Training Journal


“promoting excellence & ethics in coaching”

Spotlight on critical reflection – Mary Holmes

Life is tough, old solutions based on repeating existing patterns of behaviour and traditional thinking will not sustain businesses. To be successful today, demands resilience and the ability to handle conflicting  demands, while generating creative approaches to delivering services in resource-constrained situations. As coaches and developers, we can foster resilience and creativity in our clients by encouraging critical reflection; it can be the catalyst for learning that drives action, based on contextual sensitivity and an appreciation of the reality of the situation.

Critical reflection can enable clients to learn about themselves, others and their organisations; allowing them to act, based upon a deeper understanding of the complex reality in which they are operating.  Coaches and developers can facilitate critical reflection to help clients make sense of their context, thereby encouraging action and learning as a cyclical approach to work.

Managers and leaders may need to be persuaded of the value of reflection and as coaches and developers, we can show how it influences their ability to learn and make sound decisions within a challenging environment. Personal experience suggests that managers may not reflect because:

-       they are unsure of where to focus attention and what questions to ask;

-       feeling pressured and lacking the time.

To overcome these barriers we can offer:

-       a model for critical reflection for application with clients;

-       a review of time-frames for reflection to look back, forwards and in the present (just-in-time learning).

This article explains a model for critical reflection and provides practical examples of its application within the contexts of coaching, action learning and personal development.

Critical reflection model

The critical reflection model provides clear areas in which reflection can be focused and within each area of the model, questions can inform the reflection.

Critical reflection can encourage people to “learn, not only about the task and themselves and their own practice but about the ‘micro-politics of organisations’

how you get things done around here.” (Trehan & Pedler, 2009). Vince (2002) emphasises that to develop our performance, we need to recognise and seek to understand the emotion and politics in situations, as well as the rational and logical.

By seeking to understand the emotion and politics we are moving into the messy territory that is the reality of organisational life; messy because we have to deal with feelings (our own and those of others), behaviours (certainly not always rational), assumptions, hidden agendas and power struggles. Effective performance and personal resilience depends upon raising our awareness and understanding of these factors and being able to adapt and be responsive in our behaviours.

The model brings together four areas (Table 1), and we can shift the spotlight across these areas to test our understanding of each and to consider different perspectives. In working with this model, it is important to have a wealth of questions for each area. What follows are examples of questions that coaches and developers can use in working with the model; the questions posed all take the time-frame of looking back on a situation.

Model of critical reflection

Process and decision-making: placing attention on how the situation was handled and how decisions were made: one may ask questions about:

-       how was the issue tackled?

-       what tools and techniques were applied?

-       what planning and risk assessment was undertaken?

-       was innovative thinking encouraged, if so how?

-       how were decisions made and who was involved?

Systems and culture: this attends to organisational aspects and their bearing on the handling of the issue. One may ask questions about:

-       the impact of organisational policies upon how the issue was addressed;

-       the values and principles (implicit and explicit) that influenced decisions;

-       how did power dynamics within and between groups and individuals influence the overall approach?

Relational: here attention is on interactions and power. One may ask:

-       who was involved and how? (this may raise issues about who was excluded)

-       what emotions were triggered?

-       how were the different responses and feelings of people and teams taken into account?

Self:  attending to one’s on-going awareness. One may ask:

-       what can I learn about my resilience and emotional control?

-       how did I seek to influence throughout the process?

-       what assumptions did I hold in making certain decisions?

Having explored each area of the model in isolation, you can then consider their interactions, as illustrated by the arrows. For example, you may explore the link between relational factors and process. This may highlight how different people/ groups are included/ excluded from decision making processes (for example: differences between staff groups; by seniority; part-time, full-time shift workers; minority groups)   .

In explaining the model the time-frame used was of looking back on a situation. However, reflection can be in different time-frames, so let us see how we can reflect in three different time-frames.

Reflecting – 3 different time-frames

Effective reflection in the workplace is an ongoing process if it is to drive learning and improve performance. As coaches and developers, we should encourage our clients to reflect back, reflect forwards and to be able to reflect in the present (during a situation – in the ‘here and now’). Within each of these time-frames one can cover all or some areas of the model and the inter-relationship between them, as illustrated in the critical reflection model.

