Episode 248 – Reflective practice with Gillie Bolton

“As writers, what we need to do is find an occasion when that usher is off duty and we can get up there and nip behind the curtain.”

Gillie BoltonGillie Bolton essentially founded the discipline of reflective practice, having discovered for herself that writing allowed her to go behind the curtain that separates so much of our mind’s inner workings from the ‘stage’ that we present to the world.

She tells me more about how her own journey, about why six minutes is the perfect length of time for an initial exploratory writing session, and how her Quaker values infuse her own writing and work.

A joy of a conversation.


Gillie’s site: https://www.gilliebolton.com/

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

Andrew Hill’s Best Business Books of 2020 for the FT: https://www.ft.com/content/1b0205bc-117e-41d5-9a60-f801ebae86d5

The DO Lectures 2020 book list: https://dolectures.medium.com/100-must-read-books-of-2020-d61935703a7b

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge January 2021: https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=proposal-challenge-jan-21

The Extraordinary Business Book Club bookshop: https://uk.bookshop.org/shop/extraordinarybusinessbooks

My K-day countdown for the National Literacy Trust: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/alison-jones1000

Alison Jones:  I’m here today with Dr. Gillie Bolton, who has spent 30 years researching personal explorative and expressive writing as a way of gaining better understanding of ourselves and our world. She’s written many books and articles about the power of writing for self illumination, including Reflective Practice, writing and professional development, which is now in its fifth edition. I think the sixth edition is on the way, in fact. Her working life started in teaching and her research focused on reflective practice with general practitioners and other professionals on the front line of health and social care. But she’s worked over the years with a wide range of professions and specialities.

She’s now retired, she’s a granny of three and Elder of her Quaker meeting. So welcome to the show Gillie.

Gillie Bolton: I’m very happy to be here. Thank you for asking me

Alison Jones: It’s so lovely to have you here.  I’m working my way through Reflective Practice at the moment, as I said to you, I’m thoroughly enjoying it. And I hadn’t quite realized that you basically established the discipline of reflective practice writing.

So, just tell us about the early days, where that came from and how it’s evolved.

Gillie Bolton: Well, it came partly from my own experience in writing, because I had a particular need when I was younger, very much younger, to sort myself out and I found I could never trust a therapist or anyone else to talk to. So by some incredibly lucky chance I found writing and I discovered for myself the amazing illuminative power of writing, which is different from speaking or thinking. And I also discovered that, of course, other writers had found the same thing before me, mostly poets, but also fiction writers and journal writers of course.

And, the reason why this happens, I think, is that when you write you’re on your own, you’re on your own with your writing and your interlocutor is your writing, it’s your paper and your pencil or pen, which is producing it. And so it’s totally private. You can write just whatever you like. It can be absolute nonsense, or I should say seem to be absolute nonsense, and nobody else need ever read it.

In fact, I would recommend anyone with any piece of writing, whatever it’s for, even if it’s academic writing, professional writing for publication or whatever, but your first draft needs to be only for you because that allows you to write absolutely anything. It allows you to really put all your thoughts, inspirations, ideas, fears, hesitations, everything onto the page in the knowledge that you can always edit it, sort it out afterwards if you do need to share it with someone else. And it’s that initial getting down and all these things that can lead you to find out what it is you think and feel, and know, and have experienced. And that’s why…

Alison Jones: Gillie, cognitively, neurologically maybe, what is going on there? What is that process that takes you from the stuff going on inside, that you don’t have any insight or appreciation of really, you know, what happens when you write that makes that magic happen?

Gillie Bolton: Well, the metaphor I use is that of the Royal Opera House in London in Covent Garden, which is an absolutely wonderful place and we had the privilege of going there lots of times, very cheaply because we found out how to get cheaper… where to sit more cheaply. The Royal Opera House has a fantastic auditorium where we all can go. It’s all crimson and gold and beautiful, and it has a crimson and gold curtain, a great big velvet curtain, but you and I are not allowed behind that curtain. Yet on the other side of the curtain, beyond the stage, there’s acres and acres and acres of rehearsal space, offices, canteens, all sorts of things. And of course all the wonderful wardrobes where they store those amazing costumes.

