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 REFLECTIVE PRACTICE GROUPS

With

BILL SCHAFER PH.D. and ALICE MIXER M.S.W.


Many people believe that reflection and introspection are the same. They think that reflecting means looking within. My experience has been that looking within usually shows me no more than what I was aware of in the first place. I find that introspection won’t tell me what I do not and possibly do not want to know. But if reflection and introspection are not the same, how do they differ? 

Imagine you have been hiking for a long day in the mountains. The territory you have covered was new to you. It turned out to be an exhilarating but difficult passage. Now as the afternoon lengthens you find yourself standing at the edge of a perfectly still lake. You peer into it and mirrored back to you is your own face and just behind it the mountainside you have been traversing. The experience of simultaneously observing both yourself and your present situation, seen from the perspective of a third vantage point, is the essence of true reflection. It is comprised of several distinct elements. The first is your own willingness to show yourself – not just to look, but to be seen as well. You have to present yourself. You have to undertake the journey; you have to find the mirror lake, and you must be willing to look into it. The second element is the water. It must be flat and untroubled. If unclear, if littered with debris, or if buffeted by too much wind it will not be able to show you an accurate picture of how you are in this very moment when and where you happen to be.

The first two elements of reflection then are the one who signals and the other who mirrors the signal back to the sender. Each must bring something of themself to the task. If the one who signals is not willing to be seen or if the one who mirrors is too preoccupied, distracted, or troubled to offer a clear image there will be no effective reflection. There is additionally a third element. It is the one we rarely notice, since we usually take it for granted. The third element is the light itself. Without light there would be neither signal sent nor image returned. 

If we translate these three elements into terms of the kind of interaction required for human development we can say that the first element is the willingness of the speaker to present his or her present situation so far as it is known, the second is the stillness and clarity of the listener who mirrors the presentation back to the speaker, and the third is the light of consciousness itself. This last item, consciousness, is of course a truly complex subject. But for present purposes we could settle for the following shorthand: consciousness is the moment to moment subjective experience produced by the human brain’s constant self-organizing nature. It is the nature of the brain to organize itself. Greater organization produces a shift in consciousness. Shifts of consciousness in turn are both the means and the products of all inner healing.

So we can see that the major difference between introspection and reflection is that the latter is by nature a social rather than a solitary event. It is at root a “knowing-with”. Reflective practice groups are gatherings of people committed to this kind of knowing-with. They grew out of what we first called reflective supervision groups. Reflective supervision was the creation of the relatively new field of infant mental health, a combined field of research and clinical practice concerned with the early relationships formed during infancy, before language and conceptual thinking are present. Perhaps because of its focus on a wordless period dominated by emotion and physical sensation, training in infant mental health quickly recognized that it needed to occur within the context of a reciprocal emotional engagement between supervisor and supervisee – an engagement that went  deeper than words and concepts. But as we provided reflective supervision to more and more clinicians it became obvious that their process of growth was covering more territory than just the skills of clinical intervention. For many clinicians the deepening of professional skill simultaneously offereded into an invitation to look more deeply into their personal development. And so reflective supervision seemed to naturally mature into reflective practice, which is the expansion of the reflection from clinical work only to the totality of one’s professional/personal life. In reflective practice, reflection is not just a means to enliven professional practice; it also becomes the central practice of one’s daily living. 

And so we came to believe that professionals whose business is healing need more than the narrow skill sets of their individual fields of specialty. Whether we call ourselves physicians, nurses, psychotherapists, counselors, social workers, teachers, coaches, mentors, spiritual directors, or by any other name, we know we must understand, address, and be able to converse with the whole person whose healing we wish to assist. The foundation for that conversation is self awareness and the ability to address our own inner life with both courage and kindness. Reflective practice is a way of maintaining that continual, honest, and deeply intimate conversation with oneself.  

Our Reflective Practice Groups usually meet three or four times each year, for two days each time. We divide our time into periods of meditation, teaching, small group exercises, and group discussion. We begin each meeting with a period of quiet stillness and then we begin a check-in. This is an opportunity for each member to tell the others what has been happening in their life and in their personal growth since the group last met. During this initial conversation one or two people may become aware that they have an issue they want to work on more deeply. They then may call upon anyone in the circle to facilitate a thirty to fifty minute reflective conversation about the issue while the group listens in silent support. Following the conversation there may be feedback and further discussion from the whole group. 

About half of the time is devoted to teaching. Every year each group has its own special theme. We have covered many areas. First and foremost is the Enneagram, which is a system of personality types that concentrates on how each type pays attention to, perceives and organizes, remembers and communicates experience. The Enneagram has become a common language for sharing our own personal growth. We have also explored how our sense of self develops throughout the life span, using Spiral Dynamics as a framework for our study. We study reflective supervision, and the use of mindfulness, meditation, and body awareness in psychotherapy. Lectures are kept to a minimum and are always followed by small group exercises in pairs or in threes as a way to facilitate active learning. 

Continuity is a key element of every Reflective Practice Group. Members sign up for a year at a time; most of them usually remain in the group from year to year. At time goes on, we come to know and value one another more and more deeply. The group itself becomes a source of tremendous security as well as a place where one feels brave enough to risk taking a new step along one’s developmental path.