Reflecting back, or reflecting-on-action (Schon, 1987) is often the most familiar time-frame for reflection. It ensures that we look back and seek out any learning from a situation or issue. We can then take this learning forward and apply it to an issue as it progresses, and also into new and similar situations. For example, if one learns that the organisational culture is resistant to highly participative approaches to decision making, and yet one’s own principles value engagement, one can move forward with the understanding of the need to seek ways of influencing the resistance to such approaches.

Reflecting forward is a key method to translate learning from reflecting back into action. Planning and preparation can help us to seek ways to apply our learning and ensure that we consider relevant aspects from the four critical reflection areas. For example, it may be useful to use prior knowledge of colleagues to consider who may support and who may block proposals; here one may adopt a force-field analysis to consider those who may support and those who may block. The force-field analysis will help us to consider the pressures for and against, enabling us to plan strategies for maximising the support and face potential blocks (in simple terms, who is for me and who against).

Reflection-in-action (Schon, 1987), is the ultimate in just-in-time learning. Having honed one’s skills of reflection in a less frenetic setting, then it is possible to apply them in the heat of the moment and handle a potentially challenging situation. For example, it may enable one to spot and respond to a negative emotion in a colleague or to be aware of the power dynamics at play within a meeting. Such factors can go unspotted in the heat of discussion, yet they are highly significant in the potential impact that they will have on a final decision.

Questioning is fundamental to effective reflection, and is therefore a key driver in our learning. It is important to inquire into what is being learned from reflection and how it has increased understanding within each of the four areas. Questions, either for ourselves or to others, may include:

How will this learning influence your actions in relation to a current issue and to future behaviour? What can you do to become a highly skilled critical reflector? How can collective reflection enhance performance? What are the opportunities to encourage and embed collective critical reflection in how we work together? 

Critical reflection in action

Having taken a look at the model, questions for each area of the model and the three time-frames, we will now look at their application in three settings. The purpose here is to illustrate how critical reflection can apply in a one-to-one setting, with a group (specifically an action learning set) and for self-development; the examples cited below illustrate the different time-frames.

A coaching conversation:

here we take the example of reflecting forward with a client in preparation for an important meeting. The client has previously discussed a lack of confidence in handling important events. He now wishes to work on his preparation for a project group meeting, where he wants to persuade members to consider a radical new approach.  The purpose of the session is not to check out his thinking about the approach, but to focus on preparing for the meeting.

Together the coach and client may choose to initially focus on the top two quadrants of the critical reflection model and their inter-relationship, as a way of exploring the relevant positive factors within the context of both the organisation and the processes adopted by the project group. For example, how may the proposal be couched or pursued to increase the likelihood of a successful outcome? Let’s take a very practical example, if the group members like to make decisions based upon sound evidence and practical application in similar situations, then the client needs a wealth of relevant information at his finger tips and may use this to inform how he presents the idea to the group. If the organisation is currently paying significant attention to ethical decision-making and engagement of stakeholders, then the client may wish to consider how adopting this approach will play to that agenda.

Placing a focus on relational aspects will enable the client to understand the potential dynamics within the group, and beyond; considering how these may influence people’s responses to this proposal. This may give space for some real work on ‘stepping into the shoes of others’ to understand how they may feel and what they may think about the proposal. By raising his own awareness of such relational factors, he can consider how they can be levered to his advantage.

With all this opened up, focusing on himself may set the scene for some serious planning about his personal approach on the day – what does he want to be thinking, feeling and doing? So he is using a full exploration of the context to apply a solutions-focused way of planning for how he will be in the meeting. Depending upon the client, this may offer the scope for some real practice of handling aspects of the meeting.

Action learning set:

The model and time-frames can be applied both to an individual’s issues and to understanding how the set is working.  In sets, negative behaviours may be exhibited which impact upon the working of the set (for example: lateness, non-attendance, poor engagement). Each of these can offer scope for critical reflection; deepening the set’s understanding of what is happening in the room can improve overall effectiveness of the set, while also raising awareness of the organisational context and developing each person’s ability to critically reflect.

