The term ‘Reflective Practice” is being increasingly used in the context of coaching and is explicitly referenced in ICF Core Competency 2: Embodies a Coaching Mindset: “Develops an ongoing reflective practice to enhance one’s coaching”.
Learning to reflect in order to improve one’s own practice is perceived as important across a range of professions, from teaching to counselling, and from management to clinical work. Knowing the self and managing the self are key skills for every coach. This self-awareness enables us to be in best service of our clients. In this article we consider what reflective practice is, why it may be helpful, and how we can incorporate this into our coaching practice.
What is Reflective Practice?
Reflective practice may be defined as the ability to reflect on one’s actions so as to engage in a process of continuous learning. Personally, I believe that reflective practice is foundational to our professional development. It enables the coach to transform experience (coaching hours) into practical insights for personal growth and impact, learning new ways of being and doing that can be applied in the coach and the practice. Without reflection, collecting coaching hours can be just collecting stones; we may have a whole pile of them, but they add little to who we are. Reflection allows us to carve statues of insight and meaning from the rubble of coaching conversations.
Reflective practice involves integrating regular activities into our routine that raise awareness, prompt critical analysis and aid self-management and decision-making. It involves:
- Learning to pay attention – listening to ourselves
- Exploring our assumptions
- Observing patterns
We can assume learning is something that is restricted to the coaching classroom, where we listen and learn from a tutor or read a coaching book. But we have the potential to learn all the time; from everything we do, every conversation we have, every strand of information that comes our way. Reflective practice is a way of recognizing and articulating this learning, squeezing every insight from every hour of coaching practice. However, to make best use of our coaching practice we need to integrate reflective practice into our daily routine.
Why Reflective Practice is Important
As a new coach it can be tempting to think at the end of the 60, 125, or 200 hours of coach training that you know everything you need to know about coaching – after all, you have completed the course. You can now get on with applying what you have learnt. But learning to coach might be compared with learning to drive. The classroom sessions are no more than the driving lessons, and the ICF ACC or PCC Credential assessment is the driving test. What we all know is that, during our first few years on the road, we really start to learn how to apply what we have learnt in the complexity and chaos of sharing roads with other road users, in multiple weather conditions, and sometimes in different countries, where road signs have different meanings and even which side of the road you drive changes. If we stopped learning in these situations we could be in for a nasty accident. Good drivers, and good coaches, continue to learn.
For the experienced PCC and MCC coach, maybe they have driven thousands of hours and in multiple weathers, in multiple countries, and over multiple terrains. But we know that nothing stands still – if anything, the pace of change is accelerating, and new technologies are impacting on driving as they are on coaching. Experienced coaches need to engage in reflective practice as much as new coaches.
In summary, reflective practice encourages us to continue learning from our coaching practice, and to hold ourselves as eternal students or holding a Beginner’s Mind. This allows us to remain “open, curious, flexible, and client-centred” (see ICF’s definition of Core Competency 2: Embodies a Coaching Mindset).
How to Develop Reflective Practice
Understanding what reflective practice is and how to do it are two different things. The first step is to develop the skills needed for the reflective process. Only once these skills have been identified, can the coach start to find ways to incorporate these into their routine.
A host of writers have offered different strategies for reflective practice and, as in many areas, we suggest there are several approaches. Here are few examples for consideration.
Schön (1983) suggested the following stages:
- Puzzlement: ‘What the heck just happened? Or what the heck is happening?’
- Comparison: ‘How have I really been doing this until now?’
- Opportunity to experiment: ‘What can I gain/learn/get/know from this?’
Bain, Ballantyne, Packer, and Mills (1999) identify five levels of reflection:
Moon (2004) refers to four levels:
- Level 0: Description of what happened (reporting).
- Level 1: Descriptive writing with some reflective potential. Reference to impact of events and indication of points where reflection could occur.
- Level 2: Reflective writing (1). Reference to the value of exploring motives or reasons for behavior. Some self-awareness/criticism or possibly reflection on motives of others. This stage is sometimes described as relating or reasoning.
- Level 3: Reflective writing (2). There is clear evidence here of the learner standing back from an event, of mulling it over, and holding an internal dialogue. There is awareness of the learning involved and how it will be used in the future direction. This phase is sometimes described as reconstructing.
