Self-awareness and reflective practice is something I find myself talking about a lot. Whether it’s with leaders who are learning to use a coaching and mentoring approach to support and develop their people, or as with a current project, working with a group of very experienced senior engineers in the oil industry who are developing their skills in preparation for taking on the responsibility of supporting and developing the next generation of expert engineers.

So, what is self-awareness and reflective practice and why is it useful in developing coaching expertise?

Self-awareness is fundamentally about gaining feedback. Excellent self-awareness enables a person to see the effects of their approaches, behaviours and skills on others. This feedback provides valuable content for effective reflection – which is a key process for continuous development, which is the road to higher level skills, capabilities, and effective behaviours. Reflective practice is about using this feedback, going through the reflective process and analysing personal effectiveness and setting development goals for continuous improvement. So reflective practice is critical to developing expertise, and self-awareness is critical component of effective reflective practice.

So, how does it work in practice?

At HumanTechnics one of our core areas of focus is developing the skills of people who are coaches or coaching as part of their role in organisations. Generally speaking we start by providing the knowledge input. This provides the context or frame for the person learning. People need to have the models, ideas, frameworks etc. as this provides the terms of reference for their practical experiences. During our training workshops there’s a big focus on playing with the skills and techniques, and using feedback for developing self-awareness. Delegate then go out into the word and play with the skills and techniques they experienced during the workshop time. This can be in coaching sessions, or as often happens, I hear stories of people using skills and techniques in other contexts, sometimes in training, sometimes in influencing their children to modify their behaviour! All these experiences are valuable content for reflection and reflective practice.

I’ll give you an example of the role of knowledge, self-awareness and reflective practice in building expertise in coaching.

One of the common areas of debate in coaching is around how much input a coach should provide to their coachees in a session.

Positive Psychology suggests that the coach should re-enforce positive comments, ideas etc. by providing encouraging feedback immediately and directly during sessions. This can be very useful in supporting a coachee in their thinking and supporting them through a coaching process and session. By its nature this requires a subjective judgement to be made by the coach about what is positive and what ‘should’ be re-enforced.

By contrast Clean Language, which has evolved into Clean Coaching, focuses on ensuring that the coach makes as little directive input as possible, avoiding transmitting the coach’s views, beliefs and values to the coachee. A simple example might be the question ‘…..and how does that make you feel’. This might suggest that the coachee should have feeling about whatever is being discussed. This might lead to feelings being created which didn’t previously exist before the question was asked. Only when you explore language and the clean language approach do you really appreciate how much unintended information is transmitted.

Now I personally value both approaches – although very different. But for me the greatest value comes from understanding a little about both approaches. It’s not that I use a positive psychology approach or a clean approach, it’s that I have as a consequence of working with both approaches developed self-awareness about how much direction and input I’m providing during a coaching session. This means that I’m able to make informed decisions about in the input I give during sessions. It also means that I can observe the effects of any input I provide, and this feeds into my reflections and reflective practice, and I’m able to ask myself questions about the choices I’ve made during those sessions. Questions I could not have asked myself before learning about both approaches. This is very much a case of ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’, described both in the Johari window model, and in Blanchard’s Situational Leadership model.

In summary I believe self-awareness is a critical element to effective reflective practice. Reflective practice is a hugely valuable habit for professionals who are wanting to develop higher level expertise in coaching.

I would never claim to have any particular talent as a coach (although I do think that I have many of the believes, values and communication skills that are helpful). I do however consider myself to have expertise in coaching, because I’m able to draw on my knowledge and experience and use that in a practical way when coaching.

Developing self-awareness and reflective practice skills are core to HumanTechnics training programmes. I hope this articles goes some way to explaining why.

Matt Tobutt