The Reflective Coaching Practitioner Model

{Campone, 2011. In Passmore (Ed.), Supervision in Coaching: Supervision, Ethics, and Continuous Professional Development} 


As a reflective practitioner, I intentionally draw upon my experiences in practice to refine and extend my knowledge and skill. For my ongoing development as a coaching practitioner, I regard coaching engagements as opportunities for developing judgment artistry, “the capacity to make highly skilled micro-, macro-, and meta-judgments that are optimal for the circumstances of the client and the context” (Paterson, 2006).

I follow a reflective practice model comprising an iterative action cycle and underlying cognitive and emotional processes. I begin with documenting coaching experiences that serve as learning opportunities and applying a systematic strategy for meaning-making. In the second step, I engage more deeply with the experiences, applying reflective and critical judgment principles to surface underlying mental models and reframe and revise beliefs, assumptions, expectations, and decision protocols. In the third step, I formulate coaching processes and strategies incorporating newly acquired insights and knowledge.

Origins of the reflective practitioner

Reflective practice is a structured, intentional process of examining one’s experience to gain insight. It offers a means to surface tacit knowledge and mental models that guide my choices in professional practice.

Schön (1983) was concerned with understanding how technical knowledge, whether theory or structured strategy, translates into effective personal action.

At that time, professionals were engaged in reconciling competing commitments of professional depth, technical skills, and client wellbeing with the demand for a significant return on investment.

Analogous challenges exist at present for executive coaches: competing needs of individual and organizational clients, limits on service and delivery access, externally determined intervention methods, expectations of measurable outcomes, a continual focus on improvement leading to client exhaustion, limited understanding of the subtle forms and degrees of the coach’s influence, and the power dynamics of the relationship.

Coaches must be aware of their underlying coaching ideologies, theoretical assumptions, and mindset; additionally, each unique client and coaching engagement requires the coach to have a set of implicit or explicit protocols for formulating well-grounded decisions about the most appropriate processes and tools to use.

Given the complexity of coaching contexts, an executive coach cannot rely on a single learned system of coaching techniques or follow a one-size-fits-all protocol.

I follow this reflective coach practitioner model as a professional practice epistemology, i.e., as a way to make explicit what is known and unknown in a given situation to determine the most appropriate course of action.

The case for reflective practice in coaching

Coaching is an interactive, context-dependent process for helping people develop themselves and meet their goals. Challenges in real-world practice rarely conform to well-formed problem and solution patterns learned in coach training. The reliance on a narrow set of techniques, as evidenced by an emphasis on skills-based standards rather than theory and knowledge-based standards in coach training and assessment, must be supplemented and corrected by an intentional practice of considered reflection as a means for an individual practitioner to identify and make responsive and appropriate changes to habitual practice derived from over-learning or repetitive experience with a narrow set of techniques, application of received models and theories.

Reflective practice is useful in correcting habitual coaching behaviors and as a support for the cognitive development of the coach. It is also essential to self-management by developing a concept of self as competent and capable of self-invention. Reflective practice strengthens the ability to reconcile different perspectives to create a balanced and functioning problem-solving system.

The nature of coaching work and the coaching relationship, as a significant personal relationship, offer opportunities for significant personal learning, meaningful self-development, and potentially transformative learning.

Personal relationships are self-consciously perceived as profoundly important by the learners themselves. They may entail a redefinition of some self-aspects. An individual may be transformed by a relationship that questions some assumptions underlying how the individual conducts the personal relationship.

A model of reflective practice for coaches 

The practitioner aims to shift underlying mental models and develop greater cognitive complexity in their coaching; to enable the practitioner to have greater fluidity in responding to various coaching contexts and situations. Such fluidity may be considered a form of ‘judgment artistry’ that mediates the science of theory and techniques and the intuitive momentum of human relationships.

Reflective practice is characterized by intention, purpose, and structure.

Intention: approach the process as a learning opportunity with an open mind and curiosity about the opportunity to grow.

Purpose: facilitate one’s learning from experience.

Structure: a systematic approach to documenting experiences and a specific set of strategies for meaning-making. Such strategies include identifying when and how to document experiences and who might be involved in the reflective process.

Three-step model, each step with action and concurrent reflective processes;

First step: research in action. Participate in the coaching engagement and capture relevant data from the engagement as the basis for meaningful reflection.

Reflective processes: create a mindset of curiosity and look for ways to make meaning of the information.

Second step: name and reconfigure one’s mental coaching models.

Reflective processes: dialogue with the self, apply critical and reflective judgment and rebuild the frame to encompass more complexity.

Third step: generate new experiments in action; take a dialectical frame of mind into the next coaching engagement.

