Reflective and Reflexive Practice
According to Plato, Socrates said “The unexamined life is not worth living” as he faced trial for alleged “impiety and corrupting youth”. Subsequently used to promote the virtues of philosophy, the quote may also be seen as a precursor to more recent encouragements for leaders and professionals to engage in reflective practice.
I often characterise my mentoring work as ‘shared reflective practice‘ – and have also described it as ‘peer mentoring’. This acknowledges that I learn as much from reflecting before, during, and after our sessions as the so-called ‘mentee’ (my peer mentor).
My introduction to reflective practice dates back to my teacher training, and so I have associated it with professional practice throughout my working life. The Schon Reflective Model was my chief influence, and Donald Schon’s distinction between reflecting on and in practice seems as helpful today as ever.
Chris Argyris worked with Schon, especially in the field of organisational learning, and his Ladder of Inference is one of many valuable resources arising from that collaboration. My earlier post on reflective practice featured that resource as one that is well aligned with the ‘What? – So-What? – Now What? ‘ framework.
The terms ‘reflective practice’ and ‘reflexive practice’ are easily confused, so it is worth noting some of the distinctions drawn between them. As illustrated in the chart below, reflection assumes that there is an external objective reality from which we can separate ourselves. This definition comes to us from the field of psychology, and in particular, educational and organisational psychology.
Reflection focuses on your thoughts, feelings, and actions. It involves looking back on your practice and examining what you did well, where you might improve, and where the ‘never again’ zones are. It’s also an introspective process, in which you are thinking “on” yourself. This process recognises that each situation we encounter is fresh and so offers new opportunities for meaningful engagement with issues and people. Paraphrasing Heraclitus – ‘no-one steps into the same river twice’.
Reflexivity on the other hand is based on the idea that reality is socially constructed (see further comment on this below). This definition derives from the fields of sociology and anthropology, and so the context in which it tends to be used is somewhat different. Reflexivity asserts that both individually and collectively, we continuously construct the meanings of our experiences, the world around us, and ourselves. This links with sensemaking perspectives, which highlight the importance of explicit and tacit schemas in shaping our interpretation of data and circumstances.
Any two directors and/or managers in your organisation looking at the same data or situation, may seem to agree about the facts involved, but will very likely hold different perceptions. Those different perceptions will then lead to different analyses and responses.
In my earlier post on perspective sharing, the risk of projection, falsely assuming that each of two parties sees the world in the same terms, was highlighted. Perspective sharing was proposed as a better way to seek consensus, as it opened up the opportunity to gain insights into perspectival differences which could affect any decisions arising from the deliberative process.
These observations about reflexivity by Jan Fook (in Bolton 2009: 14) are helpful:
“Reflexivity is a self-referential loop of seeing and changing because we see, a constant inquiry into how we interpret the world and how this, in turn, changes the world.
Reflexivity is a state of thinking and being in which we strive to understand the ways in which one’s own presence and perspective influence the knowledge and actions which are created”.
Tom Barrett’s post on the difference between reflection and reflexivity, describes reflexivity in similar terms:
“… reflexive thinking is a way of being in the world that involves noticing patterns in your experience. You look at patterns and influences that affect your actions as a whole — it’s about noticing how you change and grow.”
Reflexive practice is promoted by the Evaluation Academy as a valuable developmental method. The chart below is adapted from their DATA model of reflexive practice, annotated to draw attention to its parallels with the ‘What, So What, and Now What’ Reflective Practice framework.
Reflexivity and socially constructed reality
The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (1966) is a seminal book about the sociology of knowledge by sociologists Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann.
“Their central concept is that people and groups interacting in a social system create, over time, concepts or mental representations of each other’s actions, and that these concepts eventually become habituated into reciprocal roles played by the actors in relation to each other. When these roles are made available to other members of society to enter into and play out, the reciprocal interactions are said to be institutionalised. In the process, meaning is embedded in society. Knowledge and people’s conceptions (and beliefs) of what reality is become embedded in the institutional fabric of society. Reality is therefore said to be socially constructed.”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Social_Construction_of_Reality
Critics of this subjectivist and phenomenological approach (like Bordieu) argue that it is based on an inadequate conception of reflexivity and that it is a form of naive realism. Defenders of the social construction theory, however, argue that its critics have failed to put forward a sociologically valid understanding of the approach.
Assuming acceptance of social construction theory, whether we are involved in informal conversations, formal board debates, or consensus-seeking dialogue, we are constructing both our ‘personal reality’ and a ‘shared reality’ with other parties. Assuming that we know what others are thinking (and why) is one of the traps we can fall into when participating in nonprofit decision-making.
Nexus and Praxis
The connection we forge within the group of directors and stakeholders in our nonprofit organisations can be thought of as a nexus between multiple worldviews or schemas. We each make sense of the circumstances faced by our organisation using our own personal schema, while we contribute to the formation of an organisational schema by the way we contribute our personal analysis, and help to synthesise each of the perspectives into a coherent shared view which will underpin decisions as to what action (if any) should be taken.
Board self-evaluations are an important aspect of your continuous improvement work, just as reflective and reflexive practices are part of each person’s professional development. Praxis is concerned with taking action based on theories that are subject to continuous revision (improvement) in the light of research and experience. Your board self-evaluation activities could therefore qualify as a form of praxis.
Desirably, this commitment to continuous improvement would be reflected in the agenda structure for each board meeting. Reserving it for an annual end-of-year ritual is likely to result in somewhat tokenistic processes and outcomes. (The process may also be resented if it delays the enjoyment of the festive season).
X Marks the Spot
The graphic device used in the accompanying charts (chevrons containing silhouetted profiles) is deliberately ambiguous in that it can be read to refer to self-reflection, or to shared reflection between yourself and one or more other/s.
The ‘X marks the spot’ theme refers to the spark of insight available at the juncture (the place where two things are joined) between:
- the transactional self, operating in a formal role, and the inner ‘witness’ offering feedback on both rational and emotional responses to evolving circumstances; and
- an individual director or manager interacting with others in governance or management roles.
It also hints that this spark of insight may be the ‘X-factor’ associated with each of the terms nexus, praxis, and reflexion.