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  • Writer's pictureA D Ackerman

A horse's eye: reflections on reflecting

Closeup of horse's eye with reflection of photographer
(c) Alice Ackerman 2019

Recently, during a coaching session with a client, they asked me what I meant by the term “reflection”. They told me that they had been asked in the past many times to “reflect upon” an incident or situation. They were a bit uncertain as to what reflection entails and how to make it useful. Is it to see what mistakes you have made? Did the other person ask you to "reflect" because they thought you did something wrong? What is its purpose?

Wow! I was stunned. I have asked many students and clients to reflect, without ever REALLY pondering EXACTLY what I meant. I thought it was self-explanatory. So, I looked it up on and found that--

Reflection is a noun with at least all the following meanings (I left out the one used in mathematics).

· the throwing back by a body or surface of light, heat, or sound without absorbing it

· an amount of light, heat, or sound that is reflected by a body or surface

· an image seen in a mirror or shiny surface

· a thing that is a consequence of or arises from something else

· a thing bringing discredit to someone or something

· serious thought or consideration

· an idea about something, especially one that is written down or expressed

And, of course the verb reflect similarly means to:

· throw back (heat, light, or sound) without absorbing it

· (of a mirror or shiny surface) show an image of

· embody or represent (something) in a faithful or appropriate way

· (of an action or situation) bring (credit or discredit) to the relevant parties

· bring about a good or bad impression of

· think deeply or carefully about

So, when we talk about reflecting, are we talking about pictures, consequences, good or bad impressions, or deep thought?

And my answer to that question is: YES; all of the above

Reflection, in all its meanings has purpose in teaching, mentoring, learning, and especially in coaching. As a teacher I want my students to reflect well on my instruction by learning the material. As a mentor I want my mentees to act in a way that they might emulate their mentor and be in some way an image of the mentor. As a learner, I (or my student) incorporates knowledge gained and reflects it outward in terms of new behaviors, skills, or attitudes. The one definition I don’t particularly like, especially when I think about learners or mentees, is the notion of throwing back without absorbing. That, to me is more like parroting.

I once heard a student of mine speaking to another student, telling him about a topic we had discussed the prior day. The student repeated the very words I had used, in a very emphatic manner. But when his colleague asked for some details, or expressed discomfort with the topic, the original student was unable to add more depth. He had not really learned the topic, he was only just repeating, and had not absorbed the full content. So his words were reflecting what I had told him, but clearly without absorbing.

In the photo above, the photographer (me, a few years ago) is clearly being reflected by the horse's eye. But I am certain the horse was also able to absorb the fact that I was standing in front of him, even though the lens of his eye was clearly acting like a mirror to show my reflection.

When I coach, it is my goal to reflect back (as a mirror) to my clients what I see in them, often issues or items they have not been able to see in themselves. Yet I also absorb what they are portraying, so that I can make sense of it as well. It is my goal to have them think deeply about themselves and about the new knowledge they have gained about themselves and the way they respond to their environment. And it is my goal for them to see the consequences of their current behaviors (the default outcome if everything continues going in the way it is currently going) and how those consequences can change with deeper knowledge and appropriate action.

Some of the ways that we, as coaches, use reflection is by asking questions that cause the client to not just answer what is coming first to mind, but to go deeper to understand motivation, deeply held beliefs, and desires for their future state. So, they will use reflection during as well as after our sessions.

That is why as a coach I have to be curious, to ask the appropriate questions about what my client is feeling or what the words they just said mean to them. Its why I have to be courageous, because some of what my client sees when I hold up that mirror, they won’t necessarily like; and I have to be creative to work with my client as a partner to design the future that the client desires.

Does this all make sense? Do you have other definitions or uses for the words reflection and reflect? How do you use reflection in your daily life or activities? Is reflection a part of your approach to learning or teaching? Please let me know in the comments.


Thanks for reading! I value your time and presence. Please come find me on Twitter at @CoachingADA, or on LinkedIn. Or send me an email at

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