Step 1: Research in action – capturing the data and making meaning

Reflective practice is an intentional, systematic practice of thinking about thinking that integrates cognitive, analytical processes and artistic, intuitive processes. It is a retrospective analysis of a practitioner’s choices and outcomes: What does my conscious or unconscious decision-making in the moment stand on? What knowledge base, tacit or explicit, does it draw upon? What formal or experiential learning does my knowledge base draw from? How do I apply my knowledge base to the unique case of the moment?

Systematic approach: identify or create parameters for research in action opportunities; create a means of documentation, recording in written or verbal form; define participants in the reflection process, which may be limited to the individual practitioner as in self-reflection, or include peer group, mentor, or supervisor. Document and analyze events, explore your problem-solving logic, explore related feelings, and uncover paradoxes.

Coaching expertise requires the practitioner to deliver the best possible service for that client by making a conscious selection from the coach’s repertoire and adjusting it in response to what has been learned in working with the client. Such learning may result from intentional reflection or ‘research in action.’

Practitioners consciously or unconsciously engage in research in action. In framing a client’s challenge, the coach focuses on some information to the exclusion of others, mentally labels events, interprets information and experiences, and holds dialogues.

Frame analysis: become aware of and judge tacit frames: what do you pay attention to, what do you see as the goals, how do you define your role, how do you set up expectations, and what are your choices for processes and tools?

Become aware of how you describe images, categorize events, and reference other cases, precedents, and exemplars; this helps you become more skilled in on-the-spot analysis of events.

Analyze your methods of assessing client input and formulating overarching theories; this supports you in building more responsive on-the-spot variations in response.

Research on the process of reflection in action itself, through observation and thinking about one’s thinking, can surface tacit and habitual processes of the mind and gain insight into the potential and limitations of such habits.

All these reflective practice processes serve as a potential catalyst for success or challenge in the engagement outcome.

To document learning opportunities you develop meta-awareness;

use data of real-life experience to construct models or revise existing ones to fit each unique case;

use a reflection journal to capture and examine data:

note external events, describe client situation, client’s stated goal, what client says, body and voices, what client pays attention to, repeats, word choices, dilemma, conflict, etc.;

note internal events, describe your internal dialogue, your urge to do or say something, questions you ask or want to ask but do not, critique coming up about self or client, feelings, pressure, boredom, or excitement;

note meaning-making, your attention on behavior or action versus mental and emotional client mindset, your inquiry into action or choice or learning, etc.;

note frames and reframes, what am I assuming about the client, about me as the coach, about my coaching, what problem am I solving, how am I framing the situation, what motives am I attributing, what drives this client in the moment…

What should one document? What are the learning opportunities?

Challenging events:

provide a window on what is working and not working; may often serve to identify multiple dimensions of an engagement.

A dilemma:

can offer insight into a clash between a practitioner’s values and the necessity of accomplishing some external objective.

Experience of uncertainty:

spotlights an area where we are uncertain about our work or what to do in a situation.

Positive experiences:

also offer insight, breakthroughs reveal strategies that engender success and can instruct on an emotional level by viscerally highlighting conditions conducive to creativity.

Exploratory experiment:

seeking to find out what happens if one just lets a situation unfold by…

Move-testing experiment, a different type of ‘what if’:

coach takes a specific action with an anticipated outcome in mind, e.g., what if I just reflect the positive? Would that help the client shift to a solution orientation? What if I invite the client to notice his non-verbal language right now? Would that downshift rising emotions?

Hypothesis testing experiment:

e.g., a coach hypothesizes client’s reluctance to give negative feedback is rooted in some pattern of family dynamics. The coach tests a hypothesis by asking the client to consider when he received praise from someone important. The resulting response would add useful information to the interpretation of the challenge.

The raw material of inquiry is captured in stories:

narratives of the event and dialogue with the person and the self.


look at how the stories have been constructed – what was observed, how it is described, the character of the author, and others. Stories captured for reflective learning include some description of thoughts: interpretations, expectations, and remembered information; feelings: curiosity, aversion, anticipation; behaviors: what was said and done.

Preferably, these narratives also identify anticipated courses of action and expected responses, along with the actual unfolding of the event.

Contextual data:

information that provides a portrait of the client, coach, and coaching context;

demographic information, age, gender, and position in the organization;

assessment outcomes;

process information, the how of initiating the coaching engagement, establishing agreements, conducting the sessions;

descriptions of the organization, coaching goals, other relevant material.

Establish converging lines of evidence, objective, and subjective information.

Client’s verbatim dialogue, internal dialogue, body language, inferential judgments, and contextual summaries.

