Becoming more self-aware

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

Becoming more self-aware

’Those of us who attempt to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening our own self-understanding . . . will have nothing to give others.’

(Thomas Merton, 1971)


In the previous chapter we established that reflective practice involves examining ourselves to see our practice more clearly and giving some serious consideration to what we see. This will ensure that our practice grows and develops and that we do not stagnate. Becoming more self-aware is a crucial part of practising reflectively and this chapter introduces you to the concept of the metaphorical mirror: a vital tool for reflection in both senses of the word. We will explore the different kinds of mirrors that we use in our everyday lives to see what these can teach us about different aspects of reflective practice. We will then move on to consider how we learn best; learning and reflection go ’hand in hand’ and it is difficult to imagine one without the other. It is important to remember that reflection is a skill, so it is something we can develop and improve upon. We will examine Honey and Mumford’s (2000) learning styles and consider the strengths and weaknesses in the four styles and apply this to our own learning. The chapter continues with SWOT/B (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats/Barriers) and SWAIN (Strengths, Weaknesses, Aspirations, Interests and Needs) exercises to help you to analyse your current position. The final sections examine issues of motivation and the role of drivers in helping us to understand more about what we do and why.

The metaphorical mirror

In my own professional practice with students I have often likened reflective practice to looking in a metaphorical mirror. Over time your practice will develop through a process of thinking and examining yourself and your actions. This will increase and deepen your levels of critical evaluation, helping you to gain greater self-awareness.

Looking in a variety of mirrors is an everyday occurrence for most people; we look in a mirror and then decide whether or not to take action on what we see. In this section we consider a range of different types of mirrors and the insights these can give us in relation to developing professional practice. Here are some examples of the kinds of mirrors we use regularly and the particular insights they give us into reflective practice.

The bathroom mirror — most of us get up in the morning and, before long, look in some kind of mirror, often the bathroom mirror. Of course, we do not always like what we see! We then make a choice — we can decide to do nothing, or to take some action to make ourselves more presentable to the outside world! This simple example teaches us two important lessons in relation to reflective practice. First, when we start to reflect we may not always like what we see about ourselves and our practice. Taking action following reflection always involves choice; we can accept what we see as ’good enough’, take no action and continue as we were. Or we can take action in order to improve and develop ourselves.

The full length mirror — we use this kind of mirror when we want to see a full picture of ourselves, for example when trying on an outfit for a special occasion. Here we look at ourselves as a whole to see how the component parts of our outfit go together, for example whether our shoes match the rest. At times we need to examine our practice in this way, taking a holistic approach to situations, looking at the whole as well as the parts within it.

The 360° mirror — these mirrors enable us to see from all angles, thereby giving us views of ourselves that we do not usually see. This reminds us that reflective practice is not merely a solitary activity and that the views of others are important when seeking to gain a full picture of ourselves.

The driver’s mirror — this is a vital tool that people use every time they get into the driving seat of a car. Using this mirror means we can see what is behind us and assess whether or not it is safe to move ahead; we learn to use it frequently when driving. Moving forward (for example to overtake) is dangerous without looking back first. This mirror reminds us that reflective practice involves looking back on experiences we have had, so that we know how to move forward.

Wing mirrors — these also enable us to see what is behind us when driving. Some wing mirrors are convex in shape to give a wider view, others have a small magnifying mirror in one corner: both help us to see what is out of view just over our shoulder. This is a reminder that feedback from others plays a vital part in helping us to identify what we cannot see ourselves.

The magnifying mirror — this is indispensable in situations where we need to look at our faces closely, for example when shaving, applying make-up or learning to use contact lenses. It helps us when we need to see things in fine detail. At certain times we need to examine our practice in this way, particularly if we are learning something new or if our decisions are challenged. There is also much to be gained from a close examination of an incident (often referred to as a critical incident), so that mistakes and pitfalls can be avoided in the future.

Funfair mirrors — these mirrors distort what we see; obviously we do not look in these regularly. However, like the fun fair mirror, some practitioners and students can have a distorted view of their practice. Some may always feel that what they did was fine because they did their best in the circumstances within the resources available to them; others can be very hard on themselves, always thinking that they could have done much better; this is sometimes referred to as the ’inner critic’ (Williams and Penman, 2011). In both cases it is likely that there is some kind of distortion at work in the process. This again points to the vital role of feedback from others and discussion in order to get a more accurate picture of the situation.

Shop windows — clearly these are not mirrors per se, but are places where we can see our reflection. Usually we look in these as we are walking along, and they remind us of Schön’s (1983) concept of reflection-in-action and our ability to think while doing other things.