Henley8 Model for Self-Reflection
In the Henley8 model the starting point is to notice: What did I observe? This requires situation awareness, being fully present and noticing changes in events around us. The observation may be a change in the situation – for example, a fire bell rings during the team meeting. It may be observing a behaviour of an individual who is the client or the sponsor, or an event.
The second step is to identify our response: What was my response? This may be behavioural, but is likely to also be cognitive (What was I thinking and why?) and also: What was I feeling? Our thoughts and feelings often drive our behaviour and recognising the relationship between these is helpful, and how these are associated with the trigger event (what we have observed).
Behind these initial feelings and thoughts are likely to be beliefs and values. Being conscious of these, and bringing these core beliefs to mind, will help us make more sense of our own response.
The third and fourth aspects of reflection involve considering what these behaviours, thoughts, feelings, and possibly our beliefs and values say about us as individuals, and what they say about us as leaders, reflective practitioners, or coaches within the context we are working. Meanings can vary widely depending on the organisational and national culture and taking these into account needs to be part of our reflection.
The fifth and sixth questions explore the pros and cons of these beliefs. How do these beliefs or attitudes help or hinder us in our role? Do they make us more effective? Do they contribute to our happiness and well-being? Do they contribute positively to our team or others? What do we need to be aware of in terms of how we can build on these positives and what we should guard against?
The seventh and eighth questions are what we learn and may take away from the reflection. They set the stage for future development. Reflection without action is meaningless. The purpose of reflection is to understand ourselves and others more deeply and, through this, learn and adapt in the future to enhance our own effectiveness and that of others.
The Henley8 questions:
- What did I observe?
- What was my response?
- What does this tell me about me?
- What does this tell me about myself as a coach or leader?
- What strengths does this offer?
- What are the potential pitfalls?
- What did I learn?
- What might I do differently next time?
The ICF describes coaching supervision as follows:
“Coaching Supervision is a collaborative learning practice to continually build the capacity of the coach through reflective dialogue for the benefit of both coaches and clients.
Coaching Supervision focuses on the development of the coach’s capacity through offering a richer and broader opportunity for support and development. Coaching supervision creates a safe environment for the coach to share their successes and failures in becoming masterful in the way they work with their clients.”
Supervision offers the opportunity to reflect in partnership with another person, a Coaching Supervisor. This can be done in a 1-1 setting or as a Supervision Group. The purpose of supervision is to reflect upon your professional practice as a coach. The Supervisor provides a confidential and safe space to reflect on the Supervisee’s coaching, their professional practice, the coaching relationships, and the environment(s) in which coaching happens. This reflection promotes and enables enhanced professional practice by reviewing, questioning, considering, thinking, and critically assessing your work in this field. This allows the coach to be the best they can be which in turn maximises the results and impact for the client. Supervision is also an opportunity to think about the broader impact and changes your insights will make to your continuing professional practice as a coach as well as to acknowledge and celebrate successes. Supervision is an agreement that the highest duty of Supervisor and Supervisee is protection of and working in the best interest of the client(s). Supervision is a shared learning partnership between equals and the learning is co-created and experiential.
ICF recommends coaching supervision for full-time professional coach practitioners as part of their portfolio of continuing professional development (CPD) activities designed to keep them fit for purpose. At this point, ICF does not require coaching supervision.
Coaching supervision may include:
- Exploring the coach’s internal process through reflective practice
- Reviewing the coaching agreement and any other psychological or physical contracts, both implicit and explicit
- Uncovering blind spots
- Ethical issues
- Ensuring the coach is “fit for purpose” and perhaps offering accountability
- Looking at all aspects of the coach and client’s environment for opportunities for growth in the system
ICF’s position is that coaching supervision is sufficiently different from coaching, so training to provide the knowledge and opportunity to practice supervision skills is needed. As such, all coaching supervisors should receive coaching supervision training. ICF recognises that coaching supervision is a part of CPD and is distinct from Mentor Coaching for an ICF Credential.
