Much is said in coaching circles about the need to be a ‘reflective coach’. Most experienced coaches would have us believe that they already are ‘reflective coaches’. But what does being a ‘reflective coach’ really mean, and why should we bother thinking about it, let alone work towards embodying it?
In this post, I’ll be looking briefly at what the word ‘reflective’ means in the context of coaching, how we can put together a template to use in our reflections, and 5 good reasons we should all put our efforts into becoming truly reflective coaches.
To me, this isn’t just another ‘flavour-of-the-month’ phrase to be batted around. Along with deep, transformative listening, it’s at the very core of what coaching is about. Listening is the coach homing in on the coachee – and reflective practice is the coach homing in on her or his own internal dialogue.
Why a ‘reflective coach’?
‘Reflective practice’ means the establishing by coaches of a regular habit of analysing their experience through some process of “thoughtful deliberation” which can facilitate their learning, as well as stimulate “systematic, critical and creative thinking about action with the intention of understanding its roots and processes.” *
Key words here are ‘habit’, ‘thoughtful deliberation’, ‘systematic, critical and creative thinking’ – geared to examining ‘action’ in order to understand the roots and processes associated with that action. All this thinking and deliberation is about the practical reality of how coaching sessions unfold, not some philosophical theory. And the impulse behind it is to uncover in a systematic way the psychological roots of the coach’s contribution to what happened, as well as the processes by which the coach’s behaviours were acted out.
Achieving a level of reflective practice is easier for some individuals than others. Those of us who are naturally introspective (Introverts in MBTI terms) may find an ability to examine our innermost impulses comes naturally, whilst those of us who are more externally-orientated (Extraverts in MBTI terms) may find all this ‘naval gazing’ a mind-game too far. The important thing is for each individual to find a mode of reflection which suits her or his own needs. The capacity to be reflective can be enhanced, and it’s each coach’s duty to find ways that will enhance it best in her or his particular case.
How to put together our reflections
There’s no set format or ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer to this, only the identifying and adoption of an effective method which promotes self-insight and growth for the individual coach. Some may prefer writing down their thoughts according to some template, whilst others might find it best to team up with a ‘reflection buddy’ with whom they can discuss confidentially certain standard questions about sessions (anonymised, of course) in order to mull them over in a reflective manner. Yet others might like to mix journaling and/or mind-mapping with the drawing or visualisation of feelings. It really depends on the individual and what he or she finds works best.
That said, whatever method we choose, certain areas for reflection need to be covered in a systematic way. As far as recording our reflections in words goes, we can adopt a pre-existing template (such as the Kolb Learning Cycle, applying it reflectively to our coaching sessions) or we can design our own Reflective Learning Log. Such a log could have various formats, consisting of a list of questions, or a set of activities.
Here are a couple of examples to think about:
a) Reflective Learning Log – question list
- What happened in the session?
- Techniques and tools used
- What did I learn about the client?
- What issues remain?
- What were the action points agreed?
- What did I learn about my coaching? (which might incorporate such questions as: What do I do (how and why)? What do I not do (and why)? What might I also be doing (how and why)? Any learning or reading which arises from these).
b) Reflective Learning Log – set of activities
- Gather information Describing the incident; explaining the context.
- Reflection Teasing out what I was trying to achieve; the consequences of my actions; how I feel about it; what factors/previous knowledge may have influenced me; what alternative action I could I have taken.
- The Learning Process Analysing how I feel now; whether I could have acted differently; what I have learnt; how that learning will influence my future practice; what I have learnt about my values/belief system; what ethical principles were involved.
5 good reasons to become a reflective coach
1. Qualifying and/or becoming accredited as a coach This is an obvious one. Any organisation worth its salt offering would-be coaches a pathway towards qualifying or becoming accredited professionally will have at the core of its curriculum/requirements some assessment of a candidate’s ability to reflect on his or her coaching practice. The Institute of Leadership Management (ILM), the Association for Coaching (AC), the International Coach Federation (ICF), the European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC) – all want evidence that over the training or accreditation period candidates have developed and incorporated into their practice a level of critical awareness sufficient to allow growth in terms of self-insight and effectiveness in their coaching role.
It’s worth noting here that for the purposes of qualification a trainee coach must adapt to be able to produce reflections in writing in order that the reflection can be assessed. That may entail a great deal of work and struggle for some individuals. So be prepared. The effort will pay dividends in the longer term.
2. Identification of strengths and weaknesses With the deepening of reflective practice and the cultivation of a reflective ‘habit’, it becomes possible to tease out the attitudes we bring to our coaching, as well as the strengths and weaknesses. The key point here is that we work with the reality of what occurs in sessions as our ‘evidence’ – the reality of our perceptions of events and conversations, as well as the reality of the feedback we gain from the coachee.
For example, it may be that an individual has taken on coaching alongside a role which involves advising and/or ‘training’ people (say, in HR or Learning & Development). That individual may inadvertently find him or herself falling back into advising or ‘telling’ rather than coaching. Without a strong reflective habit based on the honest examination of the ‘evidence’, this tendency may well be overlooked and left unchallenged. It’s only by persevering in cultivating the habit of systematic reflection that we can hope to benefit from the fundamental developmental opportunity the examination of this evidence can put before us.
3. Identification of patterns and ‘voices’ Over time, our reflective practice can reveal patterns of behaviour or attitude, as well as particular ‘voices’ that repeatedly ‘interfere’ during coaching conversations. Our reflection can dig deep to discover where these ‘voices’ may be coming from, what they represent, and exactly what we are bringing with us into the coaching relationship of which we were previously unaware. Gradually we can recognise these patterns and ‘voices’ as they arise, notice their effects, and develop strategies to deal with the ‘interference’ they may bring with them.
4. Identification of developmental needs By establishing regular analysis, we can examine our performance and accurately identify areas which need work, modification and/or development. By regularly examining the reality of how we interact in coaching sessions, we can assess where we may need to supplement our expertise and how that can be done. We may also identify particular areas of insight we bring to our coaching. In the fullness of time, these areas of insight may become pathways of professional expertise which distinguish our practice from that of others, and help us identify which sectors, niches or ‘issue areas’ we may wish to specialise in.
5. Coach and coachee safety Reflection is the key internal forum where we as coaches can assess potentially difficult situations which may arise in terms of ensuring the safety of ourselves and our clients if these situations arise again. We may not feel confident we dealt with particular situations as well as we could have done, and reflection helps us tease out what exactly we feel we could have done better, and what kind of input we might wish to incorporate in the future. In addition, it’s the material we derive from our reflective practice that we take to our coach supervisors for discussion. Only when we can examine our own practice are we able to discuss that practice with someone else, who in turn can help us in the crucial area of ensuring the psychological safety of ourselves and the coachees with whom we work.
So, that’s what it means to be a ‘reflective coach’, and these are my 5 good reasons to work at becoming one. Hopefully, if introspection is not your forte, you’ll have been encouraged to persevere. It’s a highly-significant habit to cultivate, and I wish you all the best on your journey…
* These definitions are respectively from Les Tickle The Induction of New Teachers (London: Castell 1994), and Della Fish and Sheila Twinn Quality Clinical Supervision in the Health Care Professions: Principled Approaches to Practice (Oxford: Butterworth Heinemann 1997)