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Spreading the word: Reflective Process – What it is and why it’s important

We all face daily challenges: caring for family members, working with colleagues, perhaps supervising others or responding to a boss.  Sometimes we know what to do, even if we have to bear some discomfort, as we respond to situations in a steady and kind manner.

And yet, often enough, we are stumped by a situation, or even thrown for a real setback.  When that happens, we can become stressed, and that stress tends to make it harder to think of how to respond well, how to avoid doing something that creates more difficulty, such as withdrawing or reacting harshly.

But we are social animals, and when we have people to help us we are usually better able to figure out a response to try, and then review and try again if that doesn’t work.

Reflective process is just that: taking time with people who can help us with our inevitable dilemmas.  Sadly, many people feel they do not have the time or access to help.  This article will aim to describe what reflective process is with the hope that you will seek to build such support into your life.

Mr. Rogers said it well: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

Perhaps you have had a great coach, parent, or boss, or someone else who really helped you to be more able to solve life’s problems. What were the qualities of that relationship?   Great reflective experiences share a number of qualities:

Reflective Process isn’t therapy – it’s helpful supportive and responsive listening. Good therapy is that, and more, but the focus in therapy is about more complex difficulties. Reflective process is for the everyday things that come up since no one has the answer to everything. When those difficulties cause a more serious depression or anxiety, etc., then therapy can be a good idea, but reflective process is something that anyone can learn to do.

Hang on, are you saying I should have this or I should do this? Both, actually. We all can use reflective help at times, and in turn we can all help others in a similar fashion. Think of it this way: all kids, from infancy onward, do best with responsive caregiving, the kind that supports development by providing that balanced kind of care and some room to learn to do things on one’s own. And parents do better when they have support for themselves. In health care and education, the providers and supervisors often help caregivers (parents, teachers, and others), and those providers and supervisors do best when they themselves have reflective support. It is a chain of care. We have all heard of the Golden Rule. In Reflective Process we talk about the Platinum Rule: Do unto others as would have them do unto others.

How do we do this? There are many books and opinions about what Reflective Process is, how to learn it, how to practice it, and how to do it. As an example, Zero to Three publications describe a straightforward and easy to remember method of doing reflective process:

Look at the situation: what are the strengths and experience of all of the people involved, including myself?

Listen for the emotions that are present in everyone involved, again including myself – emotions are the driving forces in interactions and learning.

Learn all the different perspectives of all the people involved in the situation, including myself, so that we have a broad enough understanding to problem.

When we do these things we can often come to a better sense of what is going on and what we might try next. The goal is for the person who is helping to wonder aloud about all these Look, Listen, and Learn things, so that person who is struggling has a chance to try to come up with some ideas of what to try.

Reflective process is non-directive. We try to not tell people what do, so that they have a chance on their own to think of possible ideas to try. If someone is stuck we might offer ideas of what worked for us or for someone else in a similar situation, but we avoid prescribing a solution as this takes away the power of the person struggling to gain confidence in his or her own ability to solve problems. This process is centrally important in building resilience to stress, a sense that ‘I can get through this – I have support, and I can think up things to try’.

Regular time: Reflective process works best when we have the assurance that there will be a next time to get together. No ideas always work, and new challenges always come up. We need to know that that our support is an ongoing process.

Non-Judgmental: It can be difficult to refrain from judging people when we hear about their difficulties, and yet when we think about times when we might be at a loss, perhaps we can better put ourselves in the shoes of each person in the situation and so make it more likely that people will feel safe and then more able to think productively.

Reflective process is used in many agencies, companies, and settings, and while it takes time from work hours, research shows that it makes for far greater efficiency and a more productive work climate. It is well worth the time and effort to look for the helping people. I would encourage you to read more about Reflective Process by looking at Zero to Three or other readily available resources online.

Dr. Feder is a Senior Expert with the Early Years International Network for Peace Building with Young Children and a Clinical Associate Professor at UCSD School of Medicine.

*This article first appeared in the Infant Development Association of California Newsletter, April 2015, and references Zero to Three.

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Joshua Feder, M.D. Dr. Feder's Blog

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