The Power of Reflection

In previous blogs, I have advocated the use of reflection as a method of creating change. In this blog, I would like to elaborate upon why reflection is such a powerful tool. In my book, I share a quote by a former major league baseball player, Vernon Law: “Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first and the lesson afterwards.” When we reflect about past experience, we not only review the test but we can analyze it to better understand why the experience worked or didn’t work–i.e., the lesson it provided. This analysis allows us to reinforce what worked, but it also allows us to explore options that may have made a difference if they had been part of the reflected experience. Allow me to offer an example to illustrate this point.

Jim was in line to take over the family business. In his mid-30s, he was still learning. His CEO father recommended a coach to help Jim prepare for his future role as the lead executive. An early reflection supported a stated liability that Jim was continually interrupted and approached for advice from supervisors and machine operators. Jim had become an expert in the operations area, although his current role was in sales. He was conflicted about responding to requests for help from operations and his role as sales manager. He was keenly aware that these interruptions interfered with his effectiveness as a sales manager. By reflecting on specific instances where he was approached for advice, Jim was able to replay what he did to encourage being approached for advice and what he could have done to reduce interruptions from his current role. He realized he had created an easy way for others to get help from him while creating a problem in time management for him. After exploring several options, Jim was able to use his strengths of focus and achievement to break the habit of being the first source of advice in operations. He was able to communicate with the plant manager and director of engineering to have them take on these responsibilities. Always aware of maintaining strong relationships with all associates, Jim was able to tactfully guide advice-seekers to executives in engineering and operations. With fewer interruptions and more control of his time, Jim was able to focus on his role as sales manager.

Analyzing a reflective experience and trying out new options is the first step in changing behavior. Applying the new behavior in future situations will allow for a good test of the effectiveness of the change. Jim was able to try his new approach with great success.

The ability to analyze, alter, and apply a new approach to similar situations is one reason why reflection is so powerful. A second reason is the relevance of using a personal experience. As a professor, I used reflection to help my students learn and apply new concepts. In my MBA course Managing Change, I required students to apply what they had read to a reflected experience that did not go well. They wrote papers about their reflected experience and how applying the wisdom of what they had read would have made a positive difference. The results were impressive both in the insights gained and from the student response to this assignment. Some students responded that this approach to learning was life changing. I believe the relevancy of applying new principles and concepts to personal experience is a major reason for the success of this approach. New behavior immediately becomes embedded into what is already known, thus enhancing what is learned and retained.

A third reason why reflective learning is powerful is that it uses all three learning styles described in my last blog. Reflections are visualizations of the past. We can see them through the rear view mirror of our accumulated experience. Reflections also have a way of speaking to us. We can often recite the dialogue, not always exactly as originally stated, but within the context of how we understood the dialogue. Finally, reflections by definition are kinesthetic. Recalling a reflected experience is reliving what we originally experienced.

In this blog, I hope I was able not only to emphasize how reflection works but why it is such a powerful tool for the coach. I always encourage my coachees to come to coaching sessions with their experiences. The insights gained from this approach can lead to significant, sustainable change.

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