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Reflection - a critical part of learning

It’s just over a year since I left Shanghai and moved to Singapore. I had an amazing couple of years in China but I didn’t really appreciate quite how much I was learning until afterwards. A lot of my time there I spent in doing mode; coping with the challenges, adapting, worrying about getting things right, learning about the culture and making progress on projects. In the past year I have had plenty of time to reflect on my experience, both work-wise and personally. I have realised it was hugely developmental in terms of my leadership style and experience. Getting to grips with doing business in such a different culture as well as a fascinating exposure to the country, history and people. Talking about my time with various people since has helped me process and recognise what I learned.


How often do you give yourself time to step back and reflect on your experiences? It’s very easy to be caught in the moment of challenge or frustration, trying to get something done and then moving onto the next issue without stopping to notice what might be happening and how to adjust to change the outcome. However much you want to change a behaviour, you continue in old cycles. If you have taken the time to notice what went well and what didn’t work then that’s great and you’ve made the first step to successfully making changes.


One of the key benefits of coaching is that it creates a space for you to reflect. You will be being asked to notice what is happening around you and to you, how it makes you feel and what the outcomes are when trying different things. The coach is encouraging you to find solutions that work best for you.


I did my coaching training with Academy of Executive Coaching and it was a very experiential course. They immediately had us doing things, asking questions and challenging us. There were always sessions to reflect on how we felt after an exercise, what we observed and what we learned. I initially found this incredibly uncomfortable and daunting. I am someone who has grown up doing well learning from books and passing exams etc. However, the speed with which we were able to confidently put coaching skills into practice and how much more deeply embedded that learning has been has definitely made me an advocate of this style of training.


Trying to make change can be deeply uncomfortable as we move from our comfortable habits. Actively reflecting on that discomfort can help accelerate and embed the changes.


A challenge that often comes up with people I have coached and mentored is around changing how they appear in meetings. A desire to have more presence or to challenge more effectively but they feel they are holding back. They don’t want to disrupt things, to appear foolish by asking a stupid question or slow the pace down by challenging. I encourage my coachees to actively take the next opportunity as an experiment. To consciously try something different and to see what the impact is. Even if it feels very uncomfortable and maybe doesn’t work as they hoped this is part of the experiment. The next important step is to reflect on the experience. How did it go, how did others react, what worked, what could have done better. Maybe ask for feedback from others in the meeting. I have found that by deliberately framing it in this way it can take some of the discomfort away (not all of it) as the most important focus is on the learning. If it goes wrong that is still a valuable learning point. As you then see the impact you can continue to make adjustments. Whilst it may continue to feel uncomfortable for a while, as you use the skills more and more, gain confidence and react to situations it becomes easier.


A key aspect of reflection is that it happens post event, when there is an opportunity to separate some of the emotion or anxiety from the situation to make a more objective assessment. In coaching you will be asked a lot of questions starting with “what” or “how” instead of “why”. This is to encourage you to slow down, take things in and bring as much information out as possible before assigning meaning to it.


Given the past 18 months for many of us has been mostly focused on surviving and getting things done, when was the last time you paused to reflect?


How do you give yourself this space? Do you have tools or tricks your use to help give yourself time for reflection? Some people find keeping a journal helpful, mine is sporadically filled in but it is still helpful looking back and seeing how much I have learned. I’d love to hear more ideas.


This picture was taken at the start of my China adventure.

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