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The Role of Reflection in a Co-operative Inquiry

John Heron

Published in D. Boud, R. Keogh and D.Walker (eds) Reflection: Turning Experience into Learning, London, Kogan Page, 1985, pp 128-138.

Co-operative inquiry and the experiential learning cycle

Co-operative inquiry (Reason and Rowan, 1981a) is primarily a way of doing research with persons rather than on persons. It breaks down the distinction between researcher and subject: the researchers are also co-subjects and the subjects are also co-researchers – everyone involved moves between both roles (Heron, 1981a). There are many arguments for doing research about persons this way (Heron, 1981b): the primary one in my view is that it is the only way of researching persons as fully self-determining, as beings whose thinking and choosing shapes their behaviour. If the subjects of research are not being self-determining in the research situation, that is, if they are being other-directed (by the researchers), then they are not being fully persons. It is only when the subjects of research start to participate in the thinking that generates, manages and draws conclusions from the research – that is , when they become co-researchers – that they manifest within the research situation as fully self-determining persons.

Seen in another light, co-operative inquiry is a way of systematically elaborating and refining an experiential learning cycle. The inquirers start, as co-researchers, with a phase of reflection, clarifying the initial idea of the inquiry and a method of conducting the inquiry. They then implement the method, as co-subjects, and enter a phase of action and experience. They complete the cycle by returning to a phase of reflection, to make sense of the action and experience and modify the initial idea accordingly. So it is a co-operative way of learning from individual and shared experience.

Thus in the first co-operative inquiry into co-counselling (Heron and Reason, 1981), the research group of co-counsellors decided to map out more thoroughly the different states of being clients go through during a co-counselling session. We met for three week-ends at three week intervals. During the first two weekends, we had a series of short co-counselling sessions. Each person immediately after their turn as client mapped out the series of states passed through during the session, with feedback from the counsellor. All these individual maps were shared and discussed and refined before the next co-counselling session, the whole process being repeated several times. During the final week-end the most developed individual maps were discussed, refined and amended by the group as a whole , and these collectively agreed and approved maps became the “findings” of the inquiry.

There was thus individual reflection on experience by each client immediately after their session; this was followed by a phase of shared reflection when individual maps were compared and contrasted. What was learned out of this shared reflection led over immediately into a decision about what sort of mapping to do in the next co-counselling session. The final reflection phase sought to distil the learning that had accumulated over the whole preceding series of cycles between experience and reflection.

In co-operative inquiry the experiential learning cycle is systematically elaborated and refined because of the strong spotlight put upon the reflection phase in the cycle. Since inquiry is afoot, it is important in the reflection phase, when the inquirers are making sense of their recent experience , that they do not distort or misrepresent it. There is a concern to ensure that the reflection gives a valid account of the experience , makes veridical rather than illusory assertions about it, and draws appropriate rather than inappropriate conclusions. Hence some of us (Reason and Rowan, 1981b; Heron, 1982) have evolved a set of validity procedures that help reflection upon experience during co-operative inquiry move in the direction of truth rather than falsehood.

Aids to valid reflection on experience

Research cycling

If you go round the cycle of experience and reflection several times then you can progressively improve the validity of the reflection by testing and resting it against the content of experience and action. You can repeatedly check your concepts for what they incorrectly include and incorrectly omit. And they may change , through recycling, from the vague to the precise, from the obscure to the clarified, from the superficial to the deep, from the qualitative to the quantitative.

Divergence and convergence

In the early stages of going round the research (experiential learning) cycle, it is wise for the inquirers to be divergent, that is, to explore several different aspects of the experience being inquired into, and to do so in diverse ways, and to reflect and report on these aspects in different ways. This is to ensure that reflection in later stages of the inquiry is not too narrow but has available to it a comprehensive array of data, varied and complementary perspectives, which can generate a holistic view. But if each inquirer on every cycle explores a different aspect, then no one aspect is ever taken round the research cycle more than once, so your final reflection may generate a widely holistic view each of the conceptual bits of which are somewhat shaky. Hence the case, in later stages of going round the cycle of experience and reflection, for being more convergent, that is, for all or several members taking certain aspects of the inquiry area through two or more cycles, in order to refine and improve reflection on those aspects. Convergence also means that in later stages of the inquiry your reflection phases are concerned strongly with how early divergent findings illuminate, complement, amend and correct each other. There are clearly innumerable ways in which divergence and convergence can be balanced and interrelated in the recycling process. The best balance is no doubt inquiry-specific.

