On a recent visit to Taiwan, I was introduced to the thinking of the Chinese philosopher, Wang Yang-Ming(1472-1529).  One of the elements that I particularly liked was that he placed equal emphasis on tranquility and activity, on thinking and doing. He believed that knowledge is incomplete until it becomes conduct, and conduct is not complete until it becomes knowledge at work.

There’s a lot of modern literature about the relationship between action and reflection, but the concept that these have to be in balance and that neither is complete without the other is both intellectually and emotionally appealing. It gives rise in my mind to a number of questions for the coach or mentor:

  • Does the client have a suitable balance of action and reflection in their day-to-day activity? (Are they learning from what they experience and using their learning to structure new experiences?)
  • Does the client have a suitable balance of action and reflection in their preparation for the coaching/ mentoring session?
  • Do our coaching/ mentoring conversations encompass a constructive cycle of action and reflection?
  • What does a good balance of doing and reflecting look like for the coach/ mentor?

Somewhere in between doing and reflection lie thought-experiments. Here, the coach/ mentor encourages the client to envision themselves carrying out an action and imagine what happens under different circumstances. In essence, this allows the client to undertake some reflection before action. Developing the habit of thought-experiments also helps the client prepare for difficult conversations or activities.

Early on in the coaching/ mentoring relationship, it can be helpful to review with the client their reflective practice. Helpful questions include:

  • When do you take time to reflect?
    • How much time do you allocate?
    • As a regular habit?
    • Before and after important actions/ events?
    • How do you create an external environment conducive to reflection?
      • Do you reflect best in your office, taking a walk, or elsewhere?
      • How do you prevent interruptions?
      • How do you create an internal environment conducive to reflection?
        • What techniques do you use to relax and be creative?
        • How do you focus on what you want to reflect on?
        • How do you balance purposeful reflection and emergent (intuitive) reflection?
        • How do you capture your reflections?
        • How do you apply your reflections?
        • How do you link your reflections to your personal philosophy and identity?

One of the benefits of this early conversation is that it emphasizes the importance of reflection and creates an expectation that the client will come to sessions with some of the thinking already done and ready to share. Reviewing reflective practice every few meetings – or when the client seems to be stuck on an issue and not making progress between sessions – helps reinforce the habit.


© David Clutterbuck, 2013

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