Are you reflecting, or ruminating?

by | May 16, 2023 | Leadership

I’m currently competing in the tennis club tournament. I’m pleased to say that things are going quite well, but I came out of my last match disappointed in how I’d played, even though my partner and I won.

My go-to was to beat myself up for shots I missed or fluffed that I knew I could play better, and to worry about what my fellow players must be thinking.

How helpful is this? Not very. Rather than taking a balanced view of what took place – the dynamic with my tennis partner, my opponents’ game, my physiological state – I’ve chosen to zone in on what I did badly and allow that to be the story of the whole match.

Ruminating not reflecting

Does this sound familiar? One leader I spoke to recently had spent days dwelling on how she’d lost her cool in a team meeting. She was going over and over what she felt she’d done wrong instead of considering what had led to her behaviour and what insights she could draw from the experience to help her be more effective in the future.

She was ruminating rather than reflecting. The word “ruminating” relates to how cows eat their food – chewing and digesting, they regurgitate it to start the whole process all over again. It’s useful for cows, not so much for humans. Unfortunately, our in-built negativity bias means it’s only too familiar to many of us.

Reflection is important – but hard

This is where the capacity for reflection comes in. Reflection means careful thought or consideration. Interesting, the word comes from the Latin for “bending back”. So it’s essentially thinking carefully about what has passed.

However, as I see in myself and my clients, it’s hard to do, not least because it requires pausing and stepping away from Getting Stuff Done. Secondly, it can be uncomfortable, not only because it may involve confronting unpalatable truths but because it involves sitting still with your thoughts.

However, if you don’t stop to make sense of your experiences, to learn from what’s gone well and what hasn’t, you risk making the same mistakes again and again, none the wiser.

See the wood for the trees

When you’re a leader, you need to be able to see the wood for the trees, not be lost in it.

Setting aside the time and space to reflect helps you to hold on to your vision, to notice what is helping your journey and what is hindering it, what’s working well in your leadership, what you could do more of or differently. 

As Charlie Unwin writes in Inside Out, stopping to reflect, “can help you move forward, to come to decisions, to create a course of action, and to challenge yourself to temporarily switch off autopilot and your habitual ways of doing and thinking.”

Be your own coach

Reflection is about being your own coach, having a conversation with yourself as though you were sitting in front of yourself in a mirror.

I find it easiest with a pen and paper and a quiet space. Unwin suggests 10-15 minutes a few times a week may well be sufficient. It may be valuable for you to do first thing, before the day rushes in, or use as a way of reviewing and closing down at the end of your day – or both.

Questions for reflection

If you’re reflecting on a specific situation, these questions may be helpful :

  • What happened?
  • What did I expect to happen?
  • What changed?
  • What did I do well? What was I pleased with?
  • What didn’t go so well? What was my part in that?
  • What could I have done differently?
  • What other factors were at play?
  • What have I learned? What are my insights?
  • How do I want to apply those learnings to future situations?

If you’re reflecting more generally on how things are going with your leadership, these questions may stimulate your thinking :

  • How am I feeling? What’s that about?
  • As I reflect on my/our vision and objectives, how am I/are we doing?
  • What’s going well? What’s challenging?
  • What am I learning as a leader?
  • Where do I/we need to adjust course moving forward?
  • What conversations do I need to have?

To quote writer Søren Kierkegaard : “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

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Alison Reid is an experienced executive coach who helps senior managers and directors lead with confidence and step-change their influence and impact. She works with them 1-1, empowering them to focus on what matters, communicate with impact and stay calm under pressure so they can lead themselves and others to great results. She's the author of Unleash Your Leadership : How to Worry Less and Achieve More. Download an extract or buy the book.

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