The Role of Reflective Practice: Letting Emotions Be A Guide

Have you ever been told that there is no room for emotions in your workplace or your professional life? This may be something that you have grown to believe, or something that is reinforced within your workplace culture. Way back to the times of Plato, who we know was a big proponent of the mind and the processes of rational thought and reason, emotions tended to be seen as animalistic, involuntary, irrational, unprofessional and as the antithesis to rational and intellectual thought. As professionals, we have often been told to suppress our emotions, keep a stiff upper lip, and not show our vulnerability in the workplace. But when you deal with people, complex situations, stress, deadlines, interpersonal issues, and all the tough stuff that being a professional can bring, it’s not always easy: you’re human.

I’m going to talk a little bit emotions in the context of reflection and the reflective practice. The Latin word reflectere means to bend back or to turn back, or in English, to reflect. Think about when you look into a mirror – it does precisely this. It makes visible to you what is visible to others, and makes you visible to yourself.

Reflection, or the reflective practice is intended to do just this. A friend of mine, Anne-Marie, who specializes in the study of reflection created her own definition of reflection: “Reflection is a deliberate emotional and intellectual process in which self-aware learners introspectively analyze their understanding of the world by drawing on acquired knowledge and information to critically evaluate their experience. From these processes, the learner is able to produce rational thought and use this to inform current and future action.”

I asked Anne-Marie why she came up with such a complex definition of reflection that seemed to incorporate so many elements. Anne-Marie explained to me that in her study of reflection, she came across many factors:

·       Reflection is a process where the person doing the reflecting becomes a learner

·       Reflection is a conscious process; recognizing that as human beings we are naturally reflexive, but actively engaging in reflection takes it further

·       Reflection requires you to consider his or her own place in the world as well as the constructs of the world they have created

·       Reflection invites you to bring in previous knowledge, such as knowledge that is acquired through field-specific education

·       Reflection requires a self-probing process where you are constantly asking yourself questions

·       Reflection requires you to be tough on yourself, providing yourself constructive criticism

·       Reflection happens with the intent that it will produce a cognitive response

·       Reflection is a tool to adjust the course for the future

Reflection, then, is a loaded term, but one I am intrigued to discuss through a series of posts about the reflective practice. Reflective practice is an incredibly important part of my life as a medical practitioner. Quite often, in the Emergency Room, I come across people, situations, and medical cases that I need to learn from.

Donald Schön is the leading scholar on reflection in the context of professional practice. Schön’s “reflection-in-action” model involves reacting to inconsistencies in a situation by rethinking one’s own tacit knowledge and reframing the situation with one’s intuitive understanding and applying that to the experience. He suggests that reflection-in-action is integral to the development of professional expertise. He believes that reflection-in-action draws upon one’s competencies and requires the application of understanding to experience and a consideration between one’s thoughts and actions in the process.

After every shift in the Emergency Room, I do my best to engage in reflective practice to review my day. I consider all the patients I saw that day, what they told me, what I derived from them, and what my course of action was in regards to their medical situation. I then recall what I learned in my training as a medical doctor, or the disciplinary knowledge I had acquired that had led me to make the choices I did when treating a patient.

I ask myself questions like:

·       Where did I succeed? / Where did I fail?

·       What was the outcome for the patient and how did I affect that outcome?

·       Could I have taken a different approach to the treatment of my patient?

·       What could I have done differently?

·       How will I adjust my practice going forward to use this as a learning experience?

By reflecting, I don’t just let my medical practice pass me by. I take each and every opportunity to build myself as a professional, consider all I’ve known until now, and to introspectively build my knowledge about myself and my approach as a medical doctor.

Every profession lends itself to the reflective process, and every experience lends itself to a learning opportunity through the reflective process. Once you understand reflection and incorporate it into your life, and professional practice, you open yourself up to being your own best teacher.

I’ll be posting blog posts throughout the next months that will talk about various aspects of reflection: what is the connection between emotion and cognitive thought? What are some methods to engage in reflective practice? How can I create a work culture that encourages reflection? Is reflection really possible for every profession?

I’ll leave you today with a bit of a challenge: I’d like to be observant of the experiences, conversations, and situations you come across throughout your day that lend themselves to a reflection and begin to warm yourself up to the idea of active reflection. We’ll work together to present ways you can take those opportunities to reflect and turn them into meaningful learning experiences.

“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” -Confucius