“Many workplaces are awash with experience and action. Between the crevices is anxiety about the past and worry about the future, but little real reflection on the experience and action itself.”
So writes Georgeanne Lamont in The Spirited Business (2002) in describing “soul-friendly” companies such as Microsoft UK, NatWest and Bayer UK, organisations who countered the potentially “life-draining” work experiences of their people with a savvy combination of “people, passion and profit”.
Reflection, among other strategies, enabled good strategic decision-making and built creative, innovative and engaged cultures; with the wherewithal to integrate people, passion and profit.
Then David Whyte, author of The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship (2009), writes about happiness at work: “[Happiness], is possible only through seeing it in a greater context than surviving the everyday. We must have a relationship with our work that is larger than any individual job description we are given”.
He writes, too, that to really know our relationship with work we must look back with perspective on the actual nature of the work we accomplish. Equally so, emphasising how: “In the midst of a seemingly endless life … we can spend so much time attempting to put bread on the table or holding a relationship together that we often neglect the necessary internal skills which help us pursue, come to know, and then sustain a marriage with the person we find on the inside”.
As he says, we become afraid of these internal questions, we neglect this internal “marriage” and make ourselves a hostage to the externals of work and the demands of relationship. We say we don’t have time or that we will … “when we get a moment”. In the meantime we remain a “formidable stranger” to ourselves.
What is it?
Whatever we call it, whether reflection or internal question making, it’s essentially the art or act of looking back at our experiences and observing, evaluating, drawing conclusions. It differs to a present-minded focus, the purpose for which might be precision or acceptance and to future-based thinking more contemplative and curious. Reflection, being past in focus, is invariably more learning based and evaluative in character.
A particular type of reflection – often mistaken for reflection itself – is metacognition, which is to reflect on or think about one’s thinking. Evaluating, bringing presence to our thoughts, fosters better thinking and growth.
Often mindfulness is confused with reflection. Mindfulness is about giving attention to what’s present right now, both physically and mentally, internally and externally. Reflection is more past orientated, but with the purpose of usefully employing that past experience (and learning) in the present. Mindfulness is about creating a space or platform for clarity. Reflection about creating re-alignment, clarity and new direction.
In reflecting, we often touch upon what we’re suffering or what brings us joy. In doing so we are more likely to know what we value, what we need, what our next choice will be. We better understand what’s what and are better placed to integrate (recognize and draw on) our experience. It becomes a greater part of what we recognise and own. From that place we’re better placed to choose and act successfully, to be self supporting and supportive of others contemporaneously.
So, what? you might ask …
Being more engaged, knowing thyself or one’s mind, happiness. It’s all very well, BUT. Having to adopt another behaviour based strategy – as in to reflect – on top of the call to be mindful, present, collaborative etc is just one too many. It’s highfalutin stuff, the preserve and luxury of writers, HR and coaching types.
Yes, all of those observations – or rationalisations – may be true, and yet they don’t address the uncomfortable realities that Lamont and Whyte write about. More importantly they don’t get one closer to the benefits in …. stopping, reflecting, in asking those internal questions.
Case for reflection
Undoubtedly there is a case for reflection. Yet, what’s more relevant is that ultimately it’s a choice. People choose to stop and reflect because they recognise or suspect the benefits in doing so. They see its many applications and are prepared to try it without knowing exactly how it will pan out, if it will cut the mustard. We might reflect because:
- it’s part and parcel of a valuable learning cycle of experience – reflection – action;
- reflection has many useful applications;
- we long for or recognise a need for perspective, which in turn gives rise to new perception, more supportive beliefs and a change – often for the better – in our behaviours, experiences and ultimately … our reality;
- we are stuck or lost and yet sense that reflecting on our experiences may provide answers, certainty, connections or simply stop the mind spinning;
- we’re tired of forever trying to analyse, rationalise or grapple with what, after reflection, sits under our nose or wafts – without fanfare – into our consciousness providing breadth and more solid reasoning;
- the “guidance” we receive from good reflection is invariably more dogma free;
- sometimes we yearn for a more “spacious” style of thinking, where we’re more likely to receive – as opposed to search for – answers; they simply occur to us often allowing a more creative, innovative self to show up;
- it is a good risk management tool insofar as it can identify what’s missing, reduce ambiguity or expose assumptions;
- it tends to suffer less than other forms of thinking from an over attachment to what we perceive as right or wrong, often captured by the ego mind and an unconscious attachment to past, patterned thinking; or
- rather it can shed light on past thinking and with it result in a healthy detachment, more impersonal wisdom, more objective thinking.
Applications and contexts
What are some of the applications of or contexts for employing reflection?
Good leaders use many of the tools of reflection described below, for example storytelling and visioning. They quieten their minds. They choose to be still from time to time. Daniel Goleman of Emotional Intelligence (1995) fame, describes part of the purpose of this in Primal Leadership (2013): “For leaders, the first task in management has nothing to do with leading others; step one poses the challenge of knowing and managing oneself”.
It can be as simple as one government sector CEO described. He took himself off to a branch office for rwo days, found a quiet office with neither phone nor internet. He read, he mind mapped. He pondered. He returned to “self”. A veil lifted and what was complex and troubling became clearer and lighter. His heart lifted. His confidence and courage restored, he was once more ready for action.
Addressing the more complex or difficult
When we experience more complex situations, contrary or conflicting thoughts and feelings may arise. Ingrained patterns of thought do battle. A practice of sitting with and surveying (ie, reflecting on) this melee – instead of trying to resolve or work it out – tends to produce more clarity. The intensity of thoughts and feelings subside, replaced by knowing and seeing things as they really are.