Examples of research cycling, divergence and convergence

In the first co-counselling inquiry already referred to, in the early cycles each client was idiosyncratic and divergent, using any form of mapping to map whatever aspects of their session they chose. But since all the individual maps were shared after each co-counselling session, this meant that a good deal of convergent cross-fertilization led over into the planning of the next cycle. For I might take up something you had learned from your last cycle into my intention for exploring and mapping my next session: thus there was an informal blending of divergence and convergence. Later in the inquiry we tried out two cycles, in each of which all of us converged on the same aspect of the client’s session. And at the end of the inquiry in a very extended phase of convergent reflection in the group as a whole, we took the most coherent maps that different individuals had refined over previous cycles and all of us took part in amending and modifying each one until all, including the originator, were satisfied. And we reflected on how these several final maps supplemented each other, like photographs from different angles of the same building.

In a second co-operative inquiry into co-counselling (Heron and Reason, 1982), the inquiry group decided to explore how members handled restimulated distress emotion in everyday life when a co-counselling session was not available. We met once a week from 2pm to 7pm for shared reflection on the previous week’s phase of experience during which however each member had reflection phases by keeping a regular diary of how they had handled restimulative incidents during the day. In the weekly group reflection phase , we shared our diary entries with each other, so that once again there was a good deal of informal convergent cross-fertilization from one person’s past to another person’s future phase of experience. The diary entries were (convergently) collated at each weekly meeting; and in the final convergent reflection phase these several collations were coordinated, then discussed and approved by the whole group.

In a co-operative inquiry into holistic medicine (Heron and Reason, in press), 16 doctors met for two-day reflection phases at six-weekly intervals over a period of nine months. At the first reflection phase they developed a five-part conceptual model of holistic medicine; this was cashed out in daily professional practice very divergently and idiosyncratically for the first two six-week cycles of action, with each practitioner exploring a different range of holistic strategies in his or her surgery. In the next three six-week cycles of action, there were two convergent sub-groups, one group taking strategies of doctor-patient power-sharing through three cycles, and another group taking spiritual intervention strategies in the surgery through three cycles; and at the same time everyone kept going some of their idiosyncratic strategies from the first two cycles. In the last cycle everyone kept all this going, plus everyone using the same agreed form to identify the range of interventions used with any 100 consecutive patients. During the two-day meetings for the reflection phase it was a regular practice for the group as a whole to reflect on how this mass of divergent and convergent data influenced the five part conceptual model generated at the outset. And this act of convergent reflection was fully consummated in a final four-day reflection phase.

One thing I have learned from co-operative inquiries so far is that while there is a good deal of informal transfer of learning from one cycle to another – so that some sort of test and retest recycling of ideas goes on – it is quite difficult for a co-operative group to be fully intentional about the discipline of rigorous retesting and refining of strategic idea through several cycles. The difficulty is in drawing the learning out of the previous phase of experience and action with sufficient acuity for it to be used to shape up clear intention for the next action phase. To put it crudely, the learning sometimes (but by no means always) seems to slop over from one action phase to the next, with people in the intervening reflection phase having a strong intuitive feel for what is going on and only a partial or limited intellectual grasp of the transfer process.

