Critically reflective practice as a way of being

The Reflective Practice Guide: An interdisciplinary approach to critical reflection - Barbara Bassot 2015

Critically reflective practice as a way of being

’Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action.’

(Peter Drucker, 2011)


At this point in our journey it is time to revisit the overall purpose of the book and its structure. We began by examining some of the fundamental tenets of reflective practice and learning from experience. As we have progressed towards an understanding of critically reflective practice, we have explored issues of coping with our emotional responses and challenging our assumptions. We have also considered the role of feedback in professional development and how we can reflect in groups. The previous chapter looked at the management of change and now we are moving on as we seek to embed critically reflective practice into our everyday work and lives.

This chapter will begin with a review of the term critically reflective practice and will include a discussion of the term reflexivity. We will then explore some key elements of the work of Johns and return to some of Brookfield’s work, both of which help us to examine how we can reflect at a deeper level in an ongoing way. The chapter will conclude with an exploration of the area of managing stress, mindfulness and Covey’s useful concept of ’sharpening the saw’.

Critically reflective practice and reflexivity

The concept of reflective practice has been subject to criticism in a number of ways. Some suggest that it is obvious that we need to think about our practice and so discount the notion of doing this in a deliberative way, whilst others point to the difficulties that practitioners experience in trying to take a reflective approach in their busy professional lives (Finlay, 2008). It is also easy to see that the term can be used by different people to mean different things to suit their own circumstances. Writing from the context of teacher education, Loughran (2002) suggests adding the word effective before the term reflective practice.

More recently some writers have added the word critically before the term reflective practice (Thompson and Thompson, 2008). This suggests that it is not enough simply to reflect on our experience, but that we need to take a critical approach too. It is important to remember that this does not mean that we only focus on negative aspects of our practice, but see the positives too. In this way we formulate a critique of our practice (like the food critic in Chapter 3) and do not fall into the trap of becoming weighed down by negative criticism and any kind of idea that we are never good enough.

Critically reflective practice is underpinned by reflexivity, as the term reflexivity has the potential to be confusing. Initial thoughts might lead us to assume that reflexivity is about our reflex actions or those things that we do automatically; however, the opposite is in fact the case. Until fairly recently the term reflexivity was used in the context of research — meaning the ability to see the things that are influencing our thoughts, behaviours and actions (Fook and Askeland, 2006). This is particularly important in research because, without reflexivity, we can fall into the trap of simply seeing what we expect to see, and our conclusions then become predictable. In professional practice reflexivity means that we are aware of how we think, feel and act and the assumptions we might be making. In addition, reflexivity also makes us aware of issues of power in relationships and organisations. Hence, the chapters in this book have been presented in a particular order to take us on a journey from reflection on experience, processing our feelings and questioning our assumptions in order to prompt critical reflection and reflexivity. It is also important to remember that as our focus broadens from simply being aware of ourselves (see Chapter 2) to being aware of our social and political context, we become mindful of issues of power evident in all social relationships. It is only when we recognise and understand these issues that we can seek to work in an anti discriminatory way.

Reflexivity is not only being mindful of ourselves and the part we play in the process; Fook and Askeland (2006) remind us that it also involves being clear about our context and the impact this can have on our practice. In all professional relationships it is important to have an understanding of issues of power and how these are played out in our working environments. In relation to working with clients, we need to remember that issues of power will always be present and that clients usually feel that the power lies with the professional practitioner and not with them. Indeed, in some areas of professional practice (such as teaching and social work) it seems clear that this is the case. For example, in classrooms, teachers need to maintain a positive learning environment for all students, which can involve applying sanctions for those who are reluctant to engage in the learning process. Social workers can be seen to hold the power when it comes to such issues as child protection and work with vulnerable adults. However, whilst recognising this, we also need to question our overall aims and what we are ultimately trying to achieve. For example, if young people in schools are going to progress to higher education, allowing them greater independence in the later years of schooling will prepare them well for their future studies. The social work profession recognises the need to be very cognisant of issues of power and its potential misuse, which can lead to discriminatory and even oppressive practice (Thompson, 2012). Issues of power can particularly be seen at work within certain professions. For example, Johns (2013) argues strongly that as part of a profession dominated by women, many nurses experience patriarchal attitudes and practices that can oppress them. In all of these cases an argument can be made for the handing over of at least some of the power that practitioners hold.

