Reflective practice allows us to think about and understand what we are doing (or did), what went well, what not so well. If you are a mentoring or coaching practitioner or a qualified therapist, you will know and probably have a default setting for it.
Reflective practice was something that was instilled in me during my time doing my post graduate degree in mentoring and coaching practice. I was also supervised and I used my recorded reflections in these sessions, as well as for a major assignment on my practice.
Why is it important?
When you reflect, you think about decisions you make, what goes well or badly, what takes you by surprise, what you find you can do and what needs improvement, what you observe and learn about yourself and sudden insights or a change in perception. I have come to understand and recognise the importance of reflective practice and that it extends beyond coaching and mentoring.
Let's start there. Why should mentors and coaches use it?
- It's really important both mentor/coach and mentee/coachee reflect on their meetings themselves and take actions. A coach/mentor should help their client do this in sessions and integrate it into action planning and into taking steps after each meeting the client can go away and do something about.
- Reflective practice is the part of the cycle where we extract learning. Hence if someone has learned how to learn, this is invaluable. A coach/mentor is responsible for helping a client process learning if they haven't gained this capability or are stuck, or need help synthesising the learning into something tangible.
- It helps mentees/coachees accept responsibility for their own personal and career growth; it provides value from the experience and helps them to learn how to learn and adds these skills over time. Further more, it helps them understand the link between their actions and the practical results those actions have achieved.
- When we become "reflectors" it enables us to apply new knowledge and skills to future actions. Over the period of a coaching relationship that's empowering as someone progresses and can see how this has been achieved.
- As a mentor/coach I need to be keenly aware of how learning happens for me, particularly if I want to help my client. It develops my skills, highlights where I need to improve, leads to greater understanding of individual coachees and increases the chances of my client receiving effective coaching from me.
Building self awareness and professional practice
Reflective practice builds self awareness and personal and professional development. This means it can be used by anyone, not just coaches and therapists. A friend who is a highly skilled medic told me when he was training a few years ago that reflective practice is a key part of training for health professionals. On this basis leaders, politicians, teachers, charity trustees, to name a random few, need to use reflective practice.
How do I build this? Use feedback and self assessment.
- Feedback. All information is feedback, so step back and recognise every thing you ask for or people just say and do anyway is feedback. It helps you understand continuously. It's like having a constant information stream. Good and healthy practice is also to ask for feedback and continually reflect on it. For a coach or mentor, don't go to the wire in a session; leave space at the end of a session to facilitate client reflection AND to ask for feedback. Feedback builds practice.
- Self assessment. Ask yourself lots of questions. Practice disputation on perceptions. Reflect and synthesise what you learn from interactions, from meetings, from 1-2-1s, engagements. Get better at removing value judgments. Practice self observation. Practice meta thinking. DON'T mistake this for overthinking! Write main thoughts down if it helps.
Good outcomes and uses for reflective practice
- It builds self awareness and self management capability, especially for challenging situations
- Personal change to approaches and tactics with people engagement - a better experience in engagement and communication
- Improved productivity and work outcomes for me and others
- Increased understanding at an individual level of a client's/partner's way of thinking and working and the opportunity to tailor my approach (this increases influence too)
- It builds my model (theory in use). So for mentoring, for example, continued reflective practice with a range of mentee engagements enables me to understand what mentoring is, how it works and how I mentor. As a leader, by reflecting on an interaction or situation I am in, I begin to understand who I am when I lead and how I do it.
Reflecting leads to growth for everyone, especially leaders
The keynote speaker at a national conference on VCSE leadership I attended this week said, inter alia, that when leading we must be able to "handle our own ego". This is achieved via self management and the ability to remain open to learning. In challenging situations, leaders need to make exceptional judgment and stick with the call they make. They need to be able to deal with the consequences too, good or bad.
Building in reflective practice enables this to happen. It is the key to the learning journey. When an individual is able to reflect and do this them self it leads to change and growth.
I see the application to all. Leadership is a practice and is about connecting others in collaborative endeavours. As such, if you are in a leadership team or on your own "at the top", time is well invested building in and practising reflection together or on your own. Instilling it in others, such as team members, helps promote accountability and responsibility, something incredibly lacking in swathes of organisations across the sectors, so managers and team leaders could do with some of this too! I see even wider application. Whatever your role, reflective practice turns learning into action and change professionally and personally. It's a skill for life.