What aids both divergence and convergence are sharing and comment-or-feedback. In the reflection phase of the group, each shares their recent past experience and how they have made sense of it: the resultant comparisons and contrasts between individuals’ accounts will bring out both divergent and convergent aspects of these accounts. Similarly my comment on your account, and my feedback on your recent experience (if I was there at the time), will also throw into relief both different and similar perspectives. All this is essential for valid reflection, for holistic inquiry and learning. The truth is surely found where different perspectives converge to illuminate common ground. And unless you get enough difference or divergence, you won’t get really illuminating convergence.

Balance between reflection and experience

The validity of the reflection phase will in part be a function of how much reflection there is in relation to how much experience. Brief and cursory reflection upon deep and extended experience is not likely to yield up much truth-value. Similarly with elaborate and prolonged reflection upon a fleeting trace of experience. A healthy time ratio will no doubt depend upon the sort of experience , and the quality and intensity of the reflection. A few moments of mystical experience may legitimate hours of contemplative reflection; whereas many hours lying in an immersion tank may require only some minutes of reflection. An inquiry group will need to pay some attention to this from time to time and monitor the balance to see whether they have got it right. Since a good balance is so inquiry-specific, I don’t think that any rules about it can be drawn up.

In the first co-counselling inquiry, each person had typically a 20 minute experience working as client followed immediately by a 15 minute reflection phase to make an individual map of that experience. This was then followed by perhaps an hour of a group reflection phase when all the individual maps were shared and compared. So the total reflection time was very much greater than the experience time. In the second co-counselling inquiry this sort of ratio was reversed. The experience phase was a week of restimulative incidents – small or large, few or many – and the reflection phase a half a day a week for sharing and collating diary entries. In the holistic medicine inquiry, the experience phase was six weeks, with two-day reflection phases. Of course, in these last two inquiries, the experience phase contained sub-phases of individual reflection when each member was writing up a diary, keeping notes and records. In these three inquiries , the different time ratios seemed in each case to be about right. But especially in the last two mentioned, it may be that “seemed right” got confounded with the virtual impossibility of changing the dates in everybody’s diaries.

Authentic collaboration

Since the inquiry is co-operative , validity in the reflection phase is also a function of how fully each person is contributing to the reflection, and how much each person is doing their own thinking and not merely echoing the views of one or more other persons in the group. Only if there is maximal participation from everyone in each of these two senses, does the reflection phase get the greatest benefit from the interaction of divergence and convergence. In the three inquiries mentioned above, individual reflection phases were built into the design; each person mapped a session, kept a diary, recorded work in the surgery. And in group reflection in each case there would be time, either in the whole group or in sub-groups, for each person to share their individual reflections with the others.

But after that, in more free-wheeling discussion in the whole group, contribution rates could start to get out of hand, with high contributors tending to take over the business of making sense of past experience and of planning forward. So there needs to be some conscious monitoring of contribution rates in these sorts of open discussion periods, otherwise collaboration can be restricted to a small group of dominant and articulate people.

Management of unaware projections

The notion here is that making sense of past experience during the reflection phase can be distorted by emotional distress that is stirred up by the inquiry process per se and by attendant phenomena of group interaction and so on. The whole business of communicating meaning, of being true to one’s real and felt nature, of doing justice to what is actually going on, of honouring the reality of others , may not only generate anxiety and emotional agitation in present time; it can also powerfully evoke unresolved distress from early life when precisely these sorts of issues are so critical in the emerging identity of a young person. If such restimulated distress is not dealt with during the inquiry it may be unawarely displaced into the inquiry and cause : lapses in motivation and commitment during the experience phase , lapses in diary keeping and record keeping during the individual reflection phases, confusion in getting at the real learning during group reflection phases and confusion in forward planning, cumulative interpersonal tensions that distort genuine cooperation and participation, and so on. I think I’ve seen all this occurring to a greater or lesser extent in the three inquiries mentioned.

Paradoxically, in the first co-counselling inquiry, we were so busy mapping client sessions on anything and everything else , that we did not include any sessions on distress evoked by the inquiry itself, until that distress caught up with us at the start of the last week-end meeting in an outbreak of dissatisfaction and confusion. Then we took time out to co-counsel and to reflect on it.