Reflective activity 11.1

Now think about your own workplace and consider the issues of power that are evident. How might you want to try and influence some of these for change? What difficulties might you expect in trying to do this?

Case study 11.1

Adam is head of the sixth form in a large comprehensive school. Many of the students go on to study at a range of different universities, locally and nationally and Adam feels it is important that they are well prepared for their further studies. Adam remembers struggling when he went to university as he no longer had the support from his school teachers that he had come to rely on. He is keen for the students to become more independent in their learning and development so that they can thrive in the sixth form and in their further studies. Adam decides to work with his team of tutors to design a programme of sessions to help the students to manage themselves better, which should be beneficial for them now and in the future. The programme includes sessions in tutorial time on a range of relevant topics including time management and meeting deadlines; a range of study skills such as effective reading, note taking and referencing in academic work; managing stress and coping with change. In order to achieve the overall goal of students becoming more independent learners, the students are asked to work together in small groups to prepare one of the sessions, to give a presentation and to lead a discussion on it. They are also asked to put together materials for all students to use on the school’s virtual learning environment. Each group works with a tutor who acts as a facilitator; the tutors are asked to allow the students to work in ways that suit them, handing over the responsibility for the sessions to them. They are also asked to give feedback to the students on how they are working together and the quality of the work they are producing both during their preparation time and after they have delivered their session.

Being open to change

In Chapter 2 we discussed the notion that when looking at our practice in a metaphorical mirror we might discover things that need to change. Whether or not we then take action to make that change is a choice. However, maintaining a position where we are open to change is vital in professional practice. Fay (1987) discusses three important aspects of critical reflection: curiosity, commitment and intelligence, which are considered by Johns (2013) and are relevant to the whole area of critical reflection and change. Maintaining curiosity in professional practice is vital if our work is to continue to stimulate and challenge us. Posing questions such as ’What is happening here?’, ’What made the person respond in that way?’ and ’Was I as helpful to that person as I might have been?’ help to make our practice sharp and keep us open to new possibilities. Losing our curiosity means that we lose our creativity and run the risk of our practice becoming mundane and even defensive.

Commitment helps us to maintain our energy for our practice and reminds us of why we do the work we are engaged in. This is particularly important at those times when, for good reasons, we can question why we continue working in our particular sector. Whether this is because of increasing workloads caused by budget cuts, managers that do not appear to be on our ’wave length’, or simply a number of very challenging clients we are working with at the time, we can, and realistically should, expect our commitment to be challenged. This means that we need to remind ourselves of our reasons for doing the work we do and re-evaluating our position in order to incorporate any changes we might need to make.

Intelligent practitioners are insightful and view every situation as an opportunity for learning. They are slow to jump to conclusions and to dismiss things without paying them adequate attention. In short, they are continuously open to new ideas and will judge things on their merits rather than accepting or dismissing things at face value.

Another word that Johns considers at various points in his work is that of compassion. Many practitioners enter the helping professions because they want to support people and feel that they are making a difference. They have a sense of compassion, which enhances their curiosity and commitment and makes them intelligent practitioners. In addition, it gives them a passion for their work. In my own field of career development I continue to be excited by the potential of people to fulfil and sometimes exceed their own and society’s expectations of them. Without compassion this becomes difficult. However, compassion is not a ’touchy feely’ term that only involves feeling sympathy, but rather a driving force for social justice and emancipation.

Being open to change is not as easy as it might first appear and it is important that we are not naïve. Johns (2013: 6) warns us of the power of embodiment, which he describes as ’the way people normally think, feel and respond to the world in a normative and largely pre-reflective way’. In other words, in our places of work we may well see practices that serve to accept the way things are done currently and maintain the status quo, rather than opening up possibilities for change. This can even be the case when things are not working well; this might be because policy or legislation restricts what we can do, or sometimes it is simply because it is the easiest option. In such situations change on the part of the individual practitioner in their own work can be difficult to achieve.

