girl with surprised look

What just happened? Reflect to Understand Tough Situations

I love those who can smile in trouble, who can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection.  — 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. Others  questioned the value of the problem that your manager asked you to solve. The meeting ends without reaching a decision.

Either situation can drive you to obsessing over the situation. Your mind wants, even needs, to understand what happened.

A tool many people use is called reflection. It’s easy to learn if you follow the ten steps in this article.

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. You can develop the skill of reflecting to bring more meaning to any situation. What’s more is you can avoid acting from just your emotions and align your actions with your values.

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.
  2. Set aside 15 to 30 minutes to reflect in a place where you won’t be disturbed.
  3. Use the Free-Writing Process or simply talk out loud to replay the situation.
  4. Find more than one interpretation of the situation to avoid being too quick to judge.
  5. Write down all insights that you have during steps 3 and 4. Writing them helps you remember them later.
  6. Organize your insights into common themes.
  7.  Ask which insights are most important to you and underline the top three.
  8. Ask what you can take away from your key insights and write the answers. To get more value, ask where your thoughts might apply more widely.
  9. Determine if you need to take action as a result of your key insights and write those actions down.
  10. Looking at the reflection process, ask what worked, what could be improved, and anything you learned that surprised you.

What are Some Tips for Improving Reflection?

It takes regular use and self-assessment of the process to develop the highest benefit. Use the following tips suggested by successful reflectors.

  • Use the Reflection Process with the Free-Writing Process to capture your thoughts so you can focus on your thoughts without being distracted by your writing. This is an easily developed skill in itself.
  • Ask if you’re being honest with yourself so you can observe yourself more fully and completely. Sometimes we may find ourselves blaming others, but with bravery, we can face up to ourselves.
  • Value yourself as someone who is important; being a better you is better for everyone. Know that with reflection, you can become a better you.
  • Envision your future and who you want to become. People who focus on bigger goals take care of their smaller goals automatically.

Getting Even Greater Benefit

As you develop the practice of reflection, you may want to try some of these approaches and tips.

  • Group reflection. There are times when many heads are better than one. Take turns speaking and write down all suggestions. The group can then discuss the ideas they like best, or even vote.
  • Write only for yourself. You may spend too much time thinking about your writing and not enough reflecting; remember, you’re not writing for an audience, just yourself; Feel free to misspell words, use fragments, bad grammar, or anything else that captures the point while allowing you to focus on the reflection.
  • 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 ask the questions where the answers would make a big difference to you.
  • Develop a clear on your life vision. 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 that life vision as you reflect on what matters most to you.
  • Practice calm. Various situations can lead to high-intensity emotions that overwhelm you. The reflecting process can help you to stay calm, if you first practice in less intense situations. Practice understanding the emotions you’re feeling, what triggers them and what helps you calm so you’ll have the skill when you need it most.
  • Be positive. Being negative about yourself or your performance can hamper your thoughts by making you defensive or even self-defeatist. If you find this happening, breathe. Later, you can reflect on your criticism to discover other ways to interpret your performance. Being self-critical is one of the hardest habits to overcome. See How to silence your worst critic even if it’s *gasp* yourself

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 journal 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. Focus in your weekly reflections on your highs and lows for the week, and what they can tell you.


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

The banner image is used by permission from the photographer, Thomas Park, on


  • 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.