In the second co-counselling inquiry we were alert to this issue from the start. But since the focus of the inquiry was how to handle restimulated distress in ways other than having a co-counselling session, we were faced with a curious dilemma: if we discharged off the distress generated by the inquiry, then we undermined the objective of the research which was to study how we managed restimulation other than by emotional discharge; but if we did not discharge off that sort of distress, then maybe the validity of the inquiry would suffer if alternative coping strategies were ineffective. In the event, we decided to let each person deal with this dilemma as they felt appropriate – either taking time during our meetings for discharge or adopting non-discharge methods. Only one person during our meetings used the discharge approach, and this only once. I am still perplexed by the dilemma, but think on balance it would have been better to take time out during the meetings to co-counsel on inquiry provoked distress, leaving the focus of the inquiry to be addressed in everyday life – which is really where the issue of handling restimulation without discharge arises.

In the holistic medicine inquiry, we dealt with the matter more fully. Every two-day meeting had built into it a two to three hour process group especially for members to deal with any tensions provoked by the inquiry: much of this was interpersonal, with episodes of personal work on regression and catharsis. We also had occasional co-counselling sessions. I don’t think that by any means we dealt with all the unaware projections and displacements going on, but we kept the whole process reasonably sweet.


One of the main problems about taking an idea down into experience in order to test it and retest it, is that you have to be pretty committed to the idea for you to want to do this. Not only this , since the idea defines the sort of experience you are to have, you have to believe in it sufficiently in order to get the appropriate experience. Then again, once the idea has become clothed with your own experience, it becomes warm and endearing to you. For all these reasons you acquire a vested interest in not noticing the inadequacies of the idea in the face of experience. Hence the importance of falsification as a check on validity in the reflection phase.

What this means in each individual reflection phase is that you need to be vigilant in noticing how your ideas misrepresent your experience, by including what was absent in the experience or by excluding what was present, or by distortion of what was present. So you need to be in a state of “alternative theory availability” , not unduly wedded to any one set of ideas as a way of making sense of the experience. This is paradoxical, for if the experience is to be identifiable at all as this, that or the other kind of experience , it is already clothed in some modest set of ideas.

In group reflection you can also use the sharing of others and, of course, the comment or feedback of others as an aid to falsification: what others say about their experience and their feedback on your experience or comment on your ideas, may show up ways in which your ideas misrepresent experience. But a good device in group reflection is a formal devil’s advocate procedure. In the holistic medicine group, we had a stick in the middle of the room during group reflection times. Anyone could pick up the stick and become formal devil’s advocate, radically challenging the assumptions underlying the ideas being discussed, coming up with alternative and often reductionist ways of interpreting the data from experience. The idea of the stick was that by taking it up you were giving notice that you were engaging in a falsification test rather than expressing a personal point of view.

In a five day co-operative inquiry into altered states of consciousness, we kept a record of each person’s reports on what they had considered to be altered states arising from the various experiences we devised. Later in the inquiry we set up the following devil’s advocate procedure. Each member in turn sat in a chair in front of the group and had read out all his or her individual reports of altered states. It was then open to anyone to come forward and to give a critical, sceptical, reductionist account of any one or more of these reports, reducing the report of an altered state back to some misrepresentation of a quite ordinary state. The member whose reports were thus being reduced would listen carefully and then either (a) argue persuasively that their own account was more plausible than the reductionist account, or (b) hold to their intuitive conviction of the validity of their account if it withstood the devil’s advocacy, or (c) yield to the reductionist account if it honestly seemed more plausible.

Open boundary feedback

Some inquiries have closed boundaries: they deal with matters entirely internal to their members, like the first co-counselling inquiry which was researching client states of members only. Others have open boundaries: in the experience and action phase people other than members are involved and affected, like the holistic medicine group whose members in the action phase were relating to their patients. So validity in the group reflection phase is clearly enhanced if there is some data on, and feedback from, those other people with whom inquirers interact at the open boundary. In the holistic medicine group members did contract to gather in patient feedback.