The work of Johns

As a writer and researcher, Johns is a good example of someone who has continually been open to change and who, as a result, has developed his thinking over a number of years. In his recent work (Johns, 2013), some key concepts stand out in relation to critical reflection and reflexivity that are worthy of consideration here.

Enlightenment, empowerment and emancipation

Johns sees reflection as an action-oriented, day-to-day reality and certainly far removed from any kind of ’navel gazing’. In addition, reflection cannot be neutral but is ’a political and cultural movement towards creating a better, more caring and humane world’ (Johns, 2013: 6). Such strong words remind us of the importance of compassion and are far removed from a simple (or even simplistic) approach that sees reflection as single loop learning (Kolb, 1984). Reflection is seen as part of a continuous process of enlightenment where we examine ourselves and our context and seek to understand why things are as they are and why things happen as they do. Empowerment means that we then look for ways of taking action on our new understandings, and emancipation happens as situations are transformed for a vision to be realised. It goes without saying that none of this is easy to achieve and such change can take time and a lot of effort. However, it is important not to lose sight of our vision for our practice if we are to maintain our levels of motivation and commitment (see Chapter 12 and the work of Senge).

Aesthetics, artistry and practical wisdom

Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy related to the study of art and, in particular, beauty. It is a word that is not often associated with professional practice and Johns also includes performance in his definition as he imagines a nurse going about her regular duties. Johns (2013: 45) describes the following four movements as ’the aesthetic response’ for effective action. All four movements involve looking back on a situation and here they are expressed as questions.

1 How did I appreciate/assess the situation and identify the focus for my intervention?

2 How did I make the decisions to meet the desired outcomes?

3 How did I respond with appropriate and skilled action to meet the outcomes and to remain in tune with my values?

4 Were the outcomes met and were these also in tune with my values?

The idea of artistry in professional practice is a reminder of its unique nature involving a high level of skill. Any painter who is asked to reproduce a copy of a particular piece of work knows that it is highly unlikely that it will turn out to be exactly the same as the original. The original piece of art was created in particular circumstances and influenced by such things as light, dark and shade and the mood of the artist at the time. In the same way, highly skilled professional practice cannot be reproduced at will, although undoubtedly many students in training might wish that it could be!

Wisdom is a word most often associated with a person who has lots of knowledge and experience. Johns uses the term ’practical wisdom’ to describe a practitioner’s ability to assess a situation and to gauge the likely outcomes based on previous experience. This practical wisdom can be seen in practitioners who have grasped their personal understandings (or praxis) of their work through reflection. Such practitioners see their practice as fluid and constantly changing, as each situation and client they face is unique.

Typology of reflective practice

Johns’ typology of reflective practice offers a useful summary of different aspects of reflection. It is broken down into the following five steps, which move from doing reflection to being reflective:

1 Reflection-on-experience — here, the practitioner reflects on a particular experience after it happens so that it can inform their future practice. This has resonance with Kolb’s (1984) cycle.

2 Reflection-in-action — here, the practitioner stands back and seeks to see the situation differently in order to make progress towards a more desired outcome. This resonates with Schön’s (1983) term, but helpfully includes the use of the term ’reframing’.

3 The internal supervisor — this is a dialogue that the practitioner has with themselves whilst having a conversation with another person as part of a process of making sense of the situation.

4 Reflection-within-the-moment — here, the practitioner is mindful of their patterns of thoughts, feelings and actions and is maintaining a focus on desirable practice.

5 Mindfulness — Johns describes this as seeing things as they really are without any distortion.

It is clear that people who are in training or new to professional practice can usefully start with reflection-on-experience as considered in the early chapters of this book. Mindfulness as described by Johns involves being aware moment by moment, and whether or not it is achievable seems questionable. However, as a goal it is certainly something that we should continue to strive for in professional practice.

Reflective activity 11.2

Consider some of the experienced practitioners you have worked with. Which of John’s concepts do you see in evidence? In what ways?