As well as working with a Supervisor, we can also engage in reflective practice as a form of self-supervision. Here are some post-coaching session reflective questions that can evoke thought, inquiry, and insight into our coaching practice:
- What went really well? (Reflect upon 2-3 areas of strength, using the coaching competency framework you were trained in (e.g., ICF) which competencies really showed up in my coaching?
- Which competencies were less evident, could have been evidenced more?
- What else could I have done more or less of?
- Were there any missed opportunities on my part?
- Deepening my reflection – how do I notice this piece of work through the lens of 1 or 2 models that I am familiar with? (e.g., PAC, Drama Triangle, Life Positions, Hogan or other profiling tool, Psychological distance, 7-eyed model, cycles of change, cycles of learning and others etc.)
- What are any ethical considerations within the piece of work?
- How was my doing/being balance and my coaching presence with my client – how was I being? Where was I personally in this piece of work?
- What conscious bias do I notice or what unconscious bias might be outside of my awareness?
- What might have been the parallel process and what did that mean for the work?
- More generally in my coaching work – do I notice any patterns?
- What are my own takeaways from my work? What am I learning about myself as a person, as a coach, about my work?
- What difference does that learning make? What and how will I integrate this into my work?
Other Options for Reflective Practice
As well as supervision and specific reflective practice models, there are several other ways that we can engage in the practice of reflecting upon our work and what we are learning about our work, the competencies, and the profession of coaching. This can include (and is not limited to):
- Reading a book (or part of a book), an article or listening to a podcast and then reflecting upon and capturing your key insights.
- Being part of a book club to read and then review with colleagues your insights, reflections, learning and conclusions etc.
- Thinking about how you have experimented by seeking to integrate some of your learning into your coaching practice and then reflecting on how that went and what you are learning from that experience.
- Sharing a recording of a coaching session (with client permission of course!) with some peers and then reviewing it together and capturing your individual and shared insights.
- Reviewing your notes from a webinar and considering how you might integrate the learning into your practice. Experimenting with this integration and then reflecting again.
- Going on a ‘retreat’ with coaching peers.
- Simply taking some time to think and reflect upon yourself: your sense of self awareness, your beliefs and values, your triggers, your biases, your needs and drivers, your feelings and thoughts, how you’ve grown and changed or evolved and how does any of this inform you as an instrument of your work?
Making it ‘Ongoing’
A very useful practice can be to create a personal learning journal and start the practice of regularly using this for reflections. This may be after each coaching session, when the coach spends 10–15 minutes reflecting on the session using any of the aforementioned approaches, or it may be at the end of each day or week, reflecting back over the sessions in that day or that week. The frequency will depend on how much coaching you are doing and your own schedule. What is important is finding a pattern that works for you. If you find you are not regularly writing in your journal, you might want to review your routine and find a time which will enable you to make this part of your practice.
Of course, there are several aspects to consider when writing your learning journal. The first is to avoid the use of client names (use initials which you may recognise, but others can’t) and avoid the use of organisational names or facts that identify the organisation. By excluding personal data, you can be more relaxed about the security of your learning journal. The second is to ‘reflect upon your reflections’. There are several ways of doing this; first, taking issues from the learning journal into supervision. If for whatever reason you have decided not to use supervision, it might be useful to find a way to review and reflect on patterns or themes that may be arising each quarter, and scheduling time in your diary. Without a formal pattern of supervision, it is easy for this to be missed, which is why allowing an hour or two in your diary ensures that the learning can be incorporated into new behaviours, or into your personal development plan.
In this article we have reviewed the importance of reflective practice. It has been positioned that it is central to coach development and helps us to retain a Beginner’s Mindset, which allows us to remain open, curious, flexible, and client-centered, whether we have 50 hours of practice or 5,000 hours. Several frameworks have been shared as ways for the coach to structure and capture their reflections and develop new insights for their practice.
How can you develop an ongoing reflective practice to enhance your coaching?
Reference: For more information on this and other aspects of your developing your coaching skills see: Becoming a Coach: The Essential ICF Guide by Jonathan Passmore and Tracy Sinclair
Coach Advancement by Tracy Sinclair supports organisations to develop the potential of their people through coaching, coaching skills and coaching culture. Our Coaching with Conscience services specialise in offering coaching and coaching related services in support of positive social impact and social progress.