It is important to remember that all types of mirrors can quickly become ’steamed up’ or dirty and need to be wiped down so they continue to fulfil their purpose. In the same way, we need to polish our metaphorical mirror regularly by checking what we see through our own individual thoughts and by being open to receiving feedback from others whom we trust. Otherwise we can easily be deceived into thinking that ’we look all right really’ when our view of ourselves might be cloudy or even distorted.

How do I learn best?

Learning is a vital part of professional practice; this is not restricted to students in training and, as a result, many professional bodies have Continuing Professional Development (CPD) requirements to ensure that practitioners are keeping up to date and are continuing to develop their skills. Osterman and Kottkamp (2004: 24) make the important link between learning and reflection when they state that ’While experience is the basis for learning, learning cannot take place without reflection’. It is important to understand how we learn best as individuals so that we can maximise our learning. In this regard, recognising your learning styles can offer important insights into your ongoing development.

Honey and Mumford’s learning styles

Several writers have focused on the concept of learning styles and the approach selected here is that of Honey and Mumford (2000) because of their interest in how people learn in organisational settings: in other words, how people learn at work. It is important to understand that Honey and Mumford see these styles as learning habits, so these are not things we are born with, but approaches that as individuals we have found to be effective through our experiences of learning over the years. Based on the work of Kolb (1984), they identified the following four different styles.


Activists are doers and like to be involved in new experiences. They tend to take an unbiased approach and are focused on the present. They are open-minded, tend not to be sceptical, and have lots of enthusiasm. They enjoy getting on with the task in hand and can achieve a lot in a relatively short space of time. They often act first and think things through later and can become bored quickly, particularly in relation to the implementation of longer-term projects.


Reflectors are thoughtful people who like to stand back and observe people and situations from a variety of angles. They enjoy collecting data before reaching any conclusions. This means they tend to be cautious and can be slow to make decisions. They can often suffer from procrastination. In meetings they will often be quiet, but when they do speak their arguments will usually be well thought through. They take into account ’the bigger picture’, including past experiences as well as the views of others.


Theorists are analytical people who enjoy integrating their observations into complex and logically sound theories. They think problems through in step-by-step ways and are interested in systems and processes. They tend to be perfectionists who like order and prefer schemes that are rational. They are objective and can be detached, rejecting ideas that do not fit with their tried and tested approaches. They can get ’bogged down’ in detail and can feel uncomfortable with taking a more subjective approach if it is needed.


Pragmatists like to try out ideas to see if they work in practice. They like to experiment and find new ways of doing things to see if they will be more effective. They are practical, ’down to earth’ people who see a problem as a challenge they would like to solve. They enjoy planning but can become cynical and reject ideas that have been tried in the past and been seen to fail. They can be impatient with long discussions and want to act quickly and confidently to move things forward.

Most people have a tendency to have a preference for more than one style. In my experience of using the Learning Styles Questionnaire with students, many of those who have strengths in the Activist style also score highly on the Pragmatist style. The same tends to apply to those with strong Reflector and Theorist styles. However, this is not always the case.

Reflective activity 2.1

Having read the descriptions above, which style or styles do you feel describes you best and why? Now think about which are least like you and why.

Strengths and allowable weaknesses

It is clear from the descriptions above that there are many strengths associated with each of the four learning styles. However, when any of the styles are ’overdone’ they can easily become a weakness, often termed an allowable weakness. Table 2.1 illustrates this.

Table 2.1 Strengths and allowable weaknesses


Reflective activity 2.2

Look back on what you wrote in the previous activity. Which strengths and allowable weaknesses do you feel apply to you and which do not? Can you think of any others that have not been included?

Case study 2.1

Amit is training to be a secondary school teacher in science. When he examines his learning styles he recognises straight away that he has a strong Theorist style, shown by his love of solutions and models that give him a correct answer. However, learning to teach is a very different experience for Amit, and whilst on placement he soon realises that where the science he loves gives him a correct answer, the students he is working with seem to learn in different ways. He tries lots of different approaches when explaining key concepts but only some students seem to grasp what he is trying to put across. Amit begins to understand that he needs to spend time reflecting on how his students learn in order to select the most appropriate teaching methods, particularly for those students who are not responding well to his current approach. He also realises that his own students exhibit a range of different learning styles and, following a discussion with his mentor, he decides to discuss this with them in tutorial time.

It is important to emphasise that the notion of strengths and allowable weaknesses in relation to learning styles should not serve to categorise people. So, for example, because I am a Reflector, this does not mean that I am generally slow — rather that if I overdo it, I will have a tendency to be slow. If I am a Theorist, this does not mean that I will always overanalyse situations, but that I might have a tendency to do so. Knowing our learning styles means that we can focus on our strengths and avoid or minimise our allowable weaknesses.

