Reflection in Still Mountain Lake WP copy

When I was ten years old, I was given a three-inch reflecting telescope – the kind in which a concave mirror focuses light, bounces it into a series of mirrors and ultimately into the eyepiece. I could see the moon as if I was holding it in my hand.

Now a telescope is being constructed on Mauna Kea in Hawaii that will have a 30-metre mirror! Why spend huge amounts of money, intelligence and passion to build a bigger mirror? Just this: to see beyond what our everyday eyes can see.

Isn’t that a big part of what we do as coaches? We help our clients see what they have not seen about their environments, goals, lives, and possibilities.

A challenge in building giant telescopes is that earth’s gravitational pull distorts the huge mirrors enough to create inaccurate images. Care must be taken to continually adjust the mirrors, and to prevent the slightest dirt from damaging the reflection.

Reflective Practice Highlights Distortions in Coaching

Consider these instances:

  1. A coach became frustrated with his client’s progress toward agreed-upon objectives. The coach’s intense values about completing objectives had prevented him from recognizing that his client’s world had changed dramatically during the engagement. Distortion: substituting his values for his client’s.
  2. Another coach felt she and the client were swirling around, yet the client was pleased with the monthly conversations. Nothing changed. Distortion: a shared difficulty in prioritizing.
  3. Another coach was working with a young executive. After the executive received difficult feedback from her CEO, the coaching relationship deteriorated. Through supervision, the coach realized he was unconsciously caring for the executive as if he was her father. Distortion: blurring of personal/professional boundaries.

Challenging Theories in Action

Reflective practice opens ourselves to fresh information about what we see, feel, think, want and do. It calls us to see ourselves and our clients as accurately as possible before, during and after the coaching conversation. In short, it is a process of polishing and correcting our mirrors. Why is this important beyond initial coach training?

In ICF-approved programs, we learn 11 competencies and related skills and behaviors. Both Donald Schon, in “Educating the Reflective Practitioner”, and Grady McGonagill in “The Coach as Reflective Practitioner,” observe that this process provides us with “espoused theories” as distinct from “theories in action”. The latter are the theories, and by extension behaviors, which we actually apply in the moment of coaching. Schon and others observed that professional workers described their work one way and actually did it another way. Reflective practice helps bring espoused and in-action knowledge closer together over time and it is never complete because our mirrors, like those on Mauna Kea, are constantly shifting.

How can we develop a reflective practice? One approach is to work with a person trained in guiding reflective practice.  In the world of coaching, this person is referred to as a Coaching Supervisor, someone with substantial understanding of both coaching competencies and additional experience with coaching psychology, dynamics of relationships, and various tools for deep reflection. As a result of this work, an “internal supervisor” develops within us to observe our coaching in real time and keep the mirrors clean and aligned.

Reflective Exercises

Find a mirror, physical or in your mind. Take a moment and gaze into your reflection: What do you feel good about in your coaching?

What is unsettling in your coaching right now? A client session that didn’t go as planned? A client relationship that is suddenly not as comfortable as it was?

What distortions might be creeping into your mirrors? Fatigue? Fast pace? Surety rather than curiosity?

What boundaries are in need of attention? Might you be performing roles that are not yours to perform? Are you trying too hard to make your client happy?

What other questions are you sitting with and where could you go for answers?

Attending regularly to these questions will attune you to the benefits of reflective practice.


This article was written by Sam Magill, Sr. and published in the April/May 2012 issue of Coachlink magazine