rough notes as you think. Most importantly, make the effort to reach a view and articulate what you have learned – this will bring a sharpness and value to the reflective activity.
  2. Young woman writes to black diaryIn the next few weeks identify a meeting or interaction with others where you will be an active participant and set yourself to reflect-in-action. This will involve you deliberately observing yourself and others in the interaction whilst simultaneously actively participating – you may also adjust your actions based on your observations of yourself and others. Take a moment after the interaction to reflect on your experience. Try it again.
  3. Try journaling. The writing process becomes the thinking process – it can be a valuable way to make sense of your thoughts and reach some conclusions. Even perhaps just answering the key questions posed above in this post. For those who like technology there are a range of journaling apps that may be helpful – Day One, Momento, I done this. You may wish to refer to our previous reference to the post ‘Don’t scoff, the power of journaling’.

The ultimate goal is for reflection to become a way of being, not merely a technique or another task. This will only come through the discipline of practice and deeply appreciating the value it brings to both work and home life.

It’s a new year, so it’s a good time to give it a go! What’s the worst that can happen?


Click here for a link to another blog on reflection – reflection v rumination.