Knowing Oneself – 3 Tips to Effective Self-Reflection

This expert thinkpiece comes from Executive Coach and Integrity Coaching Associate, Mark Bisson.

It is part of the human condition to be introspective and to have a desire to gain a better understanding of ourselves.

Indeed, as many great thinkers throughout history have noted, it is precisely our self-consciousness and our ability to know ourselves, that sets us apart from other species on the planet.

As a professional coach, I have seen how it can be one of the most powerful tools for personal development for my clients.

As British psychotherapist Alison Rickard puts it, our reflective thinking can be “the combined voice of the best teacher and supervisor we ever had”.

On a personal level, it has been an essential component of my continuous learning journey. It has provided me with some valuable insights about myself and has enhanced my understanding of others both in my professional life and in my personal relationships.

As I have developed my reflective practice throughout the last few decades, I have learnt three key secrets to effective self-reflection…

1) Open up and be willing to take action

Effective self-reflection has at its core a willingness to be open with oneself; to allow oneself to dig deep and critically consider the inner workings of one’s minds, habits and behaviours.

This openness creates a space for messages to come forward, whether these are words, images, colours or emotions, and can allow you to build a deeper understanding of yourself and your unconscious mind.

However, as Twentieth century Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire says, that “reflection without action is sheer verbalism or armchair revolution and action without reflection is pure activism, or action for actions sake”.

Self-reflection therefore needs to include a call to action and possible next steps for taking the learning forward.

2) Find the Approach that Suits You

There are so many techniques out there can be used to look back, reflect on current reality and to vision ahead, and we are all unique in terms of the approaches to self-reflection that suit us best and produce the greatest learning.

That’s why I would always advocate for experimenting with techniques and models, even if they may sound strange to you or make you feel uncomfortable at first.

In my own journey some of the approaches I have been most uncomfortable with have also provided some of my most transformational learning.

The following approaches are examples of the many options you can experiment with and evaluate:

Reflective writing – this provides the opportunity to review experiences objectively at a time when you are not impacted by conditioned or instinctive emotional responses. In their 2006 paper US medics Johanna Shapiro, Deborah Kasman and Audrey Shafer consider that reflective writing nurtures characteristics including narrative competence, emotional equilibrium, self-healing capacity and well-being.

The practice of writing reflectively is analytical in nature and requires us to describe an event, our thoughts and feelings together with the new insights gained and what we would do differently as a result.

Storytelling – There is evidence that storytelling and the metaphors created within stories can support the stimulation of change in individuals. Self-disclosure through story telling can also encourage openness in cultures that close down emotions. Metaphors can enable us to draw out unconscious judgements, bias and assumptions we hold about ourselves, others and the organisations in which we work.

American sociolinguist William Labov, evidenced that stories are often told for the purpose of communicating about important dilemmas and problem situations. In telling the story Labov argued the storyteller’s perspective on the dilemma or problem and how the storyteller viewed the resolution becomes clearer. Indeed, in telling the story the teller communicates what it was like to be within the story as actual experience. These stories can then be reanalysed to gain new understanding.

Reflective Drawing – Within the visual arts world a journal is used to capture visual language and drawn images which are related to reflecting on issues and challenges. These images can be invented or collected from the environment surrounding you. Reflective drawing can also be used to consider a hypothetical challenge or dilemma. Doodling and abstract drawings are other alternative forms which can be used to express thoughts and feelings. You don’t need to be a talented artist to benefit from this approach.

The power of using drawing to self-reflect is that your images tell a story that has meaning for you. For some people a seemingly ritualistic destroying of an image reinforces a learning. For others, images they create are given prominence in their study or office as reminder of the journey they have been on and the learning they have achieved.

3) Be kind to yourself

I believe that we all have the capacity to develop our ability to self-reflect, and I would go a step further and state that it is a crucial element of our ongoing development as leaders, managers and coaches.

But building a reflective practice is a difficult and challenging undertaking. Like any skill, it takes time, commitment and practice if we are to become effective practitioners and enhance our own self-regulatory process.

And so third and final learning is that if you choose to self-reflect be kind to yourself and patient as you develop your practice.

This is a brave, courageous journey that has no destination – but it is an adventure we must undertake if we are committed to being the best that we can be.

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