Case study 11.2

Ola is an experienced nurse who works in a hospice. She faces many challenges in her work and regularly spends time reflecting on her practice. Ola is known as an excellent practitioner who is compassionate towards her patients. She sees patients as individuals and always seeks to make them as comfortable and relaxed as possible. She also offers vital support to relatives and friends, making them feel welcome, but always keeping an eye on how the patient is feeling as they are her major concern. Ola regularly spends time reflecting on what she has done each day; she does this on her own and in discussions with her critical friend. In many situations she thinks about things from different perspectives (particularly those of the patient) in order to continually work towards becoming the kind of nurse she wants to be. She often finds that she has conversations with herself in her head whilst working with patients and this helps her to clarify what she is doing and why, and her previous experiences inform her actions. Ola loves her work because of the challenges it involves. She is always mindful of the patients’ condition and this means that she can be calm and compassionate, whilst being realistic. This helps her to see the limitations of what she can do and ’keeps her feet on the ground’. She feels this prevents her from becoming overly emotionally involved with every patient she cares for and is then ready for the next challenge in her work.

Brookfield’s lenses

Brookfield’s (1995) work has become widely recognised for its insights into critically reflective practice. In his book Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher he argues that there are four lenses through which we can reflect on practice critically. They are as follows:

1 Our own autobiographies as learners (and teachers for those who are training to teach) — this starts with an examination of our own stories and experiences of learning from the past, which enables us to begin to examine some of our deeply held values and assumptions about our practice and to begin to question them.

2 The eyes of our clients — viewing our practice from the point of view of our clients makes us more aware of issues of power in professional relationships.

3 The experiences of our colleagues — engaging in feedback processes can help us to see things we were not previously aware of, or those things in our Blind area (see the Johari Window in Chapter 8).

4 Theoretical literature — this can offer multiple explanations of phenomena, which can help us to understand that sometimes we are not responsible for things that happen in our practice.

Two particular lenses offer perspectives that we have not yet considered. The first lens of our own autobiography reminds us that we all have previous experiences of education and of life more broadly; these affect how we view the world and give us insights into the actions we might take or fail to take in the future. Narrative approaches argue that life is lived in story form; when we go home and talk about the day we have had, we tell a story rather than simply listing the things we have done. Narrative approaches have become influential in a wide range of professional areas, particularly in counselling, and here the argument is that looking back and telling our story then helps us to look forward and make decisions about how we want to act in the future. The fourth lens of theoretical literature reminds us that we can learn a lot from those who have written about professional practice, but also from those who have written from a theoretical point of view as well.

Brookfield argues for a deep level of critical reflection in the training of teachers and it is clear that in order to engage with this process we need to be ready to unearth things about ourselves that we may not find palatable; this can make us feel vulnerable. For example, Klobassa (2014: 328) recommends using Brookfield’s Critical Incident Questionnaire to break down barriers to discussions on issues of racism in order to ’encourage the trust and vulnerability necessary to interrogating race in significant and meaningful ways’. In order to make progress in our thinking about challenging issues, we need to make ourselves vulnerable. This needs to be done in a sensitive way, often by posing questions that help us to interrogate our practice fully. Brookfield argues that if we are teachers we need to do this with our students too.

Reflective activity 11.3

Now think of times when you have engaged in critical reflection using each of Brookfield’s four lenses. Which of the four do you find the most helpful? Are there any that you are reluctant to use? Why might this be the case?

Case study 11.3

Rudolph is training to be a Careers Adviser. As part of one of his early sessions on his course he is asked to examine his own motivation for joining the profession. The tutor asks the students to write their story of how they came onto the course and Rudolph writes this.

At school I was always told I was bright, but I went to a really bad school where no one did any work. It’s closed down now thank goodness. I managed to leave at sixteen with a few qualifications and went to a local FE college. It was like a second chance for me and I loved it. A lot of the students were adults who really wanted to work. Lots of them had had a bad time at school too and had got stuck in dead end jobs. They had come to college to try and turn their lives around. The atmosphere at college was completely different. I knew I wanted to go to university if I could, and soon met the college’s Careers Advisers. They had a nice little office where you could go and chat at any time. They also handled all the UCAS forms and gave you lots of support in trying to decide what you wanted to study and with your personal statement. I remember saying to one of them one day that I would really like to do their job and the Careers Adviser gave me a lot of encouragement. I went on and did a degree and then applied for this postgraduate course. So here I am again — like when I was at the FE college, I am younger than most of the other students here, but this is good for me. I know I want to work with young people in schools, particularly those who might not be doing so well. I want to help them to achieve their potential and to give them the kind of support I received when I was trying to decide what I wanted to do in the future. It’s great to know that I will be giving something back and I know from my experience that even if you feel you have had a bad start, you can go on to better things.


