Reflection through Space

I have been using the Power of Six as a reflection tool for a while now. I find the repetitive questions very powerful to get me out of my current way of thinking. Through repetition, we are forced to dig deeper, explore other aspects of our knowledge, take new perspectives, and make connections that are, at times, unexpected. The Power of Six is one tool to facilitate Emergent Knowledge, a process that supports thinking outside of the box and accessing our own knowledge.

In the Power of Six, the questions are very simple. The first question follows the identification of a goal, desire, or exploration topic: What do you know (about that)? For example, you may be reflecting on a decision you need to make (e.g., should I take this job?). You then ask yourself, “And what do I know about that?”. This question is then followed by five times, “And what else do you know about that?”. After these six questions, the set is concluded with “and NOW what do you know about that?”. 

While the questions are simple, the process of iteration and repetition is potent and allows for interesting connections. To make this reflection even more powerful, we can add movement through space. I have just completed a course on “Gaining insight through movement,” where I learned a variation in which we encourage participants to explore the space around them as they explore repetitive questions. The key idea behind moving through space is that our interior and exterior worlds are connected, and by looking at things from a different angle, we actually gain different perspectives. A colleague of mine suggested that it is like taking a question for a walk.

With this technique, we start the same way by accessing “what do you know about that?” and then proceeding with movement (about six times).

And is there another space that you could go to from that space there?

And what do you know from that space there?”

After six times, we conclude with, “And what do you know NOW?

In my daily reflections, I employ this method formally and informally. Formally, I follow all the steps until I am satisfied with the results. Informally, when I am stuck, I ask myself: And is there a space that I can go to that knows about that? And I most often than not, find a new thought that helps me move along.

Give it a go!

Managing feelings through journaling

COVID-19 requires that we continuously explore new ways of relating to others, new ways of working, new habits and new routines. These changes in habits are akin the experience of culture shock which is a disequilibrium caused when an individual’s internal capabilities are not aligned with the demands of the new environment. For years, I have researched, taught and practiced reflective journaling as a way to cope with the emotional demands of culture shock, make sense of novel situations and, learn new ways of being and behaving. These tools can be helpful in this unprecedent pandemic. In this post, I discuss how to use journaling to sooth emotions. For a reflection process on learning, see this post.

Journaling can help us deal with feelings of loneliness, anxiety and helplessness, by providing a space to focus inward, become aware of and label feelings, which deactivates the part of the brain that initiates a stress response

The simplest way to journal to sooth emotions is to find a quiet space and write every arising thought or feeling without judgement or concern for writing quality for about 15 minutes. You may focus on how you feel at the moment or about an emotional situation you experienced during the day. As you do that, name your experience as it arises: bored, worried, concerned. Don’t try to change anything, just honor what comes up. Describe your emotions in detail, drawing on a resource such as the Feelings Wheel or Feelings Inventory to identify words to describe how you feel. As you write, notice how these emotions feel in your body. Notice the desire to avoid or control emotions, and breath into these sensations.

Just by labeling these feelings, you may find that they become more manageable. To take this reflection to the next level, consider tools from Dialectical Behavioral Therapy as explained in this article to help you manage difficult emotions in these challenging times.

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. 

What is reflective journaling

Reflective journaling is an active and purposeful exploration of how we feel, experience, and perceive a situation, and, through this process, process our emotions, develop a more coherent set of ideas, or a better story of our experience, which that will then inform future actions. 

The power of reflection lies in its ability to encourage us to stand back from what is happening, and to examine our own thinking and feelings. Even though in popular speech we may sometimes use the term reflection loosely as “thinking about something”, using reflection for personal development is not a process that comes naturally to most people. Reflection requires challenging our assumptions, re-evaluating what we know, letting go of our long-held, cherished beliefs, and previous interpretations until a new one can be formed. 

I think of Reflection is a process of dialogue with ourselves, with the narratives we create, with our own insights, and with others as we explore the validity of our newly developed ideas and behaviors.

Making the most of reflective journaling

Developing a habit of reflection may be challenging. We may also feel that we are not getting enough out of the time and effort devoted to reflection. Below I offer some suggestions to make the most of a reflective practice.

1. Prepare for reflection

To get the most out of our reflections, we need to create the time, space, and mental clarity required for it. Choose a comfortable place and time where you are not likely to be interrupted. Give yourself a few minutes to just freely write without concern about what you are writing. Do not worry about coherence, spelling, or grammar. Just write down whatever comes to your mind without judgment. If your mind jumps between thoughts, let it jump. This is not your reflection, this is a time to clear your mind and prepare for your reflection. Writer and creative coach Julia Cameronsuggests people interested in being more creative should do this type of free writing every morning to clear the mind and open space to more creative thoughts. After you have finished your five minutes of free writing, put it aside. You do not need to come back to it.

