Wright, N. (2002) ‘Reflective Practice’, The Christian Counsellor, October-December, Issue 15, pp12-13.
I hear colleagues in social work and nursing talk quite a lot about ‘reflective practice’ but I’m not sure what it is and whether I ought to be using it in my counsellor supervision practice. Can you help?
Reflective practice has been developed in a variety of fields over the years, most notably in those professions where interpersonal relationships are central and a high degree of intuitive judgement and decision-making is needed. In this respect, social work and nursing sit alongside other disciplines such as community work, youth work, management development and counselling. What I’ll try to do here is explain what reflective practice is and its relevance to supervision of counsellor practitioners.
I think of reflective practice as a way of working that involves acting consciously and deliberately on the basis of critical insight and understanding. In this sense, it’s the opposite of functioning on mental ‘auto-pilot’. The ideal reflective practitioner opens his or her eyes to new ways of looking at things, considers fresh possibilities, understands the ‘whys’ behind the ‘whats’ and finds new, innovative ways to tackle situations. I guess this contrasts with more conventional ways of working characterised by “We do things this way because that’s how they’ve always been done”.
It’s rare to encounter the ideal, of course, because our natural tendency is to fall into familiar ways of working, repeat those approaches and techniques that have worked for us previously and avoid new alternatives that might involve risk. The resulting danger is that we easily fall into what the Bible calls a ‘dulled’ state (e.g. 2 Cor 3:14; cf Mk 8:17-21), gradually losing our awareness and ability to learn and work at the cutting edge. Perhaps the first thing that ought to be said about reflective practice is, therefore, that it does take continual commitment - and practice.
This is where the role of supervisor often proves critical, stimulating the counsellor to grow in awareness, think and act outside of the proverbial box and avoid falling into the dull-ness trap. Simultaneously, the supervisor too needs to avoid falling into the same condition in his or her own practice (Mt 15:14: “If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”). An on-going commitmentto prayer, Bible study and spiritual discernment is, therefore, an essential basic requirement for this role.
There are two main approaches to the reflective dimension of reflective practice that are worth mention. Firstly, there is ‘reflection on practice’ which involves stepping back from an experience and exploring (a) what happened (b) what can be learned from it and (b) what should be done next time. This approach is used widely with students in various disciplines who are encouraged to keep a journal of learning experiences and their practice implications. Kolb’s learning circle (experience → reflection → making sense → planning for action) is a common tool used by supervisors to help students learn this process in systematic form.
Secondly, there is ‘reflection in practice’ which involves being aware and conscious in the here-and-now moment; i.e. during supervision/counselling as it’s actually happening. This is, in some respects, an advanced-level application of ‘reflection on practice’ and essential for those engaged in counselling and supervision approaches that involve working primarily with immediacy (e.g. psychotherapy: recognising transference, projection, parallel process etc.). It is also especially valuable for people working in crisis situations where conditions change rapidly and the ability to think continually on one’s feet is critical.
In summary, the difference between ‘reflection on’ and ‘reflection in’ is, in essence, the difference between “What happened then…?” and “What is happening now…?”.
If action without reflection can be said to correspond to the Biblical notion of ‘zeal without knowledge’ (Pr 19:2), reflection without action has its own corresponding parallel in ‘faith without deeds’ (Jas 2:26). The practice dimension reminds us that for learning-through-reflection to become genuinely transformational, it needs to be applied. The role of supervisor, therefore, involves not only helping the counsellor to learn through reflection but to support application of that learning to enhance his or her counselling practice. When these dimensions are drawn together in continual process, the counsellor can be described as a reflective practitioner.
If you’re interested in exploring this field further, I can recommend glancing at a number of books including: Educating the Reflective Practioner (Donald Schon), Reflection in Learning & Professional Development (Jennifer Moon), The Power of Experiential Learning (Colin Beard & John Wilson) and Let’s do Theology (Laurie Green). You might also find it helpful to refer back to the Supervision series in The Christian Counsellor, Issues 8-11 (2001) for additional practical ideas in this area.