Figure 11.1 The stress curve

Managing stress

We all need a certain amount of stress in our lives in order to be able to perform at our best. However, too much stress leads to a high level of anxiety and, in extreme circumstances, to burn out. By contrast, too little stress can lead to boredom and lethargy. For example, going into an examination feeling totally at ease might mean that we lower our levels of concentration and fail to perform as well as we should. But being overly anxious in such a situation means that we might forget the things we know and again fail to do ourselves justice. Figure 11.1 illustrates the link between stress and performance.

In order to maintain effective performance, we need to remain in the centre of the curve as much as possible, and to do this we need to understand what causes us to experience stress. This will be different for different people, but some of the most common causes of stress are as follows:

• The environment — workplaces can be stressful places due to the demands they make on staff: for example, long and sometimes unsociable working hours, unclear role specifications, poor communication, inadequate leadership and management and lack of support.

• The individual — I can put pressure on myself: for example having unrealistically high expectations of what I can achieve and ’beating myself up’ when I fail to achieve all I want to, feeling powerless to influence my working context, being passive and unable to say ’no’ to the demands of others.

• The group — it is good to work with colleagues, but just as teenagers can often experience peer pressure, so in the same way peer pressure at work also exists: for example, feeling the need to agree to things in meetings when you want to disagree, being seen to achieve objectives and targets at the expense of your values, not taking all your annual leave because those around you do not take theirs.

Fontana (1989) highlights the following three groups of symptoms of stress:

1 Cognitive — stress affects our thought processes and too much stress can mean that we find it difficult to concentrate and are easily distracted. Our speed of response becomes slower and we make more mistakes. We fail to organise properly as we cannot assess accurately how long it will take us to do particular tasks and we can become confused and irrational.

2 Emotional — too much stress means that we cannot relax or ’switch off’ and we worry about things a lot of the time and generally feel anxious. We can imagine that we are ill and our feelings of healthiness and well being disappear. We might change as people; for example a tidy person might become messy and a caring person could become cold and indifferent. Things that we usually feel anxious about become exaggerated and lead us to become over sensitive or defensive; this might lead to emotional outbursts. In extreme cases this can lead to depression as our self-esteem plummets.

3 Behavioural — our interests diminish, we lack enthusiasm, become cynical, our energy levels are low and our regular sleep patterns are interrupted. Absenteeism from work increases, new information is ignored even when it is helpful and we shift responsibilities on to others. We solve problems at an increasingly superficial level and can become unpredictable. Drug, caffeine and alcohol consumption can rise and, in extreme cases, suicide threats can be made.

Recognising the symptoms of stress is vital if we are then going to seek to manage it. It is equally important to recognise the signs of stress in our colleagues and our clients so that we can support them effectively. Managing our own stress levels can be done in a number of ways. However, it is important to emphasise that there is only ever so much we can do to manage stress and it is unlikely that we will be able to avoid it completely. The following strategies can help us to manage stress and perform effectively in an ongoing way. Remember that different things help different people and in all cases find what helps you and take some appropriate action.

• Time management — this can certainly go some way towards alleviating stress. If you ever feel that your work life is somewhat chaotic, Allen’s (2002) book Getting Things Done offers a comprehensive time and self-organisation system. But remember it is like ’fishing by hand’ and could work for a while, at which point you might then need to look for an alternative. Don’t ’beat yourself up’ if, or when, it stops working; look for something else.

• Assertiveness — many of us experience high levels of stress because we are passive, have strong Please People drivers (see Chapter 2) and cannot say ’no’. Lindenfield (2001: 3) describes assertiveness as ’behaviour which helps us to communicate our needs, wants and feelings to other people without in any way abusing their human rights’. She gives some very helpful strategies to enable us to avoid being passive and to be more assertive without being either aggressive or manipulative.

• Physical exercise — this uses up excess adrenalin, releases endorphins (our ’feel good’ hormones), forces us to take some time out and provides a distraction from whatever is making us anxious.