Problem solving is well supported by utilising a reflection-based problem solving tool – of which several are available – at the heart of which are three key aspects of reflection; namely, drawing on what you already know, being purpose orientated and open to making connections.
As economist John Kay describes in Obliquity (2010), many objectives – both business and personal – are best achieved obliquely, a key ingredient of which involves a practice of reflection on experience. He describes often more high level objectives as: “best achieved through adaptation and iteration, with constant rebalancing of incompatible and incommensurable components that are imperfectly known but acquired as the process goes on”.
The application of reflection in learning development speaks for itself. Educationalists are embracing its importance and practice, recognising that new learning is enhanced when it is integrated with what we already know or understand.
Retreats, including the sabbatical
A core part of most retreating or sabbatical taking is the reflection piece, often arising from a space where we empty the mind, do little or nothing. These helpful prerequisites for reflection also indicate the importance of choosing an environment well to enhance the reflection experience. Pico Iyer in The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere (2014), writes about the “secular Sabbath” and the urgent need – more than ever – to slow down, to go nowhere, each of which set the scene for and grow reflection practice.
Much business literature credits reflection as an integral measure for lifting employee engagement, well-being, creativity and motivation. It allows a person to tap into those Dan Pink described cornerstones of motivation: Autonomy (Identity/Self), Mastery (Growth) and Purpose (Meaning). If a practice of reflection is a tad too “spiritual”, read Eve Poole’s article Organisational Spirituality – Away With The Fairies? (The Ashbridge Journal, Autumn 2006). In that she makes plain sense in describing the part reflection plays in lifting engagement, well-being and motivation.
Why, and who for
Reflection provides an unrivalled opportunity to ask “Why?” Or more to the point, “What’s the point?” It also allows us to ask “Who am I serving?” And with that to restore the all important balance between ourselves and others. Reflection-based inquiry has us return to where we might have begun. In doing so we realign ourselves and ensure that our goals, strategy and actions correlate to our original intentions. A better symmetry and greater leverage result.
The process – preparing
Three preparatory approaches, among others, support reflection practice. In:
- Being mindful and especially having it be a practice. Mindfulness is foundational in that it creates a space and attention focus that support reflection. Its focus is on being present to one’s thoughts, not employing them.
- Surveying how one already engages in reflection and deciding how to more purposefully and productively use that reflection practice. For example, a professional on receiving new instructions, typically reflects on past like instructions, thinks about relevant precedents or templates and gains clarity and confidence in their ability to do the job. How might the professional reflect on and improve that practice?
- Getting clear on the purpose of reflection. For instance, in reflecting on past templates or precedents, by purposefully reflecting on their usefulness or application, and by asking: “Do they serve my needs as the professional more so than the client (such as choosing an easier but less relevant templated solution over a more targeted, creative one)?”
Other useful preparatory considerations are to learn more about reflective techniques, and to inquire – before reflecting – whether doing so collaboratively with others may produce a better result.
The process – doing It
Some “methods” for reflecting follow, but first some better practice tips:
- Reflection is usually more productive if in relation to a known and specific issue or dilemma, rather than simply “surfing” which is more contemplative and future-orientated.
- There is no best time for reflection. It may be before, during or after an event. The key, though, is to draw on and learn from the past, then to employ it for informing the present and mostly, as a result, improving the future.
- More regular reflection, closer in time to what one is reflecting on, delivers better results.
Reflection approaches, methods or structures include:
- Those that are more evaluative, monitoring or planning in approach.
- A formula-based approach of … what (what’s going on), why (exploring origins and importance), how (making comparisons and generating options) and what (going forward action-wise).
- A practical measures approach involving such measures – many of them of an environmental kind – as taking a break, conscious breathing, opting out of one’s usual practice of being overly involved, choosing more conducive hours to work or catch up with others, using downtime as quiet time.
- Asking what one has to learn about a subject/event/relationship etc. How one might feel in “getting” that learning, what beliefs must change to apply the learning, what actions one will commit to lock in the learning, and when the learning and its application will be reviewed.
Tools of reflection are also invaluable. Those recommended by Georgeanne Lamont are an example. In The Spirited Business she lists eight tools, being:
- stillness (present, with a gap between stimulus and response);
- listening (with all your senses and for meaning);
- story (describing events using story to create connection with others);
- encounter (encountering others with openness to change);
- celebration (expressing gratitude for and enjoying success);
- grieving/venting (allowing space for one’s own and others’ suffering and responding with empathy);
- visioning (imagining the future and allowing it to build the present); and
- journalling (using a notebook to record and review one’s experiences). In her article Organisational Spirituality, Eve Poole describes some of the applications for these tools.
Professionals are invariably thinkers. Knowledge is a product of that thinking. Reflection – as a means of thinking – is a way to more actively know, employ and build one’s knowledge.
It occurs through gathering, relating, adapting and ultimately converting the thought into action, more often than not for the better. And, if not, we can always return to the reflection drawing board.
Like much in life, we rarely know its real value or worth until we surrender to it. So avoid trying to make a case for reflection. Choose simply to reflect. For while we glibly think we learn from experience, we only really learn from reflecting on our experience.
Martin Wilson is the Principal of Selfmade Coaching (www.selfmade.co.nz). His experience includes 24 years in legal practice, partnership in a large commercial law firm, 11 years running his own commercial law practice, and a period as group manager communications and human resources for a large government agency. He has been a professional coach since 2001. He is a current member of the International Coach Federation and a past director of its Australasian arm. Martin works with leaders, managers and professionals in both the public and private sectors.