One thing we discovered on the first co-counselling inquiry: it really is important for the group to be able to tolerate intermittent confusion, ambiguity, uncertainty, chaotic profusion of issues and possibilities and apparent difficulties. Otherwise there may be a tendency in group reflection phases for members to press for premature intellectual closure as a defence against the anxiety of the whole process. Clearly this is not in the interests of valid reflection. So the group needs to hang in with the chaotic profusion for a while, and wait for a genuinely creative and illuminating order to emerge in its own good time.

Sorts of reflection involved in co-operative inquiry

There is of course no absolute distinction between reflection and experience: the most abstract reflection is fed by the memory traces of past experience, and all perceptual experience has a conceptual dimension of interpretation and identification. So before dealing with the reflection phase proper, let me mention some relevant cognitive attitudes during the experience phase.

Open awareness

This is the bedrock of experiential knowing: bracketing off preconceptions and being fully open to self in situation, to the abundance of the experience – in its obvious and in its subtle aspects, at its surface and in its depths. There is probably an element of extra-linguistic awareness in this: to

the extent that it is possible, entering that aspect of perception that is prior to the acquisition of, and underpins the revisionary use of, language. It is openness to process and presence as such, as pure morphology.

Phenomenological discrimination

This is a subtle cognitive activity that grows out of and goes with open awareness: identifying what is going on while it is going on, discriminating the contours, aspects and dimensions of the experience from within it. Where there is obscurity or ambiguity in the phenomena it may mean trying out different ideas for their ability to clarify or resolve perception. There can be on the spot falsification: seeing whether alternative ideas to those which took one into the experience do more justice to it. At a basic level this may mean moving to and fro between extra-linguistic and linguistic perception: moving between the experience as one of pure form and process and the experience as perceived within the categories that come with the use of language. This phenomenological discrimination may be exercised when a person is more passive and quiet in the experience phase, or -and this is rather more challenging – when a person is actively engaged with some performance or interaction with others.

This discrimination during experience requires a subtle balance of attention. If your attention gets too caught up in the experience , too absorbed or hypnotized by it, then effective discrimination ceases. And if your attention gets too disengaged from the experience, then the experience becomes withered and reduced, and discrimination degenerates into dissociated, unsupported abstraction.

Active choosing

During the experience phase you will also have to make intelligent choices about how to carry your action forward. So this means thinking creatively and flexibly about your next moves while acting in the middle of some developing situation. As with discrimination, a balance of attention is required: becoming too absorbed in current action may result in relatively blind “choices”; while too much detachment may lead to vacillation or missed opportunity.

Sorts of thinking involved in the reflection phase

Now I come to some of the sorts of thinking involved in the reflection phase as such. Many of them are interlocking and overlapping.

Loose construing and divergent thinking

These may tend to go together during reflection phases in earlier stages of the inquiry, nevertheless they are not the same. Loose construing means making sense of past experience with a light and loosely fitting set of concepts that let the experience breathe, that tolerate obscurities and ambiguities, that avoid premature intellectual closure. In early reflection phases it is better to be vaguely right than precisely and tightly wrong. Divergent thinking means considering diverse aspects and perspectives of the past experience , and in different ways. This too is particularly important in early stages of the inquiry, as I have discussed in some detail above. Both loose construing and divergent thinking may be aided by the three following processes.

Presentational construing

What I mean here is making sense of past experience in nonverbal ways, by drawing and graphics, by painting, by nonverbal demonstration, by movements, by mime, by sound and music. This can be done as a sort of learning in its own right, and also to loosen up creative, divergent verbal thinking. In the first co-counselling inquiry, members used a lot of graphics in making sense of their individual client sessions, and with good effect.

Free or directed association

Making loose and divergent sense of past experience may be facilitated by associating freely or directedly to it. I don’t think we ever used this formally and explicitly as an exercise in group reflection phases in any of the inquiries mentioned, but I think it would have been a good idea to have done so.