• Relaxation techniques — most of these involve breathing exercises and relaxing each part of your body whilst lying down (see the next section on mindfulness). It is commonly understood that 20 minutes of relaxation is equal to two hours of sleep; hence this is a good option if you are finding it difficult to sleep.

• Build your support mechanisms — make sure that there are people around you who can support you. Remember that when they are feeling stressed you can, and should, reciprocate.

• Have some ’me’ time — especially for those in the helping professions, who spend most of their time supporting other people. Try to take some time out on a regular basis to spend do things you enjoy.

• Set yourself some new challenges — it can help to maintain your levels of motivation if you aim to achieve certain things within a timeframe; this does not have to be related to work and, indeed, is probably better if it is not. If you enjoy music, it could be listening to a new album every week, learning to play the instrument that you have always wanted to, or reading books or magazines for pleasure.

• Avoid unhealthy habits — most of us seek comfort in challenging times, but can slip into unhealthy habits such as smoking, snacking and drinking (including caffeine). This means that we can experience a ’sugar rush’ followed by a dip in our levels of energy.

• Retain a positive outlook — remember those times when you have been successful, appreciate the supportive people around you and change your perspective.

• Understand what you can and cannot change — Niebuhr’s famous Serenity Prayer states ’God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference’. It is worth remembering that time and energy spent trying to change things that cannot be changed is wasted and wearing.

Reflective activity 11.4

Now think about your own levels of stress. What strategies could you use to ensure that you remain in the centre of the stress curve?

Case study 11.4

Louise is a social worker in a leaving care team who is finding her work increasingly stressful. She decides to discuss her situation in her next supervision session where she explains some of the things she is experiencing. Louise explains that she feels very tired a lot of the time. She often stays late at work and finds it very difficult to switch off when she gets home. She finds herself constantly thinking about all the things she needs to do and then cannot get to sleep. This makes her feel more tired; when she does finally get to sleep, she then wakes up early, often with a headache. During her discussion with her supervisor she is able to identify some strategies that she feels might help her. Louise feels that work is starting to take over her life and she decides to try and re-establish some boundaries between her work and home life. She decides to check her emails at specific times of the day rather than checking them constantly and only checks at home when she is on call. She tries some relaxation techniques to help her to sleep and she asks one of her close friends to meet with her each week to do something they enjoy. They used to meet regularly in the past until Louise said she didn’t have enough time anymore. Over time Louise begins to feel the benefits of her actions and her work/life balance improves.


Having established that professional practice is often stressful and demanding, an understanding of mindfulness and its benefits can be helpful. Unless we are careful, professional life can become a kind of ’pressure cooker’ where the steam builds up and needs to be released or it will explode! Mindfulness techniques can help some people to manage stress and take a more deliberate and relaxed approach to their work and life, but like many other approaches it does not offer a solution for everyone. If you are finding the demands of professional practice in any way overwhelming, it is probably worth looking at the area of mindfulness to see if you find it helpful. Whether you decide to adopt it as a lifestyle, select parts that you feel are useful, or reject it completely is, of course, an individual choice. Personally, it took me a long time to learn that I achieve far more when I am relaxed and focused than when I am feeling stressed and tense. At times of high stress I find it far too easy to succumb to feelings of panic, which in turn make me forget things. It is particularly unhelpful when I am panicking about doing something, only to realise I have done it already and then forgotten. To find that I have done something twice at busy times is particularly frustrating!

Williams and Penman (2011) discuss a wide range of issues related to stress that can have an impact on our personal and professional effectiveness, particularly as the demands of professional practice seem to continuously increase. For example, they speak of ’chasing our tails’; when we are very busy we feel we should be doing more or coping better with our workload. As a result, we stay late to try and cope with the volume of work, but when we go home we find it difficult to ’switch off’. We go to bed, but cannot sleep, so we get up the next day and feel tired. Our level of tiredness means that we achieve less at work and so the pressure mounts and our effectiveness decreases. Many of us live our lives on some kind of autopilot as our minds operate in ’doing mode’. We have a lot to do, so we do many things automatically and habitually. This way of living is important as it means that we do not have to think in detail about each aspect of our everyday lives, which would be exhausting. However, if we are in this mode all the time, we overlook the things that bring us pleasure and make us content. We can ’run around’ trying to do more and more to keep up, caused, for example, by the guilt that comes from feeling that we are not doing enough, and we omit the things we enjoy in our constant activity. Before long we are living our lives on autopilot and in a metaphorical maze that we cannot find our way out of; as a result, life literally can pass us by.

