Four-step reflection to learn from experience

This exercise is helpful when trying to make sense of a situation that did not go as expected with the intention to learn from it. I use this method as the guide for the intercultural competence development outlined in my book Working in a Multicultural World.

1. Describe experience: Tell your story

The process of reflection starts by writing down your story. Stories are a powerful way to help us make sense of experience. Stories help us integrate and connect bits of experience, facts, and conjectures, organizing them into a causal order. Telling our story helps us to create order and make complex situations more manageable. When we write our story, we have the power of hindsight and can identify links and fill in information that was not available at the time the experience took place. 

This is an opportunity to engage in self-dialogue and increase awareness of the details of an experience or situation. In writing your story, draw in all your senses and make your description as rich and detailed as possible. What was the context of this situation? Who was there? What was influencing your behavior? What did you say or do? What did others say or do? How were you feeling? 

2. Reflect on experience: Revisit your story

The power of stories lies in their ability to compress and frame large amounts of thoughts, events, and facts into a simple ordered sequence of events. However, they conceal the assumptions and beliefs that led to these connections. When we “story” a situation in our minds, we order and connect facts, observations, and assumptions, unconsciously filling in the gaps of the pieces we do not know.

After you are done writing your story, pause and read what you have written with an open and curious mind. Ask yourself “what is significant in what I have written?” “What might I do differently in the future?”

As you consider your story, you may ask the following questions:

  • Are there facts, thoughts, or details not considered in my story that could change the interpretation of the story?
  • How was I feeling and why did I feel that way?
  • What assumptions were guiding my actions?
  • What knowledge might have informed me?
  • What was I trying to achieve and I did I respond effectively?
  • What were others’ feelings and why did they feel that way?
  • What were the consequences of my actions on others and myself?
  • How does this situation connect with other experiences?
  • How might I reframe this situation to respond more effectively?
  • What would be the consequences had I responded differently?
  • What factors might constrain me from responding in new ways?
  • How do I feel NOW about this experience?
  • What insights have I gained? What did I learn from this experience?

3. Learn from experience: Prepare for the future

The process of writing and reflecting upon your behavior helps understand what happened, but the biggest benefit is in using this understanding to guide future actions. After reflecting on an event and pondering about the root causes of the behaviors and outcomes of that situation, it is important to consider the implications of this insight for the future. 

At this point we need to ask, “So what?” and “Now what?” In other words, we need to consider the implications of our discoveries and identify the actions that need to be taken in the future. This may mean you need to go back to an individual and say things that were left unsaid. Perhaps it means we need to approach interactions in different ways. We may discover skills we need to develop, gaps in our knowledge we need to cover. Perhaps we discover there are things we do not know about that situation that we need to find out before we can fully understand what is happening.

Sometimes there is nothing that can be done about an interaction, but we may consider its implications to future situations. Should you do something differently in the future? Can you transfer this learning to other contexts? Is there something you need to learn more about? Is there something you discovered about yourself that will help you in the future? 

4. Apply learning: New experiences

The power of reflection lies in its ability to help us develop new understandings. When we make sense of situation through reflection, we need to validate our conclusions by testing them out, or engaging in dialogue with others who may challenge our interpretations and help us identify alternative explanations and points of view. The reflective cycle is thus only completed when we go back into the world and apply what we have learned towards better action.