We do not learn from experience. We learn by reflecting on experience.

John Dewey

We know that the art of reflection is a critical part of the learning process. If we don’t learn from our experience, we will repeat the same patterns.

“Reflection opens up a clearing where desirable practice and the barriers that constrain its realisation can be unconcealed and where action can be planned to overcome the barriers whatever their source”

Johns 2013

However, it occurs to me that we pay little time and attention to how we reflect, how we create this ‘clearing’ that Johns evokes. 

In MSB’s March Symposium, Mark Bisson, the author of A Coach’s Guide to Self-Reflection’ challenged us to look anew at our reflective process, or lack of it. 

In this article, I explore some following questions which I hope will support you to become curious about your own reflective practice. 

  1. What are the barriers to critical reflection?
  2. What are the qualities needed to be reflective?
  3. What kind of reflective exercises will reveal new insight?

1. What are the barriers to critical reflection?

  1. You don’t understand the reflective process
  2. You may feel uncomfortable challenging and evaluating your own thoughts, feelings and behaviours
  3. It’s too time consuming
  4. You may be confused about which situations or experiences to reflect upon
  5. You may feel defensive or have a sense of professional arrogance
  6. You may have a lack of knowledge of practical models and techniques to use as a framework for self reflection.

    Or something else?

Once you have noticed and accepted the barrier within you, it may be easier to move beyond it. 

Or it may be necessary to explore this barrier further as part of your reflective practice, or with a coach, in order to bring it more into consciousness and move beyond it. As Freud’s metaphor of the human mind illustrates, most of what drives us, or constrains us, lives below the surface.

2. What are the qualities needed to be reflective?

John Dewey, author of ‘How We Think,’ identifies three qualities:

  • Open-mindedness: the ability to step into different perspectives and to give them your full attention, whatever their source.
  • Whole-heartedness: being present and wholly involved in the activity.
  • Personal responsibility: accepting the outcomes of the reflective process and integrating the new learning.

It strikes me, particularly in relation to this final quality, that comfort with discomfort is being called for. The process may require us to shed hard won beliefs, ways of thinking and interacting with others that we perceive to underpin our identity. In other words, to truly reflect requires vulnerability, humility and regeneration. Exciting stuff. 

3. What kind of reflective exercises will reveal new insight?

Mark guided us through several exercises, demonstrably dispelling the myth that reflection takes time. Here are a few to try:

  • Automatic drawing
    By creating an image automatically, it’s possible to bypass the cognitive realm. Put pen to paper and allow your hand to move freely and notice what emerges. Is there a symbol, motif or metaphor that reveals new insight?
  • Perceptual Positions
    If you are facing a difficult conversation, this technique might prevent you from getting stuck in one perspective. Spend three minutes writing from the perspective of each person in the situation. Then write from a ‘fourth position’ responding to the inquiry, ‘what is the new learning and wisdom you see from here?’
  • Free Writing and Poetry
    Write for five minutes about a situation you are facing or what’s present for you. When you’ve finished, go back and circle resonant words. What do you notice? From these words, create a poem to capture the essence of your reflections. 

Throughout the session, Mark emphasised that ‘critical reflection’ has to be the convergence of thinking and action. In the words of Paolo Friere:

‘Reflection without action is sheer verbalism or armchair revolution and action without reflection is pure activism, or action for action’s sake’

So as a result of reading this, what are you committing to?

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