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Reflection is lightning in a bottle

Updated: Nov 10, 2023

So, why don't we do it more?

How to tap into your reflection superpower!

Socially and culturally, in our upbringing and adult lives, at school, and at work, we are encouraged and rewarded as problem solvers. Physiologically, we have also evolved as such. Our big, beautiful brains evolved for survival through problem avoidance or resolution. This is our analytic muscle and it is important.

We have another muscle of equal value, yet often under-nurtured and undervalued in schools and businesses. When this muscle partners with our analytic, this feeds and strengthens our analysis, generating better outcomes. This is our reflection muscle and it tends to be weak. It takes time, it's neither taught nor incentivized much, so it is simply used less.

History's greatest thinkers and teachers are strong reflectors and analyzers. Consider Socrates and Aristotle, Descartes, Confucius, Galileo, Isaac Newton. Their reflections, and resulting analysis and conclusions, have progressed our societies and will continue to influence us through time. With more upfront reflection, subsequent analysis can be easier, faster and the outcomes better.

Think of people you admire today. For instance, leaders in business, academia and science, law and policy makers, entrepreneurs, journalists and authors, and so on. Think of particular friends, family and coworkers. Do they often take a little more time to reflect before speaking, deciding, solving, or before crafting that game-changing policy, pulitzer article or best selling book? I suspect they do! And are their learnings and outcomes generally better? Probably yes, more often than no. What they say becomes more diplomatic, feels considerate. What they share of their learnings can inform us as well as them. While never perfect (does that even exist?); what is decided or the solution feels, and generally is, more solid.

Our thoughts have power. Power for the negative and bad, the superficial and mediocre. Power for the positive and good, the deeper and the outstanding. We sometimes (often?) go straight from thoughts to action with little to no reflection. Real consideration or integration of experience and learnings is lacking and thus not leveraged. In our haste to solve, achieve, perform quickly, buzzing through our busy days, we can accept thoughts at face value, not questioning reality or possibilities, not getting to the more powerful positive and good.

We're human and we love to solve problems, we're programmed that way. It's normal. So, we jump to complete tasks and implement solutions. (We also get little hits of mood-boosting dopamine along the way, supporting this pattern. Our teachers, professors, colleagues and bosses, praise us for being fast, providing release of heartwarming oxytocin, as we feel pride and as we are appreciated.)

In our haste to achieve, we can proceed with limited depth of understanding and inadequate information. This can result in more repeats of the same learnings, overlooking root cause in favour of bandaids slapped on surface symptoms, and solutions missing the mark. Worst case, we are destined to be caught up in redo cycles of frustration and wasted time and effort.

This all dilutes our potential and power for the good.

Don't rush reflectionthis defeats the purpose. The purpose is to "go slow, to go better" and to develop that valuable reflective muscle.

Reflections are thoughts, too, but also feelings, intuition, memories. Reflection is slower, deeper and brings in a diversity of wisdom from experience and multiple inputs, senses, emotions and body mind intelligence, too. Reflective thinking creates opportunity to tap into all levels of our intelligence when we choose to pause and inquire and listen: to our gut, heart, body, and soul as well as different parts of our brain and our nervous systems, and to loop in our learnings from the past, examining today's broader contexts, outside inputs and support, and even imaginings and intuitions of the future.

Reflection both deepens and surfaces awareness.

The species we humans belong to is Homo sapien, or "wise human", meaning having intelligence and awareness. Our subspecies is Homo sapien sapien, loosely meaning we have an extra level, being aware AND with capacity to be aware of our awareness. However, ONLY if we pay attention. Paying attention can have degrees in depth, dependent upon capacity to reflect (intention, time, practiced skill and ultimately habituated).

Our reflective capacity can be developed. The strongest reflection is paying attention to all those layers. It tunes in to more so it can't help but inform better analysis and get to better outcomes. Even if we only pay attention to one or two layers, it is stronger.

So why don't we reflect more?

It takes time. It goes against our dominant programming in the oldest parts of our brain. It's not taught much in schools or by our parents (this is changing!). It's difficult to build into performance goals and so is not directly incentivized at work (although good outcomes can be).

Another hurdle can be cultural and societal messaging. Norms of the past 50+ years, in many parts of our world, have worshipped the cult of busy. (Thankfully there is a tide change towards healthier balance and pace and recognition of how this produces quality benefits that can beat busy's quantity benefits.) Fed by our past influences and the busy cult, the stumbling block some of us individuals are up against is an entrenched go-go-go habit.

It also requires us to be intentional in creating space for reflectionas an individual and in group and team settings, at work and personally. This can be felt to be hard. It can take planning, reminders or whatever tools might help derail the old habit and build up the new. Without committed intention, we tend to default to the old track: mainly using our analytic muscle and missing out on the superpower that reflection can be!

Addressing all three of these factors ties into The Pause and it relates to my own personal goal and mantra for this year to "Go slow, to go better". I don't mind sharing, I'm finding this challenging. I'm rewiring my decades-strong go-go-go habit. As a coach, I drink my own champagne so I have my own coach. This is one way I'm intentionally creating space. A trusted, objective coach can be a powerful Pause Partner in reflection and analysis.

As a result of reflection, I'm learning about moving from being a high-performer to becoming a high-value-creator. Reflection is a big part of what feeds value in whatever we do, on our own and with others.

A two part approach to reflection

Below is one ideaI invite you to find what works for you (i.e., when it connects with you and works in your life without being overwhelming). I offer this with no attachment. The best way and type of reflection is one that you actually do.

Emerging out of a coaching session, I now schedule "PBN Time". (No, not peanut butter, banana and Nutella, although that is delicious!) It is to Pause, Breathe, and Notice, at least once a day. This is coupled with what I call 4R reflection: Recognize, Radically Accept, Reframe, Refocus.

