reflective practice

Reflective Practice

A deceptively simple process that, if regularly scheduled and completed, will galvanise individual insight and growth into organisational transformation.

In their book, How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work, Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey suggest that there are several linguistic and thinking patterns that, if implemented, create more productive and effective organisations. High-performing teams regularly communicate amongst themselves and with their stakeholders using these patterns of communication.

Why reflective practice matters

There are a few complaints that we hear again and again in our work with businesses and organisations:

“We are not operating at the right level...we do not discuss the right things in the right way... we are always too caught up in the detail...”

“We work in silos... we are just a group of individuals, we don’t work together... I don’t know about what others are doing/ what is going on in other parts of the business...”

“I have to figure out everything for everyone else... my people are constantly bringing me their problems to solve...”

We have repeatedly discovered that a particular process, tried and tested in many organisations, and in many different business contexts, can transform how people operate with each other and can make them startlingly more effective, strategic and productive.

This process is called reflective practice or empathic coaching.

Reflective practice/ empathic coaching is an opportunity to:

  • Sort out persistent intractable issues that people face in organisations
  • Address issues at a higher level of thinking that is difficult to maintain in normal organisational life
  • Resolve unhelpful power and political dynamics that drain money, time, and engagement
  • Skill leaders to coach and lead others without solving their problems or doing their work
  • Share knowledge laterally throughout a business, breaking down silos
So what?

While this structured process might appear quite simple, this is a key tool in the transformation of any organisation. It operates on multiple levels to build organisational capability:

  • It provides a place for team members to explore the issues that are blocking them in their work in a way that is very effective and efficient. This process allows people to be much more strategic and insightful about how to achieve their results in a very short space of time.

  • It allows leaders to practice their coaching skills, skills which will be instrumental for them to work at the right level in the team that they lead. This practice allows leaders to confidently step away from having to solve the problems of the people that report to them

  • It creates organisational learning (through the agreement to accept the feedback of the observer to the people in dialogue). It also creates strategic informal relationships and multiplies information and knowledge transfer laterally through the business
A warning

There may be a temptation to dissolve this reflective practice into ‘chats over a coffee’. If this were to occur, most of the benefits of the practice will decrease or disappear, as will interest in the process.

Because this is a transformational process, people will experience the discomfort of having to confront themselves and their own self-protective/ reactive tendencies or patterns. If the sessions are effective, this is a common outcome.

Generally, people do not like to do this. There is also the real possibility that people will consciously or unconsciously find all sorts of very reasonable excuses as to why they cannot attend these meetings, or may try to ‘lighten’ them up. Obviously therefore, the personal responsibility and commitment of people is key to this process’s success.

Experiment and have fun!


At each meeting take turns in all three roles (i.e.  speaker, coach, and observer) – each round should take about 25 mins. This gives you a few minutes to swap roles.

In the first meeting spend about 10 mins sharing any concerns and any ‘rules’ you feel are important for this group and confirm your commitment to the guidelines provided. In subsequent meetings take the first 5-10 mins to check in and find what outcomes or reflections were triggered from the last meeting.

Reflective practice diagram
As speaker

Before your meeting, decide upon a current issue that you would like to discuss, ideally one which you have some concerns about, worry, or sense of conflict. If there is nothing you feel you are struggling with, think about something you’d like to be better, or more confident with.

NB. You don’t need to prepare any notes or think through the issues before the meeting.

Speak for 5 – 10 minutes introducing the issue; highlight the relational issues, don’t provide all the technical details

As you speak, notice what part you are playing, and reflect on how you are feeling as you discuss the issue. Bring an attitude of curiosity about yourself and how you are handling this issue to this process.

Allow the coach to ask clarifying or exploratory questions.

As coach
Your role in this process is to help the Speaker get more insight into how they have got themselves stuck, how they have made meaning of this situation in their particular way. you are there to help them gain more insight into the whole of their context. You are not there to solve the problem for the person or to provide an answer. So,

  • Listen for the meaning, context, motivations, and the emotions that sits underneath the speaker’s story – don’t get stuck on the details. Resist the urge to get the whole detailed picture as though you had to solve the problem yourself.

  • Listen with empathy, put yourself in the place of the speaker and then ask if you've got it right, ask if you in fact do understand how they are feeling

  • Lean into your curiosity – ask questions and avoid making statements

  • Notice body language and changes in tone or feeling – don’t assume you know what it means (crossed arms may not mean bored or angry it can be that they are cold) – enquire

  • Offer ideas without attachment to being right; leave lots of room for the person to think about their own opinion and to mull
Resist the temptation to:
  • Solve their issue
  • Think ahead of the speaker
  • Need to tell what you might know about the topic being discussed
  • Share your own experiences
  • Change or steer the topic
  • Give advice, diagnose, reassure, criticise or bait
Some questions to try:
  • How did you feel when that occurred?
  • What meaning did you make of that ... (incident, decision, remark) ?
  • What was that like for you?
  • What do you think is missing here?
  • I notice what seems like (tiredness / exhaustion / frustration / lots of energy when you talk about that...) tell me about what is going on in you?
  • Do you have a sense of what you are learning personally from this client / situation?
As observer

During the interaction, stay outside that system/ conversation; you are here to give feedback primarily to the coach/ listener. Take notes and track the coaching session, so you can be specific in your feedback to the listener. Also pay attention to the relationship and dynamics between the speaker and listener - they will be co-creating the interaction.

After the interaction:

  1. Ask listener what it was like to coach/ listen
  2. Ask speaker what it was like to be coached/ listened to; ask them what worked, and then what could have worked better
  3. Only then, give your specific feedback and observations
See if you can go beyond a behavioural description to wonder about inner dynamics and relationship dynamics between the speaker and coach at particular times in their interaction.

As with being in the coach's role:
  • Listen with empathy
  • Lean into your curiosity
  • Offer ideas tentatively
  • Questions to ask yourself as observer:
  • What do I notice about both the talker and the listener?
  • What can I notice / see happening in the relationship?
  • What can I feel is happening in the interaction?‚Äč
  • What dynamics do I observe?