Reflection Chapter from Tough Love

There are excellent reasons to use a practitioner’s experience in actual cases. But, a cautionary tale involves the excellent athlete who does not make a great coach, the business leader who becomes a mediocre university lecturer, and the gifted practitioner of dispute resolution who cannot impart skills well. Yet, it is tantalizing to consider the wealth of experience one might access, if one could employ gifted professionals in the correct manner. Ignoring experience is not appropriate.

Unlocking excellence in gifted practitioners is no small feat. Their very skills may cause snap judgments, entrenched attitudes and other errors. However, the gifted practitioner surely has access to different, multiple and unique kinds of knowledge—skill, confidence and articulated knowledge, for example. The first is “based on genuine personal experiences of problem solving”, the second on “examples, demonstrations, histories (on successes and failures) from colleagues”, and the third on “general principles, formal theory, methods and prescriptions”. The expert may just behave differently than the novice, and that difference can benefit others, if codified. There is a possibility that some gifted practitioners may be object lessons in how not to behave as well. Their methods may be impossible or inappropriate to emulate.

Gifted practitioners may succumb to aloofness, or have difficulty imparting their special skills. They may be better practitioners in the moment, than communicators after the fact. They may be intuitive rather than analytical. They may need the exhilaration of a client in need, or billable time to perform well. Nonetheless, the literature indicates that “learning insights about oneself, insights about the Other, insights about (improving) the relationship between Self and Other” are all possible and valid goals.

There are benefits for the practitioner, the client and students of practitioners in improving access to lessons from past cases. Schon points to how “we show ourselves to be knowledgeable in a special way” when elite practitioners “go about . . . spontaneous, intuitive performance.” He uses the term reflection to express the methodology necessary to grow as a practitioner and to impart additional data to clients and other practitioners. Reflection “can serve as a corrective [to] make new sense of the situations” that arise in a practice.

The benefit to the practitioner occurs when “. . . he becomes a researcher in the practice context. He is not dependent on the on the categories of established theory and technique, but constructs a new theory of the unique case.” The practitioner thus improves and the benefit to others increases in the future as well. The others are future clients and students who are served better and more respectfully by a more skilled practitioner.

On the ethical front, there is the issue of one’s legitimate self-interest that motivates us all. The past case, and methods which worked on that occasion, may be tainted by these interests. Was the case picket for study because the teacher is the hero of the story, or the client is prestigious? Even “subterfuge” may have been “part of ‘the game’” of negotiation and conflict resolution.
Reflection may be an antidote to the ethical and other stumbling blocks in picking the right case and recounting it effectively. Reflection-in-action is “on-the-spot surfacing, criticizing, restructuring, and testing of intuitive understandings of experienced phenomena.” Reflection can be achieved through questioning, or through “a competition among hypotheses, rather like a horse race.” It is partly through this competition that the practitioner becomes a researcher. Reflection-in-action allows for experimenting which “is at once exploratory, move testing, and hypothesis testing.” These are the three major laboratory techniques in that “…the action by which he tests his hypothesis is also a move by which he tries to effect (sic) a desired change in the situation, and a probe by which he explores it.” In the courtroom, this may take seconds. Regardless of the venue, the technique or the time devoted, it is clear that reflection during the delivery of services to clients can enrich the experience for both parties and optimize the service provided.

For the most part, Schon seems to examine reflection during practice–“…know-how is in the action…” He discusses the conversion of “knowing-in-action to knowledge-in-action.” It is a consciousness of one’s actions that is the focus. This action is progressive, with the practitioner becoming more skilled through reflection. Schon notes that some practitioners (“protagonists”), “do not reflect on their frames by act from them, seeking to defend their own positions and attack the positions of their opponents”. In this instance, the frame appears to be a rigid container occupied by the practitioner, rather than a picture or scene that the practitioner can analyze from without. The difficulty of “reflection on action” also occurs because artistry is indescribable, and “reflection-in-action paralyzes action.”

Schon says practitioners do “reflect-in-action, but they seldom reflect on their reflection-in-action.” This surely means that the reflection consists of a regular check up on how the case is going, while the case is going on. It is less likely to be after the fact reflection. There seems to be a post-facto element to breaking open one’s actions “to make a new sense of [the] . . . transaction”. The dilemma is then that the practitioner may be too occupied in the case to reflect fully, other than for immediate purposes. Then, after the fact, “[s]ince he cannot describe his reflection-in-action, he cannot teach others to do it. If they [others] acquire the capacity for it, they do so by contagion.”

I use the expression reflection-after-action to capture several notions. Reflection takes time. Most practitioners can access material in a more sophisticated fashion after a longer period in practice. While it is possible to reflect while practicing, there are no doubt both benefits and detriments to doing so. Reflection after the fact allows for a different psychological and physiological stance. If nothing else, it would be unusual to gain nothing with the passage of time—experience, maturity, humility, perspective and so on. These surely add to one’s ability to reflect and analyze.

Another reason for using the term involves military tradition. The notion of the fog of war is well-known in military circles. This refers to the difficulty of fully appreciating a situation that one is in. It is hard to fight a battle and analyze it at the same time. Another common expression is that no battle plan outlives the first shot. This speaks to the fluidity of military situations and how tactics must change and adapt. Finally, there is the military after-action report, which serves to analyze a situation post-facto. This analysis is designed to enhance learning and produce new tactics for future use. One plans, executes in a dynamic and potentially unique situation (and evaluates and learns while executing) and then analyses post-facto for present and future reference.

So, what’s the best way to reflect on a past case? One good way is to write out a full text. The spoken word (even from notes) is sufficiently different from the written word, that the thoughtful practitioner will have a different experience with the case material and her thoughts, if s/he undertakes a formal written account of the material. Similarly, constructing a PowerPoint presentation affords the opportunity to import supportive video clips, audio material, still pictures and diagrams, which may enhance learning and appeal to diverse learning styles. One can consult the academic and quality popular literature for similar cases, or even dissimilar cases that offer a counter-point. Popular culture can be used for relevance and accessibility.

So, with these observations and context, it is time to launch into my ethnographic accounts. All the cases which follow are true. Identifying names, genders, locations an dates have been altered to protect the identity of the subjects. I enjoyed my journey through these cases, both the first time, and in the subsequent writing and recounting I undertook. I hope you enjoy the journey too.

check out the full book at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.