2. Write it down

You may be wondering why bother writing, as you can just as easily think about your experiences in your head. Writing and other types of visual language such as images, shapes, doodles, and conceptual maps facilitate thinking and learning in several ways. First, putting things down on paper (or on a screen) extends our mind and increases our ability to work with complex issues. Think about counting using your fingers as support, or writing down directions to a new location as opposed to memorizing it. Our fingers and paper act as extensions of our mind, releasing cognitive power to focus on other things, as we know that the information will not be lost. When we put thoughts down on paper through writing or drawing, we allow our minds to release that information from our short-term memory and free cognitive power to organize, examine, and reflect on its deeper implications. 

Putting things down on paper (or screen) helps us achieve coherence by organizing, clarifying, and sequencing our thoughts. When we are thinking in our head, we are free to change topics, drop lines of reasoning, get distracted with something else, and often get stuck in a loop ruminating the same thought repeatedly. When we record our experience, we can step back, look at it, know how we understand it, and challenge our own thinking.

Writing also captures thoughts for later consideration. As we continue with this process day after day, we are able to notice patterns over time and track our progress. As we are reflecting, we may have an insight or thought that if not written down will be forgotten. As we revisit our notes, we can capture and revisit those insights. By recording our thoughts, we are able to provide ourselves with feedback, relate to past and future, and respond to our own thinking.

3. Give it time

The process of reflecting on experiences is a powerful tool towards learning and growth. But that does not mean that every time we reflect, we gain big insights. The process towards new understanding is not linear and predictable. The outcomes may not be immediate, but they will come. And that is why it is important to think about reflective journaling as a practice, or a regular and consistent activity.

Why Reflective Journaling

I have practiced reflective journaling daily for almost thirty years. I started a journal after I read Julia Cameron’s “The Artist Way” and was intrigued by the idea of morning pages, a daily ritual of writing by hand whatever comes to mind upon waking as a tool to increase creativity. As I started to appreciate the journaling experience, I began to explore the literature on reflective practice and experiment with more structured approaches to writing and reflecting. Reflective practice grew on me and became the primary mechanism through which I make sense of issues, sooth my emotions, and plan for the future. 

My book, Working in a Multicultural World, draws on reflective practice to develop a series of exercises to develop intercultural competence. As a coach, I often suggest reflective exercises to my clients. In this site, I am sharing many practices I have come to like and use for myself or with coaching clients and students. Reflection is a very personal activity. While some thrive on structure, others find too much structure stifling. I encourage you to experience with different practices to see what works best for you. Enjoy!

To know what reflective journaling is and how to get started, go here.

Imagining a metaphor may help your New Year’s resolution to stick

The approach of a new year is a time where many of us consider our current situations and engage in new resolutions. That is the time when we vow to get in shape, save more money, learn a new skill, or let go of bad habits. After an unprecedented year like 2020, the desire for change may be stronger than ever. The pandemic has resulted in an increase in psychological distressdecrease in motivation, and even weight gain. For many, the end of 2020 brings hope for a better year and a fresh new set of resolutions.

However, more often than not, new year’s resolutions do not stick and are forgotten by February. In our research on international students and immigrants sensemaking during the COVID-19 pandemic we came to appreciate the power of metaphors as a common tool for research, coaching, and therapeutic practice. Lakoff and Johnson, in their book “Metaphors we live by” suggested that metaphors allow understanding one kind of thing in terms of another.  By combining and reorganizing abstract and concrete features, metaphors influence thought processes, attitudes, beliefs, and actions. Metaphors helps us make sense of situations and stimulate new actions by making our experience and desirestangible, and helping us see assumptions, behaviors and resources that are likely to support our goals and desires for the new year. 

Organization development practitioners and coaches have long used metaphors as an intervention strategy, offering clients a metaphor to help them gain insights into their situations. A fundamental assumption guiding this line of work is that language not only represents but also creates reality. In our research with international students and immigrants during COVID-19, we have used principles of Clean Language and Integral Coaching to use metaphors as a way to help participants find ways to deal with their challenges. We have found that metaphors help individuals find tangible ways to achieve their goals and they feel more empowered through the process. If you have a bit of imagination, you can take advantage of this method for some self-reflection to make your resolutions stick.

