Developing self-awareness and reflective practice

‘Neurons that fire together wire together.’

This was a phrase written by Canadian neuropsychologist Donald Hebb in 1949. He said that for each experience we encounter, our feelings, thoughts, sensations and muscle actions become embedded in the network of brain cells that produce experience. Each time you repeat a particular thought or action, you strengthen the connection between a set of brain cells or neurons.

As we go through life some connections and pathways get stronger, some get weaker and new ones are formed. Practising a new activity makes a particular pathway stronger and therefore, potentially, enables us to improve at that activity.

In order to change, first we need to become aware of our conscious or unconscious patterns of behaviour.

Methods of reflection

I have been keeping a journal since 2011, to chart my own personal development journey. I have recently re-examined my own 82 pages of 42,000 words gathered over five years, with a new and informed critical approach. I can see how certain themes and patterns emerge over time, which is useful to bring to the surface for conscious examination.

I encourage clients to keep a journal as we embark on our coaching journey together. I have discovered however, writing a journal is not for everyone. I have a client who doesn’t enjoy writing so we discussed recording thoughts on their phone. This is another method I use for reflection, particularly when I’m out walking the dogs and random thoughts and ideas pop into my consciousness, a fun way to capture ideas in the moment.

During my studies at Henley Business School, we were introduced to other methods of reflection. For example, ‘The spectrum of reflective practice’ framework, which covers the following five areas:

1. Reflection on experience
2. Reflection in action
3. The internal supervisor
4. Reflection within the moment
5. Mindfulness

I decided to test this model on my own behaviour after running a one-to-one coaching session with a client who had recently been turned down for a new role and was consequently feeling low.

Case study

Sally Baker is a senior manager at an international company, based in the Midlands. She heads a multi-disciplined team, travels overseas regularly, and interacts with people at all levels, from the CEO to new recruits.

Since joining the organisation seven years ago, Sally had always had a clear career path and felt she knew where she was headed. But, last year, a major restructure changed this and left her struggling to see any development opportunities. She felt the only option was to leave.

1) Reflection on experience

Before the coaching session, I planned what we were going to work on based on our previous meeting. However, when speaking to Sally, I quickly realised she needed to get clarity around a critical decision. Instead of working through the original plan, Sally wanted to focus on what was really pressing at the time – an important career decision.

2) Reflection in action

I could see Sally was reacting quickly and emotionally in the moment. I noticed she kept using certain words and phrases, which I brought to her conscious awareness. This enabled Sally to start thinking differently and created a change of state, which influences our reactions. Giving clients the space and time to talk, with attentive listening, can be all that is required for shifts in thinking and subsequent behavioural change to take place.

3) The internal supervisor

Sally was making several assumptions so I asked for her gut feeling, which led to recognition that their manager probably knows some things but cannot disclose. My intention was to enable her to move from emotional reasoning to rational reasoning.

4) Reflection within the moment

Sally needed to have a difficult conversation with her boss so we worked together using a four-step model to help her prepare for the conversation. To gain confidence in delivery, she delivered the statement out loud so she could hear what the words sounded like.
To take it one stage further, I introduced the meta-mirror technique, which literally encourages individuals to see things from a different perspective, and to prepare and rehearse a conversation. This is an embodied technique so Sally could feel and experience what it could be like for her manager. Sally found this a powerful exercise, stating they hadn’t ever thought what it would be like from her boss’s position.

5) Mindfulness

During our coaching session, there were moments of silence where both of us felt comfortable to sit quietly in this reflective space. It is important to give people time to think and allow unconscious thoughts to bubble to the surface, enabling deeper insight to be gained.

Think before taking action

This was a challenging coaching assignment. Sally was on the brink of resigning from her job, due to a company restructure, yet I knew the sponsor wanted to keep her.

I recognise from my own personal history that I’m a natural risk taker and will happily step into the unknown, tending to trust my gut instinct. I find clients enjoy listening to stories of overcoming obstacles, challenges and adversity. Yet, what if a client acting in haste, without stopping to think about the consequences?

The following questions helped Sally to think things through before taking action.

• What might you have to give up to achieve your goal?
• What will you lose and what will you gain?
• Is this what you specifically want or a way of getting something else that’s important to you?
• What larger outcome is this part of?
• How does this fit into who you are and your major beliefs?

Following the coaching session, the sponsor provided an update that Sally found coaching very useful and has decided to stay and support the organisation through the restructure.

If you would like to know more Sally’s coaching experience which included a ‘Walk and Talk’ coaching session, please check out my blog post


My objective from this coaching session was to give my client some valuable thinking time to gain clarity around their decision-making. By bringing the language clients use into their awareness, the spotlight is shone on their thinking enabling the possibility of reframing, and shifts in thinking and behaviour to occur.

Earlier in the year, I delivered an online coaching programme and received the following feedback from one participant about their experience of reflective practice.

‘I’ve taken many things away from the programme but one of the most beneficial things I learned was how useful it is to reflect. Reflecting on my actions, feelings and body language has helped me to identify patterns in how I react to things’.

I would actively encourage anyone to keep a journal of their thoughts, feelings, ideas, goals. This can be achieved by using a notebook, a Word document, or capturing notes or voice recordings on smartphones. It is through reflection that we can interpret our experiences, pay attention to the insights it brings and develop behavioural flexibility.

If you are interested in your own personal development journey, I offer a complimentary 15-minute coaching session using FaceTime, Skype or Zoom to explore where you are now and what you would like to achieve over the coming weeks, months, or years. To find out more, without obligation, please email or call 01252 792811.