A few years ago, I went through a year-long training program to become a hospital chaplain. The full-time program was designed to give participants the opportunity to practice chaplaincy and to reflect on our experiences, and it was based on the idea that examining our experiences would deepen our self-awareness, strengthen our skills, and enhance our effectiveness as chaplains overall. We were often called to picture a circle in which action points to reflection which then points back to action. By reflecting on our actions, we become better equipped to handle future interactions.
Though I haven’t pursued full-time chaplaincy as my career path, I’m keenly aware of the benefits that participating in this action-reflection-action (ARA) based program has afforded me. I often recall lessons that I learned in a hospital room, and I have translated them to numerous personal and professional settings. In particular, the simple ARA model on which the whole program was based is one that I try to incorporate into all facets of my life.
For me, ARA often looks like this: I have an experience—anything from a meeting, to teaching a class, to a casual conversation with my boss/co-worker/husband/family-member/friend—and afterwards I don’t feel 100 percent good about the experience. I worry that I didn’t say the right thing. I feel frustrated with something that someone else said. I realize that I behaved inappropriately in some manner. As I ruminate over the experience, I consider what I might have done differently. Should I have spoken up or kept my mouth shut in a particular moment? Could I have spent more time preparing for the meeting/event/conversation? Was there a question I could have asked or a point that I could have clarified? In short, what aspect of the experience would have needed to be altered for me to end the experience feeling positively?
The examination may take just a few minutes, or it can last for days. Sometimes I journal to record my thought process, other times I talk through the experience with a trusted friend or family member, and still other times I simply sit alone and let my thoughts swirl. After reflecting, I consciously commit to carrying forth whatever insight I gained into future situations.
For an example, a few months ago I realized that I consistently dread one particular recurring meeting on my calendar. I spent some time considering my aversion to the meeting and I noticed that while some of the sources of my dread are out of my control (the timing—does it get worse than a 7-9 pm meeting?—and the challenges of working with a few of the personalities within the group) other sources of my dread could be affected by actions on my part.
For instance, I often left the meeting feeling confused about what my next steps on projects should be because I would receive conflicting feedback and opinions when I presented my ideas. I decided that at the end of each agenda item pertaining to one of my projects, I would clarify what I had heard, propose next steps, and seek either approval or further conversation. These small changes—determined through reflection on my past experiences—have made a big difference in my experience of this particular monthly meeting.
As leaders and as human beings, we have both the capacity and responsibility to grow into better versions of ourselves each day. Reflecting on our actions and allowing the insights gained to impact our future actions is one way of pursuing continual growth.
Teresa lives in Providence, Rhode Island, where she works as a Director of Faith Formation at a Catholic Church and dabbles in hospital chaplaincy. She has a BA in English, a Master’s in Divinity, and a passion for thinking about the intersection of spirituality, self-improvement, and well-being. Her perfect day includes slowly savoring a morning cup of coffee, reading for work and for fun, and receiving snail mail.