Why Reflective Spaces are Key to Growth

This expert thinkpiece comes from facilitator, mediator and Integrity Coaching Associate, Joshua Okunlola.

Historically, the western view of development has been very linear. We are born, we go to school, we become adults, other things happen, and we eventually die.
As a result, adults are individuals who have everything they need to be successful and take their place fully in society. As for the unlikely few who are not like this, there isn’t much that they can do.
However, I believe development is not linear, nor is it as ordered and determinist as we in western society see it. Instead, we develop in cycles. With each Cycle, there are continuing opportunities to develop and get the developmental messages that we need to grow and take our place in the world.
Growth isn’t a one-time event, where we can say ‘yep, I am fully grown’. Instead, growth is observed in stages and triggered by the different seasons we find ourselves in life, e.g., a new job, first day at school etc.
Each season is pregnant with possibility, and the use of affirmations within each season are ways we can “give permission and support our natural developmental process.” (Pam Levin)
The cycle of development is a neat framework for understanding the seasonal developmental needs individuals experience at different stages throughout their lives.

The Cycle of Development

The Cycle of development has six stages: Being, Doing, Thinking, Identity, Skills and Structure and Integration.
Each stage has varied development tasks, which give voice to what we are being invited into. Firstly, to take our place more fully in the present and secondly, to know how to get our needs met. No stage is more important than the other; instead, each requires us to manage the discomfort and ambiguity.
This model provides a helpful lens through which to understand one’s personal and professional development journey.

Heeding our inner voice

However, the real power of this model can be seen in practice when used in non-judgemental and safe reflective spaces, that are characterised by the following:
– Spaces focused on reflection where there no correct answers or mistakes
– Spaces that enable conversation and silent contemplation
– Spaces that facilitate curiosity and discovery of new experience
– Spaces in which vulnerability is modelled, not just expected
These spaces are vital as I believe that we are constantly being “called” by our purpose or summoning as leaders. In my experience, one’s capacity for growth can depend on our ability to carefully listen and follow this internal voice, which drives and directs us.
Parker J Palmer puts it this way:

“Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you.”

However, it is often the case that we learn strategies and survival mechanisms that drown out that voice. As leaders with hectic schedules, people that depend on us and stretched resources,  we can become accustomed to living in the past (regret) and the future (expectation) rather than the present ( growth and development) to which we are being summoned to in that moment.
However, in these quiet, reflective spaces, we can better listen to what we have been “summoned” or “called” to. In other words, in these spaces, we can hear the internal voice pointing towards our true purpose and identity as leaders.
After all, as Parker J Palmer says:

“The human soul doesn’t want to be fixed, it simply wants to be seen and heard. The soul is like a wild animal – tough, resilient and shy. When we go crashing through the woods shouting for it to come out so we can help it, the soul will stay in hiding. But if we are willing to sit quietly and wait for a while, the soul may show itself.”


The power of reflective spaces

Time and again, I have been able to see how this model and these reflective spaces have supported individual growth in schools. Here are two examples that particularly stand out in my mind:
With one team, I laid on the floor of the classroom, pieces of laminated sheets that had written on them the different stages in the cycle of development and the corresponding tasks and affirmations.
I asked the group to think about their developmental journey and which stage and task they heard the call to develop further.
The group had around 5-10 mins to walk around and choose. In our time to share, a senior leader chose the following development stage, task and affirmation:
Doing stage: In this stage, individuals want to experiment, explore and experience their environment.
They explained that they were new in the post and, on occasions, felt nervous to try out new ideas for fear of failing and letting the team down. They then turned to the team and told them they needed their support in this area.
Witnessing that moment, simple and yet powerful, left an imprint on me and the way I work. What came out of that exchange for me was:
– We can run from our “summoning” because of the believed impact heeding that call may have on ourselves and others.
– Attending to our “summoning” permits people to listen to theirs.
– Following our “summoning” doesn’t mean going it alone.
In the same session, we looked at the students and where they were on their developmental journey. We placed our attention on a student, who at the time was exhibiting quite challenging behaviour, which staff found problematic to manage.  In doing so, they focused on the Being stage of the model as described below:
Being stage: In this stage, individuals want to be present, to bond emotionally with others and to trust those around them and oneself.
The staff team were able to explore his behaviour, not from a deficit model, e.g., what they lack but from a model where behaviour is an indicator of growth, and the task of the educator is to be attuned to the student’s life. Such an approach facilitated the asking of, ‘What is summoning this child? and ‘How can I /we support them in heeding their call?’
Engaging in this way emphasised that every person (pupils and staff alike) have the capacity and desire for growth and that reflective spaces are a useful way to slow down and become attuned to what is already present.
As I bring an end to this piece, I’d encourage you to reflect on your own life and consider a few key questions that arose from these reflective spaces and engage with the Cycle of development.
– Where in your leadership journey are you being summoned to?
– What is currently being said in your leadership journey, and have you been listening?
– Does the noise of your busy life ever drown out this voice?
– What time is given for you and your team to have quiet, reflective spaces where all can listen to this inner voice?

Mindfulness in Schools – Expert Interview with Judi Stewart


With growing research supporting the benefits of mindfulness, Integrity Coaching associate Judi Stewart explores what “mindfulness” really means, how schools can be transformed by mindful practices and shares some fantastic tips about becoming more mindful amidst life as a school leader.

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