This two-part activity can take 10 minutes, or longer if you choose. Don't rushthis defeats the purpose, which is to develop that valuable reflective muscle. I offer this activity for you as I'm finding it's strengthening my reflective capacity, thus progressing my go slow, to go better. Since adopting this practice, I find I'm achieving more of what is most important and meaningful. I'm also feeling calmer and my outcomes are more impactful. My hope is this may be helpful or may inspire something that works for you.

Part one: PBN Time

Find a comfortable position and go through the following PBN stages:

  1. Pause. Simply stop and be still for just a moment. Clear your mind of "to-dos".

  2. Breathe. Now settle in comfortably, consciously relax any holding in your body and take 3 slow, breaths, longer on the exhale than on the inhale and holding for 3 seconds at the top of your inhale and 4 seconds after the exhale. (If thoughts or to-dos arise, say hello then let them go.)

  3. Notice. Ask: What changed for me? Where do I feel that in my mind, my body?

There's a method to this madness.

Number one is the prerequisite running throughout any reflection. We tend NOT to do this much, so it's worth stating the obvious: None of this happens without The Pause!

Number two sets us up for success. Science tells usthrough imaging technologies and lots of research—just 3 lovely breaths switch us from using our sympathetic nervous system (which let's face it, comes from busy and is also overworked!) to our parasympathetic nervous system (putting us into rest and digest and opening us up to possibility and broader thinking). Simply breathing more like this serves us very well!

Number three is reflective and serves to integrate and magnify benefits from PBN. And, as we notice these benefits, our brain feels this as a reward and sends sweet and reinforcing neurotransmitters like dopamine through our system (yay!).

Part two: The four Rs

This is a deeper reflection of where you are now in your day. Take a few minutes, and use four Rs: Recognize, Radically Accept, Reframe and Refocus. (You may journal or simply note outcome and go from there.)

Here's what you might ask yourself:

  1. What am I recognizing? Reflect on: how I'm being, what I'm doing and how I'm doing it. (Don't go to solution or outcome, yet!)

  2. How can I radically accept what I am, what was and is? Name it. Accept it with self-compassion. Then move on.

  3. How can I reframe any recognized challenge, negative thought or issue? If something feels difficult or pressuring, for example. How could this be reworded as a positive? And what if it were easy?

  4. Now, how will I refocus? Consider: what am I learning from this? How do I choose to be for the rest of this day? What are the next two prioritiesthat which I want to be done? You might define done and identify the simplest path [1]. Now be and do from there.

This is working for me. [Direct message me or use my connect form if you would like my handy pocket reminder to do PBN + 4Rs daily.]

So, what could work for you?

How and where could reflection become a stronger tool? And how might this benefit you? Could reflection's value ripple out to othersin your team, your organization, for your family, maybe in relationships. (These last two questions could also be added to a reflection.)

Reflection needs outcome

Reflection by itself is a power and not yet a superpower. Until we add a change or action, we're either in over-reflection (reflecting and reflecting but with no outcome) or we are in under-reflection (reflecting too lightly, without going deeper to come anywhere even close to an effective outcome).

This ties back to three great and well-known reflective questions: What, so what and now what? The four Rs can take us to at least one, possibly more, outcomes. It could be a slight change in our way of being, our attitude and perspective. It can also be an action plan or reprioritization. So, at the very least, ask yourself "now what" and make a commitment to an outcome. Outcome is what adds the "super" to reflection's power.

Ways of reflecting

There are infinite ways to reflect. All of them require intention and integration into our lives to grow that reflective muscle capacity. Mindfulness is a form of reflection centred on in the moment experience and feeling and sensing that fully. Using what, so what, now what is a form of learning integration reflection.

I invite you to experiment (and keep trying) as the key is coming up with what works for you.

Being coached is one way that works to develop that capacitywhether in sports, leadership, individual performance, team or group settings. Reflection is a cornerstone of coaching.

As coaches, we can also bring in tools supporting reflectionpsychometrics, engagement surveys, and cultural assessments for example.

In my work as a coach, we may bring in Lumina Learning's Spark Coach and Teams or SupportingLines Institutes' High-Performance Index. We may leverage artwork, too; such as Symbolon AG's Art4Reflection in Business. These tools are extraordinarily effective and fun.

In my work as a Lean coach, I recognize a key to Lean's effectiveness is that reflection is built in—both individually and collaboratively. For instance, Lean brings reflection into the principles of Gemba Walk (going and seeing to understand right where the action is happening); Hansei (relentless reflection and action); and making decisions based on long-term value vs. short term financial gain. There's a reason Lean problem-solving events are called Kaizenmeaning "good change".

I leave you with a wee reflection

Although I will never diss coaching and I really cannot say enough about the power of having an objective, trusted pause partner; reflection can be your superpower at any time. It is at your fingertips and can be a way to coach yourself.

I invite you to try a wee reflection right now (or gift yourself a time for later). This is how it could go:

  1. Pause your day. Maybe pour yourself a fresh cuppa.

  2. Settle comfortably. Breathe. Slowly. Three times. Notice how that feels.

  3. Now, read and reflect on the quotes in the image above in this article. Here are some questions that can help:

    • How do these quotes land for you? How do they inform you? (If they do.)

    • From that, what might you be learning or relearning about yourself?

    • How is this important or meaningful for you right now? And for others?

    • And now, what will do with that learning?

    • And what one concrete step will you take? (And by when?)

After reading this article and maybe trying some reflective muscle flexes and reps...

...what do you think about reflection as a superpower, now?

Author: Toni Crow, CEC PCC PQC, Toni Crow Leadership Coaching

[1] Effortless Make It Easier to Do What Matters Most, Greg McKeown, Random House, 2021.
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