Reflectors, Critical Reflectors, and differences in the impact on practice and performance.


tend to reflect on the content of their data and the processes indicated by the content: i.e., descriptions of actions, thoughts, and feelings and how they did it; attend to feelings, make associations, and test informal or tacit hypotheses.

Critical reflectors take the process a step further:

they tend to examine the underlying premises of their actions, including the effectiveness of those actions, and seek alternative explanations and options for choice;

beyond associations and hypothesis testing, they examine the frame of the problem in context and identify learning and development opportunities;

they show awareness of important and relevant aspects of self and situation, including feelings and thoughts concerning complex issues and dilemmas;

they explore the parts and rationale for choices and can perceive their own underlying assumptions as well as the knowledge and experience grounding those assumptions.

Meaning-making invites the practitioner to take a step back from having the experience to holding up an experience in a questioning light;

start to ask questions to surface links and patterns between actual and anticipated events, between thoughts, feelings, actions, and reactions;

look for clues to what worked and what didn’t, seek to identify conditions that might have influenced the trajectory and outcomes.

Judgment artistry: look for patterns in your professional judgments at several levels.

Micro-level: examine process decisions on what to do or the accuracy or validity of decision-making protocols for process decisions.

Macro-level: examine output decisions or conclusions: effectiveness of diagnosis, intervention, or action plan and underlying assessment and decision protocols.

Meta level: evaluate own reflective decision processes: awareness of client’s cues and changes;

self-awareness and monitoring;

communication effectiveness and challenges.

Identify patterns of opportunity as well as strengths. You may notice a tendency to keep the client’s focus on generating possible actions, yourself sticking closely to your comfort zone, and some uncertainty about your knowledge base.

Step 2: Naming and reconfiguring mental models

Action step: name your mental coaching models; reconfigure your mental models.

Reflective processes: dialogue with self; apply critical and reflective judgment; rebuild the frame to encompass more complexity.

What is a mental model?

A mental model is a complex frame of reference, a structure of assumptions and expectations through which we filter sense impressions. It involves affective and cognitive dimensions which shape and delimit perceptions, cognitions, feelings, and dispositions. Mental models are formed and shaped through a lifetime of experiences.

Analogous to Schön’s tacit knowledge frames, Mezirow’s frame of reference has two dimensions: a habit of mind and a resulting point of view.

Habits of mind include

sociolinguistic habits or cultural and language norms, customs, and communication patterns;

moral and ethical norms;

preferences in learning styles and modalities;

philosophical preferences;

personality traits such as character, self-concept, and other psychological dimensions;

aesthetic values.

Points of view comprise a ‘clustering of meaning schemes’ such as expectations, beliefs, attitudes, and judgments that serve as lenses for interpreting perceived events.

The point of view may manifest as an espoused theory consistent with integrating received, socialized knowledge into practice.

Self-directed learning may alter or counter espoused theory and foster the formation of new, unique, and learner-specific ways of understanding.

Why is understanding one’s own mental model relevant in coaching practice?

Coaching may be construed as an ill-structured problem. With the variation of client, coach, and context characteristics, the problem cannot be completely described or resolved with a high degree of certainty. How you pose a problem becomes critical in what you understand to be the case.

Models rooted in received knowledge gained through formal education and indoctrination into the technical rules of practice may serve as a reference base from which you construct knowledge into individual conclusions about ill-structured problems. You base conclusions on information from various subjective and objective sources and on evaluations of evidence across contexts. A solution to an ill-structured problem must be evaluated in terms of what is most reasonable or probable according to the current evidence and re-evaluated when relevant new evidence, perspectives, or tools of inquiry become available.

These point to reflective thinking as a way to approach such an issue. With reflection, we gain new understandings and appreciation of how we think and operate. We engage in a series of thinking activities at many levels of abstraction to critically analyze, question, and evaluate feelings and experiences, ultimately producing these new understandings. We reassess how we have posed problems and our orientation to perceiving, knowing, believing, feeling, and acting.

The fluid nature of the reflective process is conducive to developing professional artistry and integrating professional knowledge and personal experience. In a reflective consideration of events, the coach pulls together his own qualities, including spiritual, emotional, cognitive, and physical characteristics; practice skills, including coaching specific competencies, interpersonal and relationship skills, analytical and communication skills; and creative imagination processes, i.e., the ability to anticipate outcomes and develop creative strategies for facilitating the desired outcomes.

Surfacing mental models

We revisit and judge what was attended to during the experience and what may have been overlooked; we trace and evaluate the trajectory and pattern of events, actions, and reactions. We attend to knowledge, experience, values, roles, professional patterns, and risks displayed in the documentation of the event.

What did I expect; what’s the implicit working hypothesis of how I thought this might unfold; what was confirmed, what was disconfirmed; what is the evidence?