Use of metaphor, analogy, allegory, story telling

These are all ways of harnessing the power of imagination to yield subtle and comprehensive views of past experience. It can be argued that they unfold a dimension of truth sui generis, and also alert the discursive intellect to a more holistic analysis. I think that none of our inquiries adequately exploited their potential.

Qualitative description and theorizing

These are two basic levels of reflection in the reflection phase. The first involves getting out a comprehensive set of basic phenomenal categories to describe the experience, covering pertinent aspects – clear and obscure, central and peripheral, obvious and subtle. The second involves some higher order, explanatory account of what has been going on as depicted by the phenomenal categories. They roughly coincide, respectively, with earlier and later stages in the inquiry; and with loose construing/divergent thinking and tight construing/convergent thinking.

Tight construing and convergent thinking

These may tend to go together during reflection phases in later stages of the inquiry, but are not the same. Tight construing means working for greater coherence and density in the conceptual framework that makes sense of the experience phases. Convergent thinking means reflecting on divergent aspects and perspectives , refining each and bringing out the common ground they illuminate.

Modes of theorizing

Higher order explanatory reflection may itself involve one or more different sorts of thinking, as follows (Reason and Rowan, 1981c):

Causal thinking Yields explanations in terms of linear cause and effect sequences.

Systems thinking Yields explanations in terms of patterns of interaction, of simultaneous dynamic mutual influence, which cannot be reduced to explanations in terms of linear cause and effect.

Dipolar thinking Yields explanations that take account of the interdependence of polar opposites, that avoid unipolar reductionism.

Contextual thinking Yields explanations that acknowledge that all interpretations of experience emerge out of a cultural and historical context.

Practical thinking Yields practical knowledge about action of such forms as “When we wanted to achieve B, then we did C” , “When we did X, then these intended or unintended consequences followed”.

The experiential ground of reflection

The reflection phase can only work with the fruits of the experience phase, and everything depends on whether the inquirers are “awake” or “asleep” during the experience. They are “awake” if they are practising what I have described above as open awareness, phenomenological discrimination, and active choosing while they are up at the experiential frontiers. They are “asleep” if their attention becomes too identified with what is happening and they slip back into conventional, routine , habitual, ad hoc ways of being. If they stay “awake” they bring lots of fruit for reflective harvesting. If they fall “asleep” then there is a meagre yield.

Experience and reflection as mutually enhancing

One of the important benefits that members of co-operative inquiries report upon, is that the regular phases of group reflection enhance people’s ability to stay “awake” during the experiential phases, which in turn, of course, makes the group reflection more productive. The shared consciousness-raising that occurs during group reflection gives a great boost to sustaining the appropriate balance of attention during the phases of experience. And this yields further benefit.

In the first co-counselling inquiry, several members reported that their co-counselling sessions done as part of the inquiry were more effective and penetrating as sessions: balance of attention for emotional discharge was better, picking up and moving on one’s own cues was sharper. It seemed that the extra-margin of awareness needed for practicing phenomenological discrimination during the session improved the session as such. And in the second co-counselling inquiry, members were more alert to the occurrence of restimulation in everyday life and more able to take charge of it in diverse ways other than emotional discharge in a co-counselling session. The moral seems to be that if we set out collectively to learn about certain sorts of experiences by moving several times between the poles of the experience and collective reflection upon it, then apart from what we learn, we also have higher quality experiences of that sort. And this seems to be rather good news.


Heron, J. “Experiential Research Methodology” , in Human Inquiry (below). 1981a.

Heron, J. “Philosophical Basis for a New Paradigm”, in Human Inquiry (below). 1981b.

Heron, J. Empirical Validity in Experiential Research, University of Surrey, Human Potential Research Project, 1982.

Heron, J. and Reason, P. Co-counselling: An Experiential Inquiry, University of Surrey, Human Potential Research Project, 1981.

Heron, J. and Reason, P. Co-counsellinq: An Experiential Inquiry II, University of Surrey, Human Potential Research Project, 1982.

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