Reflective Practice in Coaching: What It Is & How to Use It

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Coach the Person, Not the Problem" by Marcia Reynolds. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is reflective practice in coaching? Why is it an important skill for coaches? What are some examples of reflective practice?

In Coach the Person, Not the Problem, Marcia Reynolds seeks to expand people’s understanding of coaching. She argues that coaching is a partnership in which coaches can use reflective practice to help clients examine and challenge deep-seated beliefs that limit them.

Keep reading to learn more about reflective practice in coaching, according to Reynolds.

Reynolds on Reflective Practice in Coaching

Author and transformational coach Marcia Reynolds argues that your top priority during coaching sessions is to stay focused on helping your client address deeply held assumptions, beliefs, and emotions that hinder their progress—not fixing surface-level problems they present to you. In her book Coach the Person, Not the Problem, she explains how to use reflective practice in coaching to focus on clients’ deeper beliefs and emotions, helping them to see how particular beliefs and emotions lead them into the same problems and undesirable situations over and over again. Then, they can view those problems and situations differently, expand their understanding of themselves, and make lasting change. In contrast, providing solutions to surface-level problems will address the issue at hand, but it won’t help your client understand why they repeatedly confront the same problem that masks itself in different forms.

(Shortform note: A different way of thinking about the interplay of beliefs, emotions, and behavior is through the lens of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a technique premised on the idea that clients can make positive behavioral changes by identifying and replacing negative, limiting thoughts with accurate, productive ones—a process that fuels a continuous cycle of cognitive and mood improvements.)

Reynolds acknowledges that examining clients’ underlying beliefs is an uncomfortable process because it requires clients to be vulnerable and coaches to delve into emotionally precarious terrain. But surfacing uncomfortable feelings and truths is the only way to help clients see that their inaccurate beliefs and challenging emotions are the source of their struggle to make decisions and take action in their lives. 

(Shortform note: The issue of client vulnerability exists not just in coaching but in counseling professions, which historically were not as receptive to clients exposing their raw emotions as they are today. In Nonviolent Communication, Marshall B. Rosenberg argues that until the mid-20th century, the cardinal rule of psychotherapy was clinical detachment. Therapists were trained in analysis, not empathy, and taught to respond to clients who expressed vulnerability with cool detachment, which discouraged them from sharing more.)

You can stay focused on clients’ underlying assumptions by reminding yourself as you enter sessions of core principles of the coach-client relationship that de-emphasize surface-level problem-solving, including that you’re a partner who’s there to help your fully competent client reflect on deeper beliefs, not an expert who’s there to solve their problems. 

Reflect Back Clients’ Words and Emotions

Reynolds says that using reflective practice in coaching by reflecting clients’ words and emotions back to them allows clients to more objectively see and examine underlying factors that limit them and consider new ways forward. The reflective process begins with summarizing or rephrasing important points that your client makes, then asking follow-up questions and reflecting back emotions the client surfaces. 

(Shortform note: Therapists support Reynolds’ approach for going deeper, asserting that when you listen to understand rather than respond to clients you make them feel heard and validated, which can give you more insight into the challenges they face. Similar to Reynolds, they say you can go deeper with clients by putting aside your personal feelings and agenda, suspending judgment, focusing on the other person’s perspective, asking open-ended questions to enhance your understanding of what they’re saying, and summarizing and validating what they’ve said.) 

Reflect Back by Summarizing and Asking Follow-Up Questions

Reynolds says the first step to reflective practice in coaching is to verbally summarize your client’s key points, then add short, clarifying questions to get a deeper understanding of what they’re thinking and feeling. As you do this, you should allow room for your client to fill in the blanks and add additional details and explanation. This back-and-forth dialogue ensures that you have an accurate understanding of your client’s position while revealing deeper motivations and emotions that your client is experiencing (perhaps subconsciously). By demonstrating to your client that you’re present and listening rather than jumping to conclusions, you’ll receive helpful information that will enable you to guide them to their own realizations. 