4-step plan for using Imaginative Metaphors for your New Year’s resolution:

  • Identify a goal or desire under your control: The goal should describe what you want in positive terms.  It should be something that has not yet happened, contains a desire or need, and does not contain any reference to the problem. For example, getting in shape is a positive outcome that focus on what is wanted and is more powerful than focusing on what is not wanted, such as losing weight, or stop being sedentary. This is your resolution.
  • Imagine a metaphor that depicts the way you will feel as you achieve that goal. Elaborate what this goal means to you. Maybe getting in shape means going up the stairs with ease. Then ask yourself “And that is like what?” For example, being shape feels like a well-oiled machine.
  • Fully develop the metaphor focusing on details and a felt sense for the metaphor. Ask yourself “What kind of (metaphor) is that (metaphor)?” and “Is there anything else about that (metaphor)?”. For example, what kind of machine, is that well-oiled machine? And is there anything else about this well-oiled machine? You may also ask: whereabouts are you in this metaphor?
  • Identify what needs to happen for the metaphor to become reality. To be achievable, goals need to be broken down in small achievable steps and clear articulate a doing. Ask yourself – What needs to happen? And can that happen? Repeat those questions until it is what needs to happen is clear and achievable. For example, it may be that a possible action plan is to take the stairs every day rather than the taking the elevator. 

We are all ready for a better 2021. Imaginative metaphor can help refreshing our thinking and finding new ways to achieve our goals.

Making Sense of the Pandemic

I have spent most of my career studying how expatriates and immigrants make sense of new, foreign environments. When moving to a new country, individuals are suddenly confronted with a society that works by different rules. Their ability to understand situations is compromised because what they believe to be “normal” is no longer the norm, which then prompts a process of sensemaking. In these novel situations, the skills to succeed, connect, make friends, and conduct business are often different and require a new way of thinking and behaving. 

This scenario is not unlike what most of us are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic. The unprecedented measures taken by governments around the world to curb the spread of the virus require individuals to change highly habitual behaviors. Some people need to learn to work from home and connect with others virtually, while others need to reconsider their careers and lifestyle as their jobs disappear or their businesses struggle to survive.

The process of making sense of new environments is closely connected with our identity and highly influenced by the people around us and the narratives to which we are exposed. Based on this research, I identify a few lessons that may help individuals better adjust to the changes resulting from the current pandemic, as well as to help organizations better support their employees and clients.  

1. Craft a New Identity for Yourself

The ways we understand the world around us are fundamentally linked to how we see ourselves. As we grapple to make sense of changes in our surroundings, we need not only to modify our behavior to adjust to the new reality, but also to reconsider our identities. And, as we adapt, and re-evaluate our identities, this in turn influences how we feel about the situation, the decisions we make, and ultimately, the actions we take. For example, if I think of myself as a caring teacher that builds personal connections with my students through free-flowing discussions and informal conversations, what does online teaching mean to my identity as a caring teacher? How can I rethink myself as a teacher in ways that will allow me to move forward and maintain these principles that I value? How I answer these questions will influence my acceptance of the new teaching environment and the actions I take.

It would be an oversight by organizations to ignore the effect that this pandemic is having on workers’ identity and their abilities to process change. As the world navigates through the ensuing COVID-19 crisis—and once we are on the other side of this—it is essential that organizations and leaders take the time to help their employees (and society at large) to work through issues in order to come to terms with these major changes. This is particularly true for changes that will have a long-term impact as jobs disappear or are significantly restructured.  

2. Be Aware of Your Influence on Others

When individuals are unable to make sense of a new situation, they rely on others deemed more experienced or knowledgeable to help guide their interpretation of what is happening and how their skills and value are perceived. People in a position of influence over others (managers, teachers, politicians, experts, celebrities) can have a significant impact on how individuals make sense, cope, and act in situations of uncertainty by providing them with cues about their role in the new situation. And so, as we interact with others through our professional roles, it is crucial to be mindful of the messages we are sending. These messages are not only about the external situation (e.g., how the pandemic is affecting the organization), but also about how each person is valued and treated within this new and evolving reality. 

Moreover, the pandemic has raised our awareness of the importance of some occupational groups (e.g., frontline personnel) while other occupations may be overlooked (e.g., wait staff). As some of us feel pressed to attend to multiple demands, it is sometimes tempting to focus on what needs to be done, ignoring our role in supporting others through this transition. Pause and consider: have you failed to recognize  anyone that needs your support in finding their role through this transition?

3. Include Multiple Voices in the Construction of Master Narratives

As we grapple to make sense of what is happening around us and our responses to these changes, we seek input, not only from others we trust, but also from society at large through “master narratives”. Master narratives are shared cultural scripts that tell us how to be good members of society. They are the stories we share and read on various media outlets that tell us what is expected of us. During this coronavirus crisis, people’s experiences can vary significantly: some live alone and are feeling isolated; others are finding themselves in a crowded home and crave solitude; some are unable to work and do not know what to do with their time; others are juggling a full work schedule with home responsibilities. As some narratives become popular (e.g., “Reach out and connect, “ or “Take advantage of this time to learn a new skill.”), those that feel these emerging master narratives do not resonate with them, or are unattainable, may feel excluded. Thus, it is vital to consider all perspectives and give all segments of society a voice when constructing these master narratives so that they contribute towards a more inclusive society—not only now, but as we enter a post-pandemic world. 

This article was originally published as part of the Sprott Business Insights series by the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University.”