Example:  A group of managers from across an organisation were undergoing major change, the model enabled them to become aware of the nature of the change and its impact on particular staff groups. They identified that one group was increasingly feeling isolated; this gave them the challenge of what to do with this understanding. They shared it with the executive team as feedback from their learning; the executives took action to engage more effectively with certain staff groups. Thus reflective learning  influenced behaviour and actions more widely across the organisation.

Developing the developer:  

Developers need to be highly sensitive to emotion and power within the organisational context, as these factors impact upon learning and action. For those working externally as developers and coaches this understanding must be developed quickly, using the range of experiences and inter-actions with the organisation to check out the formal story. The dimensions of the model and their inter-relationship provide a comprehensive approach to asking pertinent questions and of processing our experiences. Here is a personal example.

Recently I was invited to meet with the HR Director of a major company. He was keen to tell me about the recently adopted OD strategy that included a range of principles and behaviours distilled from a large consultation process. I felt confident that there was a congruence between what was espoused and the real experiences of employees and others. How? The care shown by the PA in setting up the meeting and the way I was greeted by reception staff on my arrival; their enthusiasm and positive attitude was infectious.  This was some useful just-in-time learning and also a basis for coaching supervision as I established a coaching contract with the organisation.

Critical reflection – practical tools

As already indicated critical reflection and inquiry can be undertaken both individually and collectively. Here are just a few simple tools that can be useful in applying the model in practice:


There is a wealth of evidence that storytelling and the use of metaphor can be powerful in stimulating change within individuals, team and organisations. In working with the four quadrants of critical reflection, we can encourage the telling and sharing of stories. For some developers, self-disclosure is one technique achieved by telling stories to encourage openness in cultures that close down emotions and any perceived form of weakness. Stories that encourage people to open up can lead to important insights across the four dimensions. Metaphors, both one’s own and those used by others, are important in seeking out the unconscious assumptions we may hold about ourselves, others and the organisation in which we work.

Writing and drawing:

Some people find that writing and drawing can open up reflection, both looking back and forward. Using this may offer people different ways of accessing the four quadrants.

Practical tools that enable people to engage with critical reflection in a creative way can be powerful. These creative approaches can open up different ways of collective sharing and learning. This can then lead to action based upon an exploration of the context, a consideration of the micro-politics and an appreciation of the relational aspects; all this contributes to enhanced self-awareness.

Moving forward

This article argues that critical reflection is a fundamental skill for continual learning and adaptation.  Leaders and developers need to be adaptable and flexible and be able to respond to new and different challenges. Critical reflection is the foundation for understanding ourselves, others and appreciating the context in which we are working.

Having engaged with critical reflection you are now challenged to ask yourself the ‘so what’ question. What thoughts and feelings have you experienced while reading this article? How would you wish to take this forward into action? To do this, what is the first step and how will you learn from that?  Whatever comes next, I trust it will involve learning.


Bloom, N., Propper, C. Seiler, S. & Van Reesen J. CentrePiece. Winter 2009/10

Schon, D.A. (1987). Educating the reflective practitioner. San Fransisco. Jossey-Bass.

Trehan, K. & Pedler, M. (2009). Animating critical action learning: process-based leadership and management development. Action Learning, research & practice, 6, (1), March, pp35049.

Vince, R. (2002). Organising reflection. Management Learning, 3, (1), pp63-78.


de Haan Erik (2005). Learning with colleagues. UK, Palgrave Macmillan.

de Haan, Erik and Sills, Charlotte eds (2012). Coaching Relationships: the relational coaching fieldbook. Oxfordshire, Libri Publishing.

Hawkins, Peter (2011). Leadership Team Coaching. UK, Kogan Press. 

About Dr Mary Holmes: Development Solutions

Mary offers coaching for individuals, teams and pairs. She provides training & CPD for internal coaches, mentors and supervision. Recently she completed the development of a Masters-level module on coaching and mentoring.

As an Ashridge accredited coach, she draw on a comprehensive range of approaches to maximise the opportunities for beneficial change.