As an educator, executive coach, and parent, my most challenging audiences have usually been unwilling or unable to reflect on themselves or their experiences. Founded in curiosity,
reflection (a pause and step back) helps bring perspective, deepens understanding and accelerates learning.
By helping us look behind the scenes of our thinking and experiences, reflection helps us move from reacting (often emotionally charged and regret-filled) to responding.
Without reflection, we might not realise that we’re unhappy, find our job unfulfilling or become aware we’ve been behaving like a jerk. Without reflection, it can feel like we’re living life on auto, so occupied with keeping up with the pace of life that we never find time to pause and enjoy the journey, experience gratitude, or consider if this is still the journey I want?
Research published by the Harvard Business Review indicates that employees who invest 15 minutes at the end of the day reflecting on lessons learnt performed 23% better than those who didn’t. Similarly, UK commuters who used their commute to reflect and plan were happier, more productive, and less burned out than people who didn’t.
What is Reflection?
“Reflection allows the brain to pause, untangle and sort through observations and
experiences, consider multiple possible interpretations, and create meaning”.It’s the skill of being curious about our motivations and our physical, psychological, and emotional reactions and responses. Without it, we’re destined to repeat the same mistakes. Reflection is critical for learning.
There are two complementary forms of reflection that we might call active and passive.
Active reflection is the deliberate process of pausing and questioning ourselves. It’s the intentional setting aside time to review, understand and learn from our experiences.
Passive reflection is the process of allowing our unconscious thinking to contemplate and synthesise. With passive reflection, we accept we don’t have all the variables, and so, rather
than deliberate analysis, we trust our unconscious thinking to work on this for us. While this may sound like a big leap of faith, it’s something we all do instinctively. For example, we let go of chasing a word on the tip of our tongue or looking for those lost keys only for the solution to come to us in a flash a little later. Research suggests over 95% of our thinking is unconscious.
The Reticular Activating System (RAS), part of our oldest reptilian brain (look it up), is a sort of gatekeeper that decides which information gets into consciousness. So, as an example, when I was 19, I remember seeing and hearing an Italian Ducati motorcycle roar past me. I fell in love. Strangely, from that day forward, I started noticing Ducati’s everywhere. Were there suddenly more Ducati’s on the road, a coincidence, or had I programmed my RAS to notice them? Reflection and goal setting are two tools we can use to program our unconscious mind (RAS) to track for connections, gain insights and learn.
Whether it’s on something you just read or experienced, the state of a relationship or on your career over the last year - reflection helps us get behind our circumstances, biases, reactions, and motivations to see things with more perspective.
You could consider your reflections as providing a “message to self”, you know, those times where you go – “mmm maybe my stress and lack of resilience is made worse by my drinking? Perhaps a break’s in order?”
How to Reflect
Both Active and Passive reflection require a pause, a willingness to invest some time in understanding the events in our lives and ourselves better – to become more Self-Aware.
With Active reflection, find a process that works for you. Journaling, discussing with a trusted friend or therapist, walking, and traveling home from work all provide opportunities to reflect. The types of questions you may ask could include:
What did I do well?
What could I improve on?
What am I avoiding? And why?
Why am I so (angry, sad, confused, excited, proud) about this?
Passive reflection happens largely unconsciously and emerges naturally from a calm state. An example of this could be having conflict with your partner. You’ve been wondering why they are so unreasonable and at some point, think “wow I’m over thinking this, my heart rates up and I feel like I’m going round in circles (your awareness kicking in). I’m going to let this go for a bit.” And then, sometime later realising that there’s a pattern and that this conflict usually happens when I’m tired or stressed.
Accepting we can’t analyse unknown variables (all the factors that impact my partners behaviour); the trick is to let go of grinding out a solution and trusting our unconscious thinking will make connections and generate solutions. Actions you might do to help facilitate passive reflection include;
Letting go (not being attached to an outcome)
Trusting your unconscious
Start today. Put aside some time to reflect on your day, an issue, or this article. Be curious. Be contrary (adopt an opposite viewpoint) and, if you still find you’re having trouble reflecting, reflect on that!
My reflection on writing this article
Writing this I’ve become aware that I have a bias toward passive reflection; I use it a lot. I put incomplete thoughts/problems on the back burner and trust my unconscious will generate answers or insights. Solutions emerge. However, when I teach reflection, I tend to employ and discuss active reflection techniques. I wonder why I do that and why I’ve only just realised it? Is it an old habit or something more profound? I’m genuinely curious about this contradiction, perhaps some further reflection is in order?
 HBR Why you should make time for self-reflection (even if you hate doing it) by Jennifer Porter, March 21, 2017  As above  When I cook rich, delicious stocks, I put all the ingredients in a pot on the back burner and let it gently simmer for hours, allowing time and heat to do their magic.