Two particular viewpoints dominate when considering Honey and Mumford’s learning styles.

First, if I know my styles, I can select experiences that best suit my style and deselect those that do not. The danger with this approach is that it could restrict my learning and, of course, I will not always be in a position to make this selection. At times I may have to step outside the ’comfort zone’ of my preferred style or styles.

Second, if I want to maximise my learning, understanding my allowable weaknesses and my least preferred styles gives me clear pointers regarding things to work on in my professional development. If I have strengths in all the styles this means I am likely to be a strong, all round learner, open to developing in all areas of my professional practice.

Developing the reflector style

If you are a student on a programme of professional education or a professional practitioner, it will be important to develop your Reflector style. If you feel that you do not have strengths in this particular area, here are some examples of things you can do to help you become more reflective.

• If you tend to rush into situations, practice ’holding yourself back’. You can do this by making sure that you wait for others to respond first before giving your views. If you need to, you can ’buy yourself some more time’ by saying something like ’I’m tempted to respond straight away, but know I should take a bit of time to think about this to stop me rushing into things’.

• Practice observing people in meetings. Notice how different people behave, how much they contribute to discussions and what they have to say. Review this and also think about your own contributions.

• Practice listening in meetings and in conversations — again, try not to be the first person to respond, particularly to requests.

• Practice looking at things from different perspectives. Write down how you see a situation and then how others involved might see it.

• Spend a regular short amount of time (e.g. 15 minutes) writing about your experiences (see Chapter 3). Read what you have written each week or month to see how you are making progress.

• Find a ’critical friend’ (see Chapter 8) and share how you are getting on.

Case study 2.2

Gabrielle is a trainee paramedic who is progressing quite well on her course. During her time on placement she recognises that she has a tendency to want to act swiftly (an important quality for a paramedic), but has recently found on a couple of occasions that this has led to some tricky consequences, having rushed into saying things to a patient too quickly to try and put them at ease. Her mentor has pointed out the need for her to slow down and to be calm and thoughtful in her approach. Gabrielle has recognised that she has a strong Activist style and that she loves to take action quickly to help people. However, she realises that this is where mistakes can happen and is keen to slow herself down to ensure that her mistakes are kept to a minimum. Gabrielle decides to take some conscious steps to listen to the patient more carefully and to observe how her mentor approaches situations. She remembers that she still has a lot to learn and that a calm paramedic is likely to be a good paramedic.

SWOT/B and SWAIN analysis

Becoming more self-aware often means being prepared to engage in a level of self-analysis. Here are two tools that can help you to achieve this.

SWOT/B analysis

A SWOT analysis is a tool often used in business to critically evaluate a range of aspects related to a piece of work or project. It can also be used individually to help you to analyse yourself as you seek to understand your current position and how you could move forward in your professional development. In this context, strengths and weaknesses are internal and opportunities and threats are external. Some writers replace Threats with Barriers, hence SWOT becomes SWOB. Barriers to learning can be internal (for example, lack of confidence or self-belief) or external (for example, a noisy hall of residence or student flat). You can use the tool effectively by posing the following questions.


What am I good at and where do my talents lie?

What do I find easy?

What do I enjoy?

Where do I have expertise?

How have I excelled in the past and which of my achievements am I most proud of?


Where am I most likely to have difficulties and why?

What do I dislike?

What do I struggle with?

What would I like to do better?

What do I put off doing?


What opportunities are there for my development?

What could I do to gain more skills?

What could I do to become more confident in my weakest areas?

Who can I ask for support?

Who can I find to act as my mentor?


What will hinder my development?

What obstacles do I face in my development?

What or who might discourage me?

How can I prevent this happening?

What strategies can I put in place to try to ensure my success?

Following the completion of a SWOT/B analysis, you can then continue to develop your strengths, work on your weaknesses, make the most of your opportunities and seek to minimise the threats and barriers.

SWAIN analysis

This is another tool for self analysis, where, as well as identifying your strengths and weaknesses, you are also asked to think about your aspirations, interests and needs. Here are some further questions.


Where would I like to be in a year’s time?

In three years?

In five years?

When I look back on my working life, what would I like to be able to say I have achieved?

What might be my greatest achievement?


What do I love doing?

What do I have a real passion for?

What gives me energy?

If I could spend all my time at work doing one thing, what would that be?

What would I really struggle to give up?


What do I need to do to succeed?

What training do I need?

Do I need further qualifications and if so which?

