This post focuses on reflection as a Facilitation Technique and is part of a series on facilitation skill-building.
Recently I was asked to facilitate a meeting that was designed to be a reflection on the first year of implementing a new strategic plan. The goal of the meeting was to think about the progress made over the course of the year, discuss the achievements, challenges, and lessons learned so that the management team could create a meaningful operational plan to guide the coming year. What interested me in this project was the focus on reflection. As a facilitator, I consider the use of words as important, and I find that reflection is a term that is often used but rarely defined. On many occasions, reflection is used to describe any discussion that considers what has happened. But to simply use the term reflection as a moniker for “looking backwards” misses the opportunity inherent in the concept of reflection.
As an educational construct, reflection is more than just looking backwards. There are lots of great books and articles on the academic practice of reflection so this is not a deep exploration of the topic. However, for the sake of this post, I would define reflection as the process of considering past experiences through our personal worldview and then, based on that process, let the reflection either reinforce or change our perspective. Reflection inserts our personhood in the interpretation and meaning of the past. Considering this deeper appreciation of the concept of reflection, one can see that facilitating a group to simply looking back at the past year and listing lessons learned is not necessarily engaging in the process of reflection. Reflection, as a facilitation skill requires the design of a process that is experiential and not only considers what happened, but connects the “what happened” to an internal “what does it mean to me” and “how does it is inform” the forward direction that follows? So what does facilitating reflection look like in practice?
Let me come back to the meeting I facilitated. The initial outline I was presented with was to systematically look at four strategy areas of the past year and engage the group in the process of: a) reviewing the strategy, b) considering the supporting data, c) discussing lessons learned, and d) offering course corrections. Actually it is a great group process outline to cover a wide terrain in a short period of time but it was not quite a process of reflection. So I modified the process to look like this:
Review of Strategy Plan and Data: Each of the strategy areas was introduced in the context of what was in the strategic plan, the accomplishments and challenges of the last year and a review of the supporting data.
Reflective Discussion: The discussion portion of the process shifted from a straightforward consideration of lessons learned and became a reflection based on three questions that included:
- Related to this strategy area, what about the last year did you appreciate the most and why?
- Based on what occurred in this strategy area over the last year, what do you aspire to see happen during this next year?
- What common themes does this collective group conspire to make happen in the context of the next year’s operational plan.
By framing this conversation using evocative words like appreciate, aspire and conspire, the conversation shifted from listing accomplishments and lessons learned to a discussion of “where there was energy,” or “where we can celebrate.” Further, the words appreciate, aspire and conspire were represented on the Process Visual (posted on the wall), not as three sequential questions but as a circle, to encourage iterative processing rather than linear processing. As a result, the discussion was positive, lively and frank. More importantly it was personal and aspirational as well as pragmatic.
Listing Key Concepts: As each strategy area was discussed, themes and ideas spun off naturally and were listed as key concepts that were further blocked into “key implications” for the operational plan.
Summarizing Direction & Corrections: The final step in the process was do one final reflection activity. After two and a half hours, we had a 4’ x 10’ dry erase board covered with concepts across four strategy areas, with color-coded implications for the operational plan. The final question asked the group to zoom back to the overall strategic plan and consider one last time, “based on coming out of the first year, where do we need to conspire to make a difference for the coming year?” As this question was pondered, a short list of critical priorities was drawn out of the group’s personal reflections. These priorities were then rank-ordered and the evening of work, felt complete.
Rather than serving as a cookbook for “how to facilitation a reflection process,” I simply wanted to use a recent experience to illustrate an approach to facilitating a reflection process. The point, I am trying to make is that when we use the strategy of reflection then we need to consider carefully how to connect experience with personal thoughts, feelings, and frames of reference. This approach differs from listing, comparing and prioritizing by engaging an inward thoughtfulness that seeks meaning more than order. Again, I used group discussion emphasizing evocative questions. Equally effective could have been pairing participants and asking each to tell stories, drawn from the past year, related to the strategy areas and then reconvening to share stories. Yet another approach could have been to send each person to different parts of the building for 30 minutes of journaling reflective thoughts and reconvening to share notes. Whatever the method, from the facilitation skill perspective, reflection needs to be recognized as a theory-based learning construct that is a constructivist process of moving from experience to future direction on a road that goes through our personal and collective perspectives and points of view. Indeed, the power of reflection lies in that individual and collective pathway of our shard experience.