I was contacted this morning about doing a presentation on an old post of mine, "On Becoming a More Reflective Individual Practitioner," so I re-read what I'd written back in 2008.
One paragraph I quoted in the post really stood out for me. It was written by Joy Amulya of the Center for Reflective Community Practice at MIT from her booklet entitled What Is Reflective Practice?
Certain kinds of experiences create particularly powerful opportunities for learning through reflection. Struggles provide a window into what is working and not working, and may often serve as effective tools for analyzing the true nature of a challenge we are facing. Some struggles embody a dilemma, which can provide a rich source of information about a clash between our values and our approach to getting something done. Reflecting on experiences of uncertainty helps shed light on areas where an approach to our work is not fully specified.
The examples that Joy provides--learning from struggles, dilemma and uncertainties--are what I call "learning from the depths." This is learning that takes place when we are challenged to reach into our core and dig deeply into who we are and how we operate in the world.
The problem with this kind of learning, though is that often we are so caught up in the negative feelings that can accompany those kinds of experiences that we lose track of ourselves and our potential to learn. Sometimes it's all we can do to just stay with the experience, let alone learn from it. But if we can discipline ourselves to choose reflection, the learning can be a powerful thing.
A 3- Step Process for Learning from the Depths
What has been successful for me is to use the process I'm going to outline below. The reflective structure gives me a way to wrestle with my learning that feels positive and affirming. Time and again it's given me a way to transform what could have been a negative experience into something that propels my growth.
1. Notice and Describe Your Experience
The first step in learning from the depths is to really notice and describe what you are experiencing. Ideally you are in a regular process of reflective practice so you have some way of recording things on a daily or at least weekly basis. Personally, I do Morning Pages every day.
But even if you are not in a regular habit, you will at some point become aware of the fact that you are wrestling with something difficult. Possibly it's the challenge of a particular project and managing all of the moving pieces. Or it could be issues related to collaborating with colleagues or feeling a clash between your personal values and what you're doing at work.
Regardless, to reflect on something, you must first notice it and then describe what you're experiencing in as much detail as possible.
- What is the situation?
- Who's involved?
- How long has it been going on?
- What have you done? What have others done? How has this helped or hindered the situation?
- What feels challenging or problematic about it?
- What are your emotional responses--do you feel frustrated, angry, sad, overwhelmed?
I've found that it helps to be as concrete and detailed as possible. Not only does this give me more to work with, it also helps get rid of the toxic or difficult emotions I'm usually carrying around. Basically this step allows me to vent, so I can then move on to the next stage of processing and reflection.
I'll be honest. There are times that I need to give myself some time to get through this first stage of just describing and staying with the experience, especially if strong emotions are involved. I have to get past the "vent" stage before I'm effective with Step 2.
2. Get Clarity About Your Ideal Outcome(s)
The next phase for me is to take a step back from the current situation and get clarity about the outcome I'm seeking. What is it that I want to occur? What is the goal I'm working toward? This helps me further refine my understanding of the situation or dilemma I'm in. It re-focuses me on what I'm hoping to achieve, rather than miring me in the struggle itself.
Some questions I might ask myself include:
- What do I really want in this situation? Why? What outcomes am I looking for?
- What would the ideal situation look like? At the conclusion of this situation, what would be the best thing I would hope happens?
- What am I focusing on here? Can I shift my focus to more of what I want? What would happen if I did? What does this tell me about the outcome I'm seeking?
- How will this situation impact me 6 months from now? A year from now? 5 years from now? Asking this question helps me better clarify for myself what is often a time-limited thing. That can help me learn to let go of things that might feel like a struggle, but really aren't in the whole scheme of things.
Getting greater clarity about outcomes and the end result I want can either help me let go of something that isn't a big deal after all or it can help me move to the next stage.
Also, if I'm unable to get real clarity here, I will often go back to Step 1 to do some more venting and exploration of the situation, especially if I've been remiss in keeping up with my reflective work. It tends to be less of a problem if I've been journaling daily because I'm more likely to have released my feelings and have greater clarity about what's going on.
3. Reflect and Enact
Although technically you could divide this into two steps, I've found that for me, these are really intertwined.
Once I've found clarity about the situation and the outcomes I'm seeking, I then really look at what it tells me about myself and how I might want to experiment with different behaviors or strategies for dealing with the situation. Some of the questions I ask myself at this stage include:
- What can I learn from how I'm handling and responding to this situation? What does it tell me about myself?
- What can I learn about how I'm REACTING to the situation, particularly my emotional reactions? Is this a situation that is possibly challenging some important beliefs or assumptions? What are those beliefs and assumptions? Do I need to revise them?
- What patterns do I see? Is this something I've faced before? How did I handle it and how can I use that in this situation? What does this tell me about how I "typically" respond in these situations? Is there something I need to do to address this because it's more habitual than I realized?
- What do I see as one of the most significant changes I could make to change this situation and get me closer to my outcomes? What one change would have the greatest impact in helping me to achieve the outcome I'm looking for? What small change could I make right now that would align with this larger change I want to make?
With these questions, I am able to dive more deeply into learning about myself, my core strengths, my weaknesses, the places where I need to pay better attention to what I'm doing and how I'm handling situations. When learning from the depths, I try to get a sense of the underlying issues, because often these are about my character traits or values clashing with the real world and something has to shift at a deeper level for me to effect change.
The last question in the list is an "enacting" question that allows me to start thinking about ways I might shift the situation. I've found that making micro-movements in the direction of a change I'm seeking is far more effective than coming up with some 10 point plan. These smaller steps also give me a chance to "try on" new behaviors and to experiment with change in a way that feels more natural and is likely to last longer.
This 3-step process is one I've used in both my personal and my professional life to find learning and growth even in the most challenging situations. It has provided me with much needed structure at times when I felt like I was floundering. It has also helped me find purpose in some toxic and painful situations. I return to it again and again and it always helps me pull treasure from the darkest experiences.