What knowledge and skills do I need to develop?

Do my ways of thinking need to change and if so, how?

Case study 2.3

Paul is a newly qualified counsellor and his supervisor has encouraged him to undertake an analysis of his strengths and areas for development. Paul decides to use a SWOT/B analysis and also to consider his aspirations, interests and needs.



Reflective activity 2.3

Now spend some time doing a SWOT/B and SWAIN analysis. What does this tell you about yourself that you did not know before?


An important aspect of self-awareness is to understand what motivates us. Motivation is a difficult concept to define but includes the processes or factors that prompt us to act in certain ways. This can involve the identification of a particular need and how this might be satisfied, and sometimes involves the process of setting goals. There are many theories that seek to explain what motivation is and how people are motivated, and they can be grouped into two main types: content theories and process theories. In addition, many theories of motivation identify factors that motivate people; some of these factors are external (extrinsic) and some are internal (intrinsic).

Content theories of motivation

Content theories seek to explain what motivation is and the following are the most well known examples of these.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Often depicted as a pyramid, Maslow’s (1954) hierarchy of needs has the following five levels:

1 Biological and physiological — the need for food, warmth, shelter and sleep.

2 Safety — the need for protection and security.

3 Love and belongingness — the need to feel accepted and loved by others (for example family and friends).

4 Esteem — the need for achievement, independence, self respect and respect from others.

5 Self-actualisation — the need to realise one’s personal potential, self-fulfilment and personal growth.


Figure 2.1 Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Maslow’s hierarchy is shown in Figure 2.1.

Maslow’s work has been heavily criticised, in particular his argument that the needs at the base of the pyramid need to be satisfied before those at a higher level can be achieved. The idea of a ’starving artist’, someone who sets all their other needs aside because of their deep desire to self-actualise, seems to be a case in point. However, many professionals who work with homeless people say that their clients find it difficult to think of anything else if they do not know where they will sleep that night.

McGregor’s X and Y theory

McGregor’s (1970) X and Y theory was developed from the work of Maslow and argues that there are two basic suppositions about people and what motivates them. Type X are people who are motivated by their biological and safety needs towards the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy. They are motivated primarily by extrinsic factors. Type Y are people who are motivated by the top three levels of Maslow’s hierarchy and are motivated by extrinsic factors (such as rewards) and intrinsic ones too like a sense of fulfilment. Whether people can be seen in this simple way is, of course, open to debate and many people will only be well motivated when a range of their needs are being met.

Herzberg et al.’s two-factor theory

Herzberg et al. (1959) argued that satisfaction and dissatisfaction were two distinct phenomena associated with motivation caused by two different factors. In their research with engineers and accountants, they found that aspects of the job itself caused satisfaction at work; Herzberg called these factors ’motivators’. By contrast, dissatisfaction was caused by the working environment: the ’hygiene’ factors. Some examples of each of the factors are as follows.

Motivators (concerned with the job itself)

• Achievement.

• Recognition.

• The work itself.

• Responsibility.

• Promotion.

Hygiene factors (concerned with the working environment)

• Policy.

• Working conditions.

• Pay.

• Status.

• Job security.

Here, it is possible to see a mixture of extrinsic and intrinsic factors in the motivators and the hygiene factors. This work has also been criticised because of the overlapping nature of the factors; what one person describes as a motivator might be described by another as a hygiene factor.

Process theories of motivation

Process theories seek to explain how people are motivated and here are the most well known examples.

Vroom’s expectancy theory

In his expectancy theory, Vroom (1964) argues that people make rational, calculated choices based on the rewards they expect to receive. People value different outcomes and will put effort into activities in proportion to their estimate of the likelihood of achieving what they want. In other words, people will put a lot of effort into something if they feel their chances of success are high and vice versa.

Goal theory

Goal setting has been very influential in many different professional areas and Locke and Latham’s (1969) work argues that if we set ourselves challenging goals, we will work hard to achieve them. Once we have achieved the goals, we are then in a good position to set some more. This cycle, sometimes called the high performance cycle, is often depicted as an upward moving spiral, as shown in Figure 2.2.


Figure 2.2 Goal theory

One key aspect is that any goal must be challenging; if the goals we set are too easy to achieve our motivation will probably dwindle. If a goal is not achieved, the result could be a downward spiral.

Equity theory

Equity theory (Adams, 1965) focuses on fairness and argues that people are motivated when they feel they are being treated in an equitable way in relation to their work colleagues. By contrast, people feel de-motivated if they feel they are being required to do more than their colleagues. In general terms, we are happy to put effort into something if we feel that the balance between our output compared to our input is in the same ratio as that of others around us. However, if others put in less and seem to receive more, we feel this is unfair and it de-motivates us.

