The Tremendous Value of Personal Reflection and Discernment

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 17, Issue No. 6b
October 15, 2018

By Dan Coughlin


A week is a looooong time.

Over the course of a week we say and do a lot of things. Most of those things turn out to be trivial and are quickly forgotten. However, that still leaves an incredible amount of things we said and did that are not trivial.

I believe one of the most important things we can do on a weekly basis is to think about the week with reflection and discernment. There are only four questions we need to answer, one for reflection and three for discernment.

The One Reflection Question

Question #1: What happened?

The first question we can ask ourselves is, “What happened?” Not “What do we wish had happened?” but rather just, “What happened?”

When we look at what we actually said and did this past week, then one of a few things will result.

Either we are really pleased with what we did, we are neutral about what we did as in it wasn’t good or bad it just happened, or we realize we did something wrong or poorly.

If we realize our words or actions were really good, think about how we could repeat them again.

If we realize our words or actions were just neutral, think about how we could make them better.

If we realize our words or actions were wrong, think about what we should do. My suggestion is that when we know we were wrong even if we had good intentions we should simply say, “I was wrong. This is 100% my fault. I take full responsibility. I sincerely apologize to those people whom I’ve affected. I am truly sorry.” That’s it. Don’t dodge the issue or blame anyone else. And be sincere in your apology.

This one reflection question, “What happened?” allows us to see our words and actions as they really happened, not how we wished they had happened.

The Three Discernment Questions

I have two great friends from high school, Jeff Hutchison and Mike Feder. Two amazing guys. Feds died from brain cancer in November 2012. His favorite word was discernment. He would say over and over and over again, “I need to spend some time thinking about that situation and discerning what I can from it.” Wow, that statement meant and means a lot to me.

After we have identified what happened, there are three more crucial questions to answer.

Question #2: Why did it happen?

Now we’re digging deeper. Why did we say what we said and why did we do what we did? This forces us to go farther than just recalling what we said or what we did. We have to think about why we said it and why we did it.

We’re getting at the roots of the tree. Insights are coming to us that we may not have thought about before we did what we did. Be patient with this question. Ask it over and over and over again. Something really powerful might come to you.

Question #3: What did I learn?

After we really think about why we said it and why we did it, then we start to uncover what we learned from this whole situation. Now we’re going below the roots of the tree and we’re uncovering real gold.

No matter how great the situation turned out to be or how awful it turned out to be, the real value is in digging for what we learned from the situation. We can’t redo the past, but if we dig we can uncover extremely useful lessons. Again, be patient. Repeat the question several times. That’s incredibly important for us to improve as individuals. This is the step where we gain insights that we can use for the rest of our lives.

Question #4: What will I do?

Of course, a mountain of lessons learned are useless if we never apply them. Now that we have invested time and energy into reflecting on what happened and discerning why it happened and what we learned, now it’s time to intentionally determine what we will do from now on.

This is the part where we move forward with greater wisdom. This is where we become better at what we do and better at how we live our lives.


Personal improvement starts with taking time for personal reflection and discernment. That’s the engine for improving as a person. I suggest we go for long walks of 3-5 miles. Use that time for personal reflection and discernment. It is an unbelievably good use of our time and our energy. Or sit quietly with a blank journal and write out our answers to the four questions of reflection and discernment. The value to us and our future and our future impact on other people can be truly tremendous.

Republishing Articles

My newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.

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