Explore cognitive patterns: what did I know, or think I knew, about the situation; where did I learn that; what seems to be my theoretical or hypothetical stance on the situation, and what is the impact?

Investigate the affective domain, and look at your emotional reactions and the possible interplay of feelings and thoughts. For example, you may notice a sense of discomfort about possibly treading into psychological territory with the client, and you think this might be driving your persistence along a behavioral path.

Explore the interpersonal dimension: what is the power dynamic in this coach-client relationship; what is the pattern of give and take; does the journal present a dialogue between equals, or is there a subtle dominance or leading?

Explore the intrapersonal dimension: what are the patterns of coach self-awareness and self-management; is the coach internally aligned or experiencing inner conflict?

Critical thinking processes are person-specific and vary according to your abilities, experiences, personality, and culture; it has a highly emotional dimension. Repeated engagement in critical thinking brings insights and creates a bigger container for your concept of coaching. This more complex and multi-dimensional concept can encompass all that has preceded it and accommodate more as it is encountered. This ever-expanding mental model or frame of reference incorporates your point of view about self, others, and the nature of coaching work.

Step 3: Enacting the changes

Generate new experiments in action; take a dialectical frame of mind into the next engagement.

Transformative learning: you step away from familiar patterns of thinking and behaving and into newly constructed concepts. It comprises an irreversible paradigm shift. It engenders an epistemological change, not merely a behavioral one. You experience a fundamental change in the form or model from which you construct meaning: the source of ideas and standards for what constitutes data, authority, and validity. It informs your whole life; it requires an understanding of the epistemological complexities of the current challenge and the ability to shift from the socialized mind to the self-authoring mind.

Transformative learning involves self-critical engagement, which requires awareness, empathy, and control; feelings of resistance, anger or shame may come up. Such feelings can themselves be a source of transformative learning and, as such, warrant attention and reflection. Critical reflection and affective learning are interdependent, and you need to acquire the ability to recognize, acknowledge, and process feelings and emotions as integral aspects of learning from experience.

Provocative feelings trigger reflective learning.

Evocative feelings lead to greater self-awareness and a change in meaning structure.

You can use your emotions to direct your attention toward the more fundamental bases of your meaning-making and perspectives. Affective learning may lead to confidence and self-worth, tolerance for ambiguity, and acceptance of differences.

Feelings may arise during the coaching process, in which case you capture these in the reflection log, or feelings may arise in the reflection process. Tap into both your emotional experience and analytical thinking, and you will become more able to create a more integrated, intuitive, and fluid framing of coaching challenges, relationships, and processes.

Loss of old meaning structures and challenges of internalizing new ones can also cause grieving; recognize, acknowledge, and process those with the same care.

Make your meaning-making meaningful, and turn your learning into action.

In the absence of shared agreement over what does constitute valid knowledge, what are the sources of valid knowledge, and to what extent may such knowledge be challenged, you, the individual practitioner, have to consider how you might evaluate your own knowledge by considering these questions:

Is what I’ve learned so far sufficient as the basis for my professional practice? What are my learning edges?

Are my self-assessment processes producing new insights and learning?

Can I ethically and substantially fulfill the expectations I have created with my clients?

The consistent reflective practice may bring a change in conceptual view; a new understanding of coaching phenomena; increased self-awareness, and integration of multiple learned and experienced forms of knowledge. You seek to produce and evaluate new understandings and perspectives, create and test new and original solutions to meet the client’s unique needs, and change practice methods and values.

To dialectically analyze tensions and contradictions, you may revisit an experience and scrutinize the patterns and preferences that emerge as you ask:

What is the basis for this preference; familiarity, philosophical or values alignment, a learned habit, prior success, or other?

What are the underlying assumptions of this pattern, i.e., executives have a behavior change expectation in coaching; changing behaviors changes beliefs; changing thinking is unnecessary to change behavior?

What conditions in coaching might undermine or run counter to the underlying assumptions?

What does the coach need to change, internally or externally, to extend or diversify the mental model of coaching, e.g., having specific skills? Answers to this question generate specific cognitive or behavioral changes you may test out in subsequent coaching engagements.

A dialectical frame in action might include a re-evaluation of the mental model of coaching purposes and boundaries: these guide judgments and may limit the framing of a client’s challenges and choice of coaching strategies.


Apply critical reflection on data from real-world experience to formulate new perspectives; develop broader repertoires and customize choice of strategies to client and context.

Capture meaningful data from pivotal moments in coaching or a sequence of coaching interactions; critically examine descriptions and analyze patterns and themes; observe the impact of expectations and chosen coaching strategies. Understand the potential and limitations of your mental models, and find useful and practical opportunities for growth.