More recent work (Pink, 2009) proposes that motivation is made up of three key elements and that neglecting these can lead to a lack of motivation.

• Autonomy — most of us like to have some control over our own work. As professionals this is also what we would expect.

• Mastery — the possibility of working at something in order to get better at it.

• Purpose — the opportunity to connect with a larger mission.

Pink argues that the ’carrot and stick’ approach to motivation is no longer applicable in a world where people are expected to be creative. Neglecting the three characteristics above and focusing only on goals and outputs means limiting what people can achieve.

Reflective activity 2.4

Now think about what motivates you. Which theory or theories do you find the most helpful in describing your motivation for your work?

Case study 2.4

Sandra is a social worker supporting children and young people with disabilities. Most of the time Sandra enjoys her work and thrives on the challenges it brings. She finds the work itself satisfying, but sometimes gets frustrated by the culture of her organisation. In particular, she finds that people rely on her too much and ask her to do things when they should be asking someone else. This means that Sandra becomes overloaded whilst others seem to have less to do than she does. Sandra decides to ask for support in her next supervision session. She explains the sense of unfairness that she feels and her manager asks her to make a note of when this happens so that it can be addressed.

Transactional Analysis drivers

In Transactional Analysis (TA), recognising our drivers and the ways in which they influence our work and lives is extremely helpful, particularly in relation to motivation. An understanding of TA helps us to identify the origins of our actions and reactions; this means we can then be in a position to change them if we wish. From an examination of Berne’s (1964) work, Kahler (1975) defined drivers, which can be seen in the following way.

In Berne’s ego state model (Parent Adult Child, often abbreviated to PAC), messages from our parent’s or carer’s Parent ego state are transacted with and received by our Parent ego state. These are the messages that communicate commands about what to do and what not to do, how we should behave and how we should not. They also lead us to define people and the world, for example ’good people are . . .’ and ’bad people are . . .’. These messages are grouped together to make five drivers, which become powerful tools and have a big influence on how we live our lives. Understanding our drivers is vital when thinking about what motivates us.

The five TA drivers are shown below. Each driver has strengths and weaknesses associated with it; like learning styles, weaknesses often emerge when our strengths are overdone. Here are some examples.

• Be Perfect — accurate, eye for detail, neat and tidy but will have a tendency to be harsh on themselves and ’beat themselves up’ when they fail to meet their own high standards. They can be harsh on other people too.

• Be Strong — excellent in a crisis, reliable and dependable, makes people feel safe and secure, but does not tend to show their feelings because they do not want to appear weak. This means they may come across as aloof or cold and dis-interested.

• Try Hard — has a very strong work ethic, is persistent and resilient, but sometimes does not know when to stop if something is too difficult. They are often not comfortable when receiving praise.

• Please (people) — great team members who get on well with lots of people. But they never want to upset people and so can be unassertive and often want to rescue people.

• Hurry Up — enthusiastic, achieve a lot in a short space of time, but can be prone to make mistakes because of rushing and lack of forethought.

Recognising our own TA drivers makes us more self-aware. Like learning styles, we can then use our drivers to our advantage, making sure that we do not overdo them, thereby allowing them to become weaknesses. In addition, a knowledge of drivers can help us become more aware of how others are behaving and communicating.

Case study 2.5

Brenda is training to be a mental health nurse and is becoming more self-aware as she is progressing. In particular, she is aware of her strong Please (people) driver; this is a strength in her work as it means that she works very well in a team and is genuinely interested in people, and it makes her compassionate in her work. But she realises that it also has its drawbacks. At times she worries about upsetting people (both colleagues and patients) and this makes her anxious and passive. Brenda’s mentor has recognised this and, as a first step, has asked her to observe instances when patients have had to receive difficult information. She would like to discuss these the next time they meet and for Brenda to highlight the strengths and weaknesses in the approaches taken by the staff concerned. Brenda knows that this will help her to consider how she might approach such tasks in the future, using the strengths of her Please (people) driver without succumbing to its weaknesses.


The focus of this chapter has been on becoming more self-aware, which is key to becoming more reflective in your work. We started by examining the concept of the metaphorical mirror by looking at the different kinds of mirrors we use and what these tell us about different aspects of reflective practice. We then moved on to explore learning styles and began to look at how we learn best. This was followed by a SWOT/B and SWAIN analysis. The chapter concluded with an examination of a number of theories of motivation and the concept of TA drivers. All of these different aspects help us to understand ourselves better, which is vital for our professional development. In the next chapter we look at the role of writing in reflection.


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