I have often been asked if it is possible to over think — my immediate response to this is a definite yes. As someone with a strong Reflector style (Honey and Mumford, 2000), I suffer from this frequently and can sometimes feel that my head is literally full as my thoughts race around competing with each other for my attention. Williams and Penman (2011) discuss this particular issue and others in a number of ways in their work on mindfulness. They put forward their model for Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), which has been developed during research in a wide range of situations with large numbers of people, many of whom have found it helpful in the area of managing stress. One of the many benefits of mindfulness techniques is the avoidance of over thinking.

Williams and Penman’s (2011) mindfulness programme can be done on an individual basis over a period of eight weeks. As part of it they include a number of exercises in meditation to help individuals to slow down and take stock of what is happening around them, along with ’habit releasers’ to take them away from their ’autopilot’. The early part of the book emphasises the importance of breathing exercises that help people to relax, and the suggestion is that these are done each day at specific times, but also as and when needed. The programme builds as the weeks progress; if at any point you feel exhausted and overwhelmed by work, you might find this approach helpful.

’Sharpening the saw’

In this final section we consider Covey’s (2004) important concept of ’sharpening the saw’. Irrespective of your particular occupational sector, professional life is always busy and demanding. As a result, it is important to make sure that we take time for ourselves in order to ensure that we are able to perform to the best of our abilities in the interest of our clients and colleagues.

In his best seller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Covey (2004) uses the metaphor of ’sharpening the saw’ to illustrate this point very effectively. In short, no lumberjack would ever dream of trying to chop down trees without sharpening their saw first. It would be too slow, too difficult and exhausting. In a metaphorical sense, many professionals do just that; they try and manage busy schedules and heavy workloads without taking any time for themselves to ’sharpen their saw’.

Covey suggests that we pay attention to four key areas when sharpening our saw:

1 The physical dimension — caring for our physical bodies, e.g. eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, exercising on a regular basis.

2 The spiritual dimension — Covey describes this as our core, centre and commitment to our value system. This is a very private area of life and very individual. It involves spending time drawing on the sources that inspire and uplift us.

3 The mental dimension — caring for our minds and keeping them stimulated, for example reading, continuing in education.

4 The social/emotional dimension — taking time to work at relationships with key people at home and at work.

We can hear many people saying things like ’I would love to do X, but I just don’t have the time’. Our lives are so full, however, so the only time we have is the time we make.

Reflective activity 11.5

How do you ’sharpen’ your ’saw’?

Case study 11.5

Alfred is a senior manager in a demanding role working for a local authority. As part of his job he is asked to attend a three-day quality management course where he meets people in similar roles. He confides to one course member that he feels that his life is completely out of balance. He says he works all the time, staying late in the office each evening and taking work home with him at the weekends. He describes his life as being in crisis. He senses that his marriage is breaking down and his teenage children complain that he works all the time and never spends any time with them. He says that he knows he has to do something and uses the train journey home from the course to decide what to do. Three months later he attends a review day and the person he confided in is keen to know how things have been since their three-day course. Alfred explains that he went home and explained to his family what he wanted to do. He said that from Monday to Friday he would give his job that he loves his all. He would go in early and stay late most days. However, at the weekends he would do no work at all. Instead, they would do things together as a family, such as watching his son play football, going to see a film and helping with the food shopping and some housework. When asked what the impact of this has been he said that it was unbelievable. He feels much better and his family are all much happier too. But the thing that amazes him most is that he now gets through more work. This is because he now feels refreshed when he goes to work on a Monday morning instead of feeling exhausted.


This chapter began with a review of the terms critically reflective practice and reflexivity. We then explored some key elements of the work of Johns and Brookfield, an exploration of the areas of managing stress, mindfulness and Covey’s concept of ’sharpening the saw’. The next and final chapter summarises some of the key perspectives in the book and looks forward to a continuing goal of personal and professional effectiveness.


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