Reflect for Success

| | Personal Leadership

womanwithquestionsIn The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth, John Maxwell illuminates the importance of learning to “pause to allow growth to catch up with you”. He refers to this as the Law of Reflection.

There is another habit, however, often masquerading as reflection, that can undermine your success. That habit is processing.

What I mean by “processing” is an intense stream of thoughts that are focused on analyzing why something didn’t work, what you should have done differently, who was right and who was wrong, etc.

From the outside, processing might look like you are reflecting in quiet solitude. Internally, you might experience that the outside world has fallen away while your mind is hard at work. It can feel strangely productive, even though it will rarely produce anything of value, other than to assuage the uncomfortable feelings of lament, guilt, regret, shame or fear for the moment.

You see, there is one significant difference between a mode of reflection and a mode of processing.  The ability to recognize the difference can give you the power in any moment to shift your attention, from trying to alter a past you cannot change, to curating insight and wisdom that can contribute to your future success.

It all comes down to the questions you choose to ponder in those opportunities for reflection.

“Successful people ask better questions, and as a result they get better answers.” Anthony Robbins

“Why did…” Questions Trigger Processing

Questions that begin with “why did,” such as “why did this happen?” or “why did they…?,” are perhaps the biggest culprit in stirring our minds to process. “Why did” questions tend to drive us to seek satisfaction in the form of things like validation, being right, and understanding where to place the blame. Alternatively, we assume we must be to blame, so processing becomes like a salve to soothe our shame with our litany of responses to “if only…” and “why didn’t I…”

“Why did” questions are also typically focused on understanding a past we cannot change, as though we could actually fix it just by thinking about it until we understand what went wrong or even who went wrong.

In either case, the outcome will be clarity about what you should have done, conclusions about who you can or can’t trust, including perhaps yourself, and decisions about what you will or won’t do next time that may or may not work out. Chances are this won’t be the last conversation you have with yourself about this either, because when your attention keeps going back to trying to understand a past you cannot change you will never really be satisfied.

“What” and “How” Questions Empower Reflection

If you look at John Maxwell’s list of questions for personal awareness all 10 of them begin with the word “what.” He includes questions like: What is my most worthwhile emotion? What is my highest high? What is my lowest low?

“How” questions, such as “how could we help others to be better leaders?,” “how am I growing?,” “how could we make this situation better?,” are also powerful because they keep our attention on the future.  They show us the way to what we can do vs. keeping us focused on what we should have done.

Not all “why” questions are all bad either. Knowing your “why,” for example, as in “why is something so important to you?,” “why does this really matter to them?,” etc., are very useful in triggering constructive reflection.

The outcome of true reflection is insight that helps you to do better and be better in the future. The gifts of reflection come in packages of “aha” moments that leave you inspired and motivated or even simply at peace.

Ultimately the best way to know whether you have been reflecting or processing is to observe your energy on the other end. Are you feeling energized or at peace? Or are you feeling depleted or defeated?

Learn to recognize the difference and not only will you fuel your success now, but you might even change the course for your future.


Image credit: nastia / 123RF Stock Photo


Enter A Comment

Joy Guthrie   |   16 January 2014   |   Reply

Powerful post, Susan. Thank you for sharing! Great distinction between the two.

Susan Mazza   |   21 January 2014   |   Reply

Thank you Joy!

Tagrid Sihly   |   16 January 2014   |   Reply

This is a valuable post, Susan. Reflection is definitely necessary to spur growth and inspire success in the future. However, I believe that “why” questions are just as important as “what” and “how” questions in analyzing the root cause(s) of the events. It’s not necessarily about putting blame on one’s self or others but about identifying possible causes and promoting understanding of the data so that more informed decisions can be made in the future. Asking a question such as, “Why are our students not achieving mastery?,” will help me identify the possible causes and will open the door to possible solutions through a visionary plan of action. I guess it depends on the quality of the “why” question being asked.

Susan Mazza   |   21 January 2014   |   Reply

Thanks for sharing your insight here Tagrid. Perhaps it comes down to setting the context for the questions we ask. Your example of “why are our students not achieving mastery?” could get very different types of responses depending on who is asking and in what context.

I’ve found shifting a “why” question to a “what” question can help tremendously with context, especially in a group in which trust is weak. Even a simple rephrasing of “why did we miss the deadline?” to “what was missing or in the way of our ability to meet the deadline?” can make a big difference in spurring on a productive conversation.

Karin Hurt   |   21 January 2014   |   Reply

Such an important post. We so often focus on what must be done, quickly, that we forget to really take time to process. I process best on a long run or walk. So vital to build such time into our lives.

Susan Mazza   |   21 January 2014   |   Reply

Thanks Karin. At some point if we want to do anything better we actually have to stop doing!

Sridhar Laxman   |   27 February 2014   |   Reply

Thank you for this wonderful post

I find reflection to be a powerful process in coaching my clients. Your point about reflection vs processing is important, what gets our attention gets energy, focusing on the ‘what else’, ‘how can I’ and similar possibility questions can do wonders to anyone stuck or struggling with life challenges while the ‘Why’ questions most often do nothing but keep us chasing our tails.

The quality of questions we ask ourselves indeed determines the quality of our life.

Susan Mazza   |   06 March 2014   |   Reply

Well said Sridhar: “The quality of questions we ask ourselves indeed determines the quality of our life.”

Before I understood this I can look back and see just how much energy I squandered. Your point that what gets our attention gets our energy is so true.

Thank you sharing your insights here!