meditation & reflection

What just happened? Reflecting to Deepen Our Understanding

I love those who can smile in trouble, who can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. ’Tis the business of little minds to shrink, but they whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves their conduct, will pursue their principles unto death. — Leonardo da Vinci

Maybe you’ve been in an argument that rapidly spirals out of control. You realize you’re yelling hurtful things to another, and yet you’re not sure what is really at the root of the fight.

Or maybe, you’ve just worked hard on a proposal, and you present it in a meeting, but things don’t go as planned and the meeting ends without reaching a decision. Other’s in the meeting questioned the circumstances of the problem that your manager asked you to solve.

In either situation, you need to reflect to develop your understanding and to know what to do next. And to do that, you need to review your thoughts, feelings, actions, and the situation to produce important insights.

In this post, we discuss a structured process you can use to reflect productively on any situation or question.

What is Reflection?

Life unfolds so quickly that you can move through life without realizing what any of it means. When you reflect, you take pause to understand what just happened more fully. Often in learning, you can increase the level of your learning by discovering meaning from a less-than-clear situation. You can develop the skill of reflecting to verify that your actions and behaviors align with your values as well as bring more meaning to any situation.

How to Reflect – a Ten-step Process

The reflection process has the following steps (adapted from Desjarlis and Smith (2011):

  1. Recognize the need to bring understanding to a situation or to probe a focus question.
  2. Set aside 30 minutes to reflect in a place where you won’t be disturbed.
  3. Using free-writing or simply talking out loud, replay the situation or describe examples for your focus question.
  4. Use what-if thinking to suggest various possible interpretations of the situation or question.
  5. Document all insights as you write or speak for steps 3 and 4. These need to be written down so you remember them later.
  6. Organize your insights into common themes.
  7. Identify which insights are most important and write a circled 1, 2, or 3 next to the top three.
  8. Generalize your key insights beyond the current situation? Ask where else they apply.
  9. Determine if you need to take action as a result of your key insights and write those actions down.
  10. Assess what worked, what could be improved, and anything you learned that surprised you. (Use the SOL method – Strengths, Opportunities, and Learning insights).

How Can You Improve Your Reflecting?

As with any skill, it can be helpful to know at what level you’re performing so that you can improve over time. Here are two scales you can use when you assess your use of the reflecting process.

First, are you getting useful insights? You could rate the power of your insights from highest to lowest:

  • Transformative – your insights allow you to make powerful changes in how you feel, understand, or behave.
  • Impactful – your insights are helping you to better understand a situation or to come up with answers, but are not life changing.
  • Useful – your insights help, up to a point, allowing you to say the process was worth your time
  • Interesting – your insights help with understanding, but do not lead to new actions you can take.
  • Useless – your insights do not help you at all.

Second, how frequently do you identify opportunities to reflect and use the process to gain insight (from most to least frequent)?

  • Always — regularly use reflection productively to be on top of situations, gain personal understanding and maximize learning.
  • Frequently — Seek out potential opportunities to further understand self and actions.
  • Often — Use reflection when more control is sought, take time to figure out what is going on and what changes are desired.
  • Sometimes – You can be prompted by others to step back and start analyzing what was going on and will accept suggestions
  • Never – You experience life moment- to-moment without seeing longer term or overarching meaning

With these two measurements, assess your reflecting to determine your strengths, opportunities, and learning insights so you can raise your level. Logging your progress can speed your journey.

What are Some Tips for Improving Reflection?

It takes regular use and self-assessment of the process to develop the highest levels of benefit. You can use the following tips that were suggested by successful reflectors.

  • Use the Reflection Process with the Free-Writing Process to capture your thoughts so you can review them for greater meaning.
  • Be honest with yourself so you can observe yourself more fully and completely.
  • Value yourself as someone who is important; being a better you is better for everyone
  • Connect your past to the present so you can create your future with solid plans
  • Be positive about your future, and treat your past as learning experiences that help your future vision become real
  • What are some Strategies to Address Common Barriers to Reflecting Well?

As you develop this characteristic, you may experience one or more of these barriers. Consider what may be holding you back and use the strategy to help overcome the resistance.

  • Lacking Discipline? You may either not reflect or not capture the insights from your reflection. Make sure you’re following the steps of the process and documenting your insights and actions. Strive for improving the quality of the results so you feel you’re making good use of your time. You may want to try group reflection.
  • Lacking the Time? Reflection is often done at the end of a performance or task, but not scheduling time often prevents it. Place a higher priority on reflection and schedule it on your calendar, just as you would a meeting. You may also be spending too much time thinking about your writing; if so, then remember, you’re not writing for an audience, just yourself, so you can misspell words, use fragments, bad grammar, or anything else that captures the point while speeding you up.
  • Don’t see the point? You may be selecting situations that are difficult enough to yield important insights. The questions you’re asking may also not be powerful enough, so look for questions where the answers would make a big difference to you.
  • Aren’t getting enough impact? You can get stronger results from reflection when you have a vision for your life because your vision helps you make sense of crucial situations and gives direction to your insights. Reflection can also help you build a life vision as you reflect on what matters.
  • Overwhelmed? Various situations can lead to high-intensity emotions and can overwhelm you. The reflecting process can help you to stay calm, but you’ll need to practice in less intense situations first to get comfortable with it. You’ll want to practice so you’ll have it in situations where it can provide the most value.
  • Self-critical? Being negative about yourself or your performance can hamper your thoughts by making you defensive or even self-defeatist. If you find this happening, reflect on your criticism to discover other ways to view your performance, especially reflecting on failures from a growth mindset instead of a fixed-mindset.

What now?

Progressively practice, starting with easier and/or calmer situations, then work your way up to those where understanding is crucial to you. Keep a record so you can reflect over time on your growth and how it has helped you. Schedule time for at least a weekly reflection to contribute more to your life so you get the benefit of greater skill and impact.


I adapted this post from our book, The Professional’s Guide to Self-Growth, by Apple, Ellis, and Leasure (2018). See to purchase a copy.

The banner image is by Gerd Altmann from


  • Apple, D. K., Ellis, W., & Leasure, D. (2018). The Professional’s Guide to Self-Growth—A Step-by-Step Process for Developing Your Unlimited Potential (1st ed.). Pacific Crest, Inc.
  • Desjarlais, M., & Smith, P. (2011). A comparative analysis of reflection and self-assessment. International Journal of Process Education, 3(1), 8–13.