(Shortform note: Aside from coaching, therapists assert that reflective practice is a component of “validation in therapy,” a process that helps clients see that their words and experiences matter and are being taken seriously, and that their behavior—even if inappropriate—is understandable. The process has been found to improve client outcomes and build trust and strengthen the therapeutic alliance between counselors and clients.)

To get the most out of summarizing and questioning, frame your questions to solicit the following information, which will help you help your client home in on the source of the challenges they’re facing and identify goals to move forward:

  • What are your client’s needs and wants? Which of these are most important to them?
  • Do they believe they can achieve these things? 
  • What do they fear will happen if they don’t achieve their needs and wants?
  • What has your client already tried, and when? What was the result?
  • Why is your client choosing now, of all times, to ask for help?

Summarizing what your client has said interrupts their automatic thought process, giving them the chance to pause and consider a) whether your synopsis is accurate and b) the underlying meaning of the thought or belief they shared. Reynolds says that summarizing entails three skills: recapping, paraphrasing, and encapsulating.

(Shortform note: In The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier adds that a good question gets to the point without feeling like it came out of a coaching manual. He recommends starting by simply asking, “What’s on your mind?,” then following up with, “Anything else?,” “What’s your central challenge?,” and, “What do you want?” Like Reynolds, he argues that coaches should trust in people’s ability to identify and rectify their challenges, and he says you can communicate this trust by asking: “How can I support you?” rather than stepping in and fixing their problems.)

Recapping is when you provide highlights of the issue, problem, or reason your client says they’re having difficulty making a decision or taking an action. It allows you to clarify and make sure you understand the full picture of what your client’s saying. 

Reynolds recommends that you use the same words your client has used if their language is strong, for example, if they say they “hate” or think something’s “idiotic” or “wish” someone would do something. Mirroring their words allows you to tap into deeper emotions closer to the root of the issues they’re struggling with.

Paraphrasing is when you interpret and restate what your client said using different words. Paraphrasing allows your client to evaluate the meaning of their words and emotions and, if they don’t agree with how you’ve framed what they said, to correct or clarify what they meant. 

Reynolds says that because paraphrasing is an interpretation of what a client has said, you should be mindful to stay true to what you believe they meant when using reflective practice in coaching. Guessing what they were thinking based on your personal experiences loads external meaning and judgments onto the situation. This pulls you out of the reflective inquiry process, turning you away from the important role of a partner who sees their client’s greatest potential.

Encapsulating is when you sum up your client’s story in a handful of words. When you encapsulate, clients can agree or disagree with your framing, clarify what they meant, expand upon what they want or need to address, and decide on a particular direction to pursue. Ways that you can encapsulate a client’s story include: 

  • Stating a bottom line. For example: “Bottom line, you want to leave your wife but are worried about how she’ll react.” 
  • Making distinctions. For example: “When you say you’re ‘done’ with your wife’s terrible behavior, are you saying you’re annoyed with how she acts or you’re thinking about leaving her?”
Another Use for Listening Tools 

Reynolds presents summarizing tools such as recapping, paraphrasing, and encapsulating as ways to get at clients’ underlying motivations, but you can also use them to ameliorate coaching conversations that take a turn for the worse. 

In Crucial Conversations, Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Et Al. explore four listening tools that can help you re-engage someone who’s shut down or blown up: Ask, Mirror, Paraphrase, and Prime (AMPP). The first three of these tools correspond to Reynolds’s questioning, recapping, paraphrasing, and encapsulating techniques, whereas priming actually contradicts some of her advice:

Ask: When someone acts out by going silent or responding to you aggressively, you can bring them back into the fold by first asking what their concerns are from a place of genuine curiosity, to let them know you care about their thoughts and feelings. 

Mirror: When the person responds, you can reflect back their feelings through the act of mirroring. This can illuminate inconsistencies in their words and behavior. Like recapping, mirroring can help you tap deeper into what someone’s thinking and feeling. 

