The pricelessness of reflection

W. Edwards Deming is quoted as saying, “Experience by itself teaches nothing.”  In a fast-paced world where we are bombarded with more and more stimuli and we are called upon to carry out multiple tasks, this is truer now than ever before.  Our lives are filled with more and varied experiences which, by themselves, leave us with nothing more than information.  Sometimes we get to the end of our very busy days and the most we have made of it was, “I was run off my feet all day,” and we let go the opportunity to reflect on what it all meant to us and our lives.  Are we doing what makes us happy?  Are we spending our lives doing something meaningful to us?  Are our lives enriched by the myriad of interactions and relationships we hold?  Are we making a difference?  If we were asked, we could probably recall the things that happen to us daily, but it is not sufficient to merely recollect if these experiences are to have enormous value to us.  In our working lives, which are becoming more unpredictable and and revolve less around the carrying out of rote routine tasks, we are exposed to a veritable banquet of new experiences and interactions.  Within these experiences lie the building blocks of our transformation.

To build on a previous article, while we certainly need to be open to new information and experiences, we need to do something purposeful with them.  Often in my work, I have cause to reflect on the value of reflection.  Just as every story has a beginning, a middle and an end, so do life’s little episodes.  There is a beginning phase, called the ‘warm up’, the middle phase, where the action occurs, and then there is the last phase, in which meaning is made of the experiences in the action phase.  This last phase is where the reflection happens.  Reflection is essential in order for the significance of the action to be realised.  All too often, we get to the end of the action phase and we hurriedly move on to the next thing.  It’s all do, do, do.

I often liken it to digesting.  If it weren’t for our digestive system, we would find ourselves either unable to take in any more food or passing food straight through our bodies without the benefit of extracting the nutrients that we need to build and grow.  A banquet table filled with food has no significance to us until we take the food into our bodies and let our enzymes go to work.  Only when this has occurred and our cells are making use of the nutrients is the food of any real use to us.  Experience is much the same; only when we have digested it and made conscious meaning of it does it provide us with sustenance and the building blocks for growth.

One of the most skilled experiential trainers I have ever had the privilege to work with, John Bergman, once said, “I provide people with experiences.  I know they’ve had one because I can watch them having it.  What I don’t know is what they’ve learnt from it.  The reflection afterwards is the most important bit.”  Thankfully, I read more people writing about the importance of transfer of learning in the workplace.  Whether you are running a training course, carrying out some one-to-one coaching, facilitating a business simulation with a bunch of senior execs or teaching people to apply social media in their work, it behoves you to facilitate and guide some reflection on what you have been asking people to learn.  Real learning is integrated into who we are as people.  Otherwise, it’s not learnt.  Unless we digest and make meaning of something new, it will pass right through us.  It’s not an added extra; it’s an integral part of the learning process.

In setting up a learning programme with a new client, I have sometimes been asked, “What will the ‘take home’ be?”  If I’m honest, I would say, “I don’t know.”  I could tell you what my agenda will be.  I could tell you what exercises I will get people to do.  I could tell you what I’d like people to learn.  I could tell you that I have a great experiential process that will show sales staff the way to providing better customer experiences.  However, I think we are well past the time when we can assume that just because someone has sat in a training room that they will have learnt what the trainer or their boss or the HR Manager wants them to learn.  Certainly, businesses require people to learn things that will assist them to excel at their jobs and, certainly, businesses want this elusive thing called ROI and certainly, businesses want to spend their L&D budgets on something purposeful that will provide benefits to the people and the business.  That said, spending L&D money is no guarantee of learning or development unless the learning programme (whether that’s a series of coaching sessions or an e-learning programme or leadership development programme) has reflection and integration built in to the programme.  So what’s the take home?  That can depend entirely on how much reflection and integration I ask of people in the session.  If there is none, I’m leaving the ‘take home’ to chance; perhaps some of the people are already good at reflecting and meaning-making, perhaps some of them are not.

