As coaches, our goal is to assist our client in finding their own solutions to the challenges they present. To succeed in this goal requires that we give our best work. We must create a trusting space, practice presence, leverage deep listening, and use powerful questions. But what if that isn’t enough?
It is foundational to the coaching process that the client has the ability to reflect on their experience in such a way that we can help facilitate their breakthrough in creating new meaning and awareness. But what if they can’t reflect?
What if the very cognitive process we rely on isn’t present in the way we assume it to be? What then?
Welcome to my research. I set out to understand the reflective abilities of a group of individuals who are not well represented in the psychological literature, front line leaders in an operational warehouse setting. I wanted to learn from those individuals that form the backbone of a strong economy toiling in the heat and frenetic energy of a complicated warehouse system.
Looking through the lens of a model of ego development, (Terri O’Fallon’s STAGES model), I wanted to understand the reflective abilities of this group. Specifically looking at the two most common developmental stages Expert and Achiever, I wanted to ensure that I explored early reflective thought. Terri O’Fallon, states that reflective thought initiates at the Expert level and is rudimentary in nature. By the time individuals progress to Achiever reflection is more sophisticated and active.
To explore the reflective thought in my sample I conducted narrative interviews asking participants to share how they processed a critical career incident, a time when they had been criticized, coached, reprimanded etc. My interview guide allowed each participant to relate their critical incident and share what it taught them without my guidance. Afterward we explored the incident together, following an elegantly simple reflective model articulated by Terry Borton in 1970, “What – So What – Now What”. We walked back through their critical incident to see if they were able to access a new learning.
My findings, given a small sample size, were by no means representative of a larger population but give reason for us coaches to pause and consider.
Some participants at Expert were only able to employ simple reactions to their incident and demonstrated minimal interest / capacity to find new meaning. These individuals followed primarily a reflection on actions taken approach.
Others at Expert seemed able to access Vygotsky’s concept of their zone of proximal learning (in conjunction with myself) and were able to reflect deeply on their incident and discover new insight and meaning.
The participants at Achiever also demonstrated a range of apparent reflective ability. Some were able to reflect on their incident and gain new insight. These individuals followed a reflection on thoughts, emotions, and actions taken approach.
Others at Achiever would not re-engage in evaluating their incident beyond restating a simple narrative. Were they unable to reflect, or simply did not find value in it? This is a question for further research. It does however offer valuable data for coaches dealing with someone at the Achiever stage.
It is important to recognize that some individuals may only be able to reflect simply on the actions they took. To ask them to reflect on what they thought or felt at the time may result only in frustration and confusion. In these cases, accepting where the client is at and collaborating in a reflection on actions taken is an appropriate step. It may prove helpful to invite them into a conversation about thoughts and emotions if they are receptive.
Individuals with a deeper reflective ability also should be considered carefully. While those at Achiever and some at Expert were able to access reflection on thoughts and emotions, they are unlikely to have the capacity to view their thoughts and emotions from a completely object perspective.
How can we determine the depth of someone’s reflective ability? Now there is a great question for another article! I do recommend however to begin to understand a client’s reflective ability, ask them to relate the lessons learned from an important and relevant experience. Listen carefully to them for evidence that they considered what they were thinking and feeling at the time.