Paraphrase: When you have a sense of what’s triggered the person who’s upset, paraphrasing and encapsulating their story allows you to acknowledge and ensure that you clearly understand what they’ve said. Though Reynolds doesn’t make explicit note of this, Patterson, Grenney et al. assert that paraphrasing can cultivate a sense of safety for the aggrieved party by showing that you understand their troubles.

Priming: Finally, if the person isn’t sharing and you feel you’ve hit a wall with them, you can encourage them to open up by offering a guess at what they might be feeling. Whereas Reynolds says you shouldn’t guess at what a client’s thinking or feeling, because it risks loading your external judgments onto their situation, Patterson, Grenny et al. assert that doing so encourages them to open up and share information with you.

Reflect Back by Pointing Out Clients’ Emotions 

Reynolds says that when clients are talking you should pay close attention to subtle changes in their emotions and behavior, which can signal that they’re feeling something different from what they’re saying. Drawing clients’ attention to these emotional and behavioral shifts gives them the opportunity to pause, consider how they truly feel, and identify deeper reasons that they’re having difficulty making decisions or taking actions that move them forward. 

(Shortform note: Reynolds says that pointing out clients’ emotions can help them dig deeper into their thoughts and beliefs, enabling revelations. In Emotional Intelligence 2.0, Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves argue that emotionally intelligent people are already tuned into this deeper level of self-awareness and can recognize patterns of their own behavior that are limiting, reflect on the reasons underlying their emotional responses, and understand factors that do and don’t motivate them. This kind of self-awareness can make decision-making and collaborating with others easier, because emotions aren’t clouding their judgment or interfering with their ability to function effectively.)

Reynolds recommends three coaching tips to reflect your clients’ emotions back to them in a way that will encourage them to examine their beliefs more deeply:  

1) Point out emotional shifts, including changes in your client’s energy, tone of voice, and inflections and pace of their speech. For example, you might say: “I notice that you just got quiet. Can you tell me where your thoughts are right now?” or, “You’re laughing but it sounds like nervous laughter. Can you help me understand where that’s coming from?”

2) Allow your client to experience their emotions without judgment. You should accept—not try to change, ameliorate or interpret—whatever emotion your client displays. Your goal is to simply reflect your client’s emotional shifts back to them in as emotionally neutral and balanced a way as possible, so your client feels safe being vulnerable with you.

3) Be inquisitive. Being constantly curious about your client communicates that you’re interested in them. It can also ground you and help you navigate uncomfortable moments with your client. For example, if your client becomes upset or defensive, or if you find yourself feeling annoyed by or judgmental toward something your client says, it’s time to tap back into your curiosity and dig deeper into why they feel the way they do, to recenter yourself so you don’t introduce unhelpful feelings and beliefs into your session.

(Shortform note: Experts add to Reynolds’ suggestions for engaging clients emotionally by recommending that white practitioners working with clients of color take steps to engage in culturally competent practices. This begins with acknowledging, when relevant to your work together, that it will be helpful for you to better understand challenges your client faces as a person of color—for instance, whether they feel comfortable taking risks at work, and if there are places and times when they feel their voice is overlooked or misrepresented. Listening actively and not judging or responding reactively can demonstrate your interest in your client’s experience and build trust.) 

Exercise: Confront Your Assumptions and Judgments  

Reynolds says that reflective practice in coaching can be uncomfortable because it requires clients and coaches to challenge deep-seated assumptions and emotions. As a result, coaches should create nonjudgmental spaces to encourage clients to open up to them—which begins with acknowledging your own assumptions and judgments.

  • Think of a time when you made an assumption about, or judged, someone else. What assumption did you have or what judgment did you make?
  • How do you think your assumption or judgment influenced your relationship with this person? 
  • How would you handle or avoid this kind of judgment in a future situation? 
Reflective Practice in Coaching: What It Is & How to Use It

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  • The mindsets and skills required of clients and coaches to work together effectively
  • The four practices coaches should employ to make the most of coaching sessions
  • Why the role of a coach is not to fix surface-level problems

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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