Developing the role of Astute Reflector, however, is not only applicable in the context of formal learning; far from it.  More of what we need to absorb and integrate comes from our daily experiences and interactions at work than from ‘formal’ learning situations.  Bringing the learning into work is more than a zeitgeist catch-phrase; it’s about how you view everything that you do, everything that happens to you, every conversation you have.  Is your working day just a series of things to ‘get through’ or are you making the most of your daily experiences, pleasant and not so pleasant, as learning fodder?  Do you get to the end of a busy week with a sense of indigestion because you haven’t processed and made meaning of the week’s events?  We need to shift our thinking so we see that everything that goes on at work is about learning.  There are some compelling benefits that can come to us from developing the role of Astute Reflector in our lives.

We become better at learning from mistakes.  When our Astute Reflector role is well-developed, we regularly stop and debrief, either by ourselves or with others, to examine what went well and what didn’t go so well.  Once we have made this conscious, the chances of us repeating our mistakes begin to fall dramatically.

We distill the ingredients for success.  Rather than leaving good performance to chance, becoming conscious of what works well also shows us the way to consistent excellence.  This isn’t about finding the one or two things that work well and sticking to them, for ongoing reflection is the thing.  However, we can improve our chances of future success if we have actually stopped to reflect.

We see patterns that were previously hidden.  When we reflect, we connect the dots with other experiences in our lives.  This begins to show up patterns.  If you are a systems thinker, you will hold that everything is connected to everything else.  Reflection illuminates those connections, from where we become more conscious of values, habits and attitudes which serve us well and those which don’t.

In his excellent article on mastering the art of self-reflection, Adam Chalker lists three kinds of reflection: reflection-on-action, reflection-in-action and critical self-reflection.  I believe that all three of these are indispensable abilities of the role of Astute Reflector.

If we inculcate the practice of reflection-on-action, we habituate ourselves to asking questions such as:

  • What was I trying to achieve?
  • What did my actions and responses create: in myself, in others, in the wider system?
  • What did I do well? What did I do too much of (that got in the way of excellence)?  What did I do too little of?
  • What does that remind me of (from the past)?

Growing the ability to reflect-in-action means that we become more able to notice ourselves while we are doing something and, if necessary, shift our attitudes or actions.  It’s a bit like reading a map while we are on a journey, checking to see if we are heading where we want to go.  If we wish to develop this habit, we can ask ourselves:

  • What am I actually doing right now?
  • How are people responding to me?
  • How am I feeling right now?
  • Am I heading in the right direction?  If not, what change of course is required?

I’ve written before on the need to develop more critical self-reflection and self-awareness.  This is taking a cold, hard look at ourselves and asking the challenging questions:

  • What lies do I tell myself?
  • What am I pretending not to see about myself?
  • Am I doing something which truly brings meaning and joy to my life?
  • How do I enact power?  Is it personal potency or power over others?
  • Do I like who I am?

Once again, these are not discretionary matters to consider only if we have the luxury of time; the role of Astute Reflector is core to the world of work today.  Charles Darwin knew about the value of learning when he said, “It’s not the biggest, the brightest, or the best that will survive, but those who adapt the quickest.”  Making it a habit to ask, “So what?” expands our awareness, helps us to fine tune our abilities and increases our sense of potency in the world.  Best of all, it costs nothing to grow the role of Astute Reflector and maximise your day-to-day experiences.  Cost of training programme that teaches you nothing new: $2000.  Becoming more reflective and conscious: priceless.





4 thoughts on “The pricelessness of reflection

  1. Hi John,

    Always love reading your posts – you make me have to think about the stuff I would otherwise “never get round to”.

    Life is full of “do, do do” as you say – the challenges we probably all face include finding the time to “reflect, reflect, reflect”.

    Food for thought – and my planning processes!


    1. Thanks Dean. It is hard to keep ourselves available to ourselves so that we can reflect and make sense of things. I continually need to keep a check on myself so that I’m allowing some reflection time, otherwise I have found in my past that I wander down some track and discover that I’m miles away from where I thought I was heading.


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