reflecting on reflection

Group 7 of SUGS 2015During last week, I took part in the delivery of the Sheffield GradSchool (SUGS), a 3-day development programme for PhD students from across the University. For me the most important aspect about the programme, is that it gives PhD researchers the opportunity to ‘pause’, park their PhD for a few days and give them permission to think about themselves. It allows the swirl of data collection, experimental work, analysis, deadlines, writing tasks, meetings, teaching commitments, or supervisory discussions to be put on hold for 72 hours. It allows researchers to take a breath. keep-calm-and-pause-177x177 If you didn’t take part in SUGS, ask yourself the following:

  • Do I feel I can pause and think about how things are going in my work?
  • How are my work relationships with colleagues, supervisor or manager?
  • What can I improve in the way I work and interact?
  • What could be different?
  • What do I need to do more of, or less of?

Over the next couple of months, researchers across the University will start taking part in their annual review (SRDS[†] and PhD researchers will again at the start of the next academic review their Training Needs Analysis (TNA). I think that using the SRDS or the TNA as moments to pause and think about ourselves and what we want is really what these university processes can be about. The SUGS programme helps researchers explore the way they work and communicate in teams, collaborate with others, but also consider their leadership potential. In addition, researchers get a chance to think about their career, practice being interviewed and have a go at interviewing others. It reminds participants that reviewing values, believes and goals are an integral part of career planning.

  • When was the last time you reviewed your own values?
  • Is your work and life pattern congruent with your values?

The programme uses an experiential approach to learning. Small groups of around 8 researchers are assigned a group tutor and work within this group during the entire programme. After each activity, the group review the way they have worked, what they have learned from each activity and how to take learning forward. A lot of time is spent on reviewing actions and interactions, and planning new ways of working, interacting and communicating. This is as much about feedback as it is about finding new ways for the future. This is a very special opportunity. Individuals are rarely afforded the time to reflect in depth on their actions and interactions within teams and teams are rarely brave enough to undertake this level of analysis of their interactions. Such approach brings to individuals very powerful insights about themselves and how they relate to others within a safe and supportive environment. For such process to be successful, it requires a number of elements:

  • The desire of each individual to reflect on what they do
  • The aspiration to breaking patterns (‘yes I can step out of my default position, yes I am prepared to see what does not work’)
  • The willingness to consider that things can change (and be better!)
  • The ability to offer ideas on how to do things differently
  • The openness of participants to hear feedback
  • The commitment to act upon new options
  • The readiness to creating new patterns (‘yes I can consider new ways of working, interacting; yes I can change my way of working’)

It is about shifting from the often negative perception of feedback and embrace the concept of feed-forward, looking ahead towards new ways.

Could you embed such commitments in your normal working practice?

You could start using 2 different strategies to reflect: 1/ Have coaching conversations:

  • You bring an issue you want to work through to a coaching partner[‡]
  • Your coaching partner ask questions to help you dig at the issue
  • Your coaching partner does not offer any solutions, you do by thinking aloud
  • Your coaching partner keep probing and questioning until you have identified ways forward that suits your needs

2/ Have feed-forward conversations:

  • You bring an issue you want to work through to others (eg. colleagues, friends, peers etc)
  • You ask them to offer you a couple of ideas that could help with the issue
  • You receive the ideas (‘the gifs’) without judging, you note them without discarding them
  • You go back to these ideas later on and work through them

My SUGS group choose the motto “Together we can” to describe the ambition of the group over the three days. The group supported each other to review the way each individual worked and interacted, and how new ways of working and interacting could be explored during their PhD research and developing careers. They also offered feedback to each other. Providing and receiving feedback is not necessarily easy. I gave SUGS participants a simple tool to structure their feedback and keys reminders about being the recipients of feedback. Structuring your feedback can take the form of a 4-stage process:feedback structure

  • Make observations of behaviour or actions from what you have seen
  • State the impact of behaviours or actions
  • State a need of you or others
  • Make a request based on something the feedback recipient should either continue doing or do differently

Receiving feedback can also be framed in simple terms: Receiving feedback

So how will you raise your self-awareness over the next few months?

[†] There is an SRDS document specific for researchers introduced in 2014 in the Faculties of Science and MDH. It will now also be used in other faculties. Make sure you use the researcher SRDS document as it is better tailored to researchers. [‡] The University has an extensive programme to develop coaching skills. Look at the training offered by Kay Guccione. Image credit:

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