8 ways to create reflective learning space beyond coaching sessions by Sue Young

123rf.com (c)  Valentin Simeonov

123rf.com (c) Valentin Simeonov

Just this past week, where I was facilitating a peer learning group of managers from across the public sector, one individual proclaimed emphatically “I’m so busy juggling all the demands and reacting, making quick decisions, I just don’t have the time to stop and think about the important priorities I want to be spending time on. I’ve just been promoted and what I am doing was previously 3 people’s jobs”.  This is a common theme that comes up for todays’ managers in large organisations, both private and public.

I find myself saying more often to new clients, some of who don’t know what to expect from coaching, it’s about creating space for you to think. In a fast moving highly pressurised work environment and then going home to Life and family demands, most managers relate to this idea very readily.

I thought it worth reflecting in this blog on some of the more practical things I do with clients in sessions that help them create that space for themselves, taking that into their day to day way of working.

1. Reflective thinking in advance of and following coaching sessions. Prepared minds are much better placed when coming to coaching sessions to take their thinking deeper and further forward in the session. It’s about taking their learning into their on-going way of working. This can be a range of ways, for example asking the client some simple questions to reflect on and capture notes on what they’ve been trying out, what’s workedd well, what not so well, what would they have done differently if they were to do it again, and what they are taking forward from their experience.

2. More consciously observing and reviewing their experience in relation to an area of their leadership they are seeking to develop. One of my recent clients inclined towards introversion was seeking to raise their contribution and profile in meetings. After talking it through he took away two areas to progress

  • Seeking to spend time with individuals he was seeking to influence as key stakeholders to understand more about their priorities and needs and connect what he wanted from them to their interests. This helped him take others needs into account in his plans and take more from others knowledge and experience into the business case he was putting together. Just as importantly these conversations help build broader consensus, as well as building important working relationships.

  • Plan beforehand for the 2 to 3 points he wanted to communicate in the meeting. This may be as part of a formal slot, or a more opportunistic moment in the conversation where the point he wanted to get across linked in to what somebody else was putting forward.

This approach also played to his strengths and style where he was more comfortable with individuals and small groups. An integral part of the Task was that he more consciously observe what he and others did and the impact of those behaviours

3. Some selective reading or watching on-line videos (Ted Talks is a frequent source) between sessions in areas of direct relevance to areas of greatest interest to them. I always encourage clients to critique from a reflective perspective of how the key points and features resonate with their experience, i.e. what are the main points of value they take, and how that links back to their context and identified development priorities. What are they drawing out in terms of how it connects to their preferred leadership approach? This can be as much what they do not like, as well as their aspirations. It helps managers choose and build more explicitly their leadership approach

4.  Recommend they set aside times on a regular basis to have ‘meetings’ with themselves. Most Managers are so occupied with their ever growing and demanding ‘to do’ list they feel it's almost indulgent to take time for themselves. This may require some reframing conversations to help them see it as an essential part of their leadership role to find this quality thinking time. Once they have gained some first hand experience of taking this time, they become more committed to achieving the felt benefits

5. Keep a journal / log.  Capturing personal notes after key events and thoughts on priority issues can be a useful personal review and earthing process. This is a valuable self expression that can clarify thinking. The key thing here is to fully express without vetting. It’s only for their eyes! This increases self awareness and ability to get to the bottom of what’s really going on for us.

I find it’s important to find ways to keep a journal that work for them. For example for some of my clients who do a lot of travelling and spend time in airport lounges, that can be a good ‘space’ to capture some reflective notes. Mobile devices and the world of ‘apps’ can greatly assist with this! Others prefer to set aside time at the start or the close of the week to make their notes.

6. Extension of process frameworks used in coaching sessions into working practice

Many of the frameworks and tools we use in our coaching sessions can be readily used by the client in their on-going work. This includes sharing with colleagues and their team.

For example in working with managers on their development goals I will often use 5 cue questions against each goal they set

  • Where have I been?

  • Where am I now?

  • Where do I want to go? (How will I know I’ve arrived?)

  • How am I going to get there?

  • Next steps

As well as talking through that in the session, it may be helpful for the client to do some personal reflection on the questions outside of sessions as well as to use that structure to help them plan generally and think about important issues.

7. Plan to have a conversation with a person inside or outside the organisation they wouldn't normally talk to. This can be to find out more about an area with they don’t have much day to day dealing but impacts on the whole business. This can help stretch into bigger organisational, or external relationships, provide fresh perspectives and opportunities from increased exposure, as well as exchange and transfer of experience and knowledge. It can also lead to innovation from increasing cross-silo exchange and thinking.

8. Identify a mentor inside or outside the organisation - someone with additional or different experience the individual wants to add to their experience. This needn’t be formal but does need to be contracted for. I was working recently with a Regional Financial Director who wanted to build his knowledge and experience of the Central Head Office as he saw his development edge as being to learn more about the central decision making process around Finance, particularly around mergers and acquisitions. Whatever he went on to do he had identified that understanding more of the bigger corporate perspective would be of benefit to his career development. He selected a colleague he trusted in the central Corporate Finance function who was only too happy to pass on his knowledge. It turned into a peer to peer mentoring relationship as the central Corporate Finance manager wanted to understand more about financial operational issues at a local business unit level.

Maintaining a “Learning Mind-set” that observes the reality closely, is open to new ways of seeing things, exploring assumptions and actively seeks additional input and perspectives from others, is a highly important leadership capability in todays organisations. This doesn’t just happen by itself; it’s something that we need proactively to find time for.

As coaches, we can greatly add to the sustainability of our work if we help our clients extend the more reflective learning approaches they gain from coaching sessions and find practical ways to apply these in their day to day ways of working.

What do you do in your coaching to help clients take more reflective learning space into their normal ways of working?


  • http://www.brightknowledge.org/knowledge-bank/medicine-and-healthcare/spotlight-on-medicine/what-is-reflective-practice

  • http://www.businessballs.com/reflective-practice.htm

  • Bolton, Gillie E. J. Reflective Practice: Writing and Professional Development

  • Thompson Sue; Thompson Neil The Critically Reflective Practitioner

Sue Young

Sue Young

To contact Sue Young for more details:

The Innova Partnership

E-mail:  sueyoung@mac.com

M:  +44 07802 817727