And if only you could get behind there, you could explore all that and you’d understand so much more about opera and ballet. But you’re not allowed to. If you tried to the usher would immediately stop you. And our minds are just like that. They’re huge, masses of stuff in there, which for all sorts of complicated reasons, we don’t remember. We feel we don’t know. But it’s all there. It’s all happening. Things are going on and we don’t know what it is. And as writers, what we need to do is find an occasion when that usher is off duty and we can get up there and nip behind the curtain.

Alison Jones: That’s our censor?

Gillie Bolton: Yes. That’s our internal censor.

And it’s hard at work. And when you speak to people, it doesn’t matter who it is, however much you love them and respect them and trust them, your censor is always there. But if you speak to a piece of paper you can write down on it all those things, you can actually nip behind the curtain and you can find an occasion when the usher is off duty.

Alison Jones: That’s a glorious metaphor because I can immediately take that and see, you’re constantly putting on a performance, aren’t you, you are putting on a show, and so much of what we do is writing for business purposes, but actually almost any form of writing is part of that show.

It’s persuading people, it’s showing how clever we are. And there’s a role for it, of course, but actually, as you say, there is so much going on behind that curtain.

Tell me how you took that personal epiphany, that sense that this was working for you personally in your own life, and realized its application professionally and also in the classroom.

Gillie Bolton: Well, I started off teaching adults at one of the residential colleges. I don’t know if you know what a residential college is, but they’re absolutely wonderful places and they’re for people who missed out on education the first time round. And the one I was working at was in the most amazing stately mansion, a Palladian and Gothic mansion near Barnsley which of course used to be a mining town. And it was fairly shortly after the mines were closed, so we’re in the latter half of the eighties. And so all our students were ex-miners and their families, or lots of them were. In this fantastic surrounding, but of course, working at tubular steel and cheap tables and so on with these painted ceilings and so on, and working with these people who knew nothing about writing.

And yes, I introduced them to it as a creative form. The way they were able to use it to find things out about themselves was just so remarkable. And they so fell in love with it, and it was an incredible experience.

And so I thought: I can take this into the professional zone. So I set up a Masters in Education module, which I called Stories at Work, which was my first essay into reflective writing, and it was just unbelievable. Those teachers, they were like a dog with a bone. They rushed off with the writing and it was amazing what they learned.

And I found exactly the same when I started working in medical schools with doctors. What they learned about themselves and their work, and they were able immediately to put into practice in the work, absolutely made the most incredible difference to their working lives, their understanding of their work themselves. And so I just went on from there, from strength to strength, really. I suppose it was a piece of luck when Sage actually asked me to write my first book, they heard about my work, the first edition.

And then went on from there.

Alison Jones: And that was in 2000, wasn’t it? So we’re 20 years on, we’re in the fifth edition now. And I understand that the sixth edition is coming out next year, which is amazing.

Actually, I did want to talk to you a little bit… I am going to come back to the how and the why and the what of reflective writings, the reflective practice and writing, because it’s so interesting, but since we’re just talking about the longevity of this particular book, I’m interested how it is for you as the author, when it comes to doing the fourth, fifth, the sixth edition. How is it different revising? And also, I know that the fifth edition you did with Russell Delderfield, didn’t you?

So what was it like collaborating on something that had been so much part of your own identity and work?

Gillie Bolton: Well, originally when I was asked to do subsequent editions and editions one to four, I actually found working on them – and they were tremendous amount of work – was a huge privilege because I was able to take my text and the experience of having worked with many, many professionals since who had read it and used it and the things that they said, and I was able to really work on that text, really unpick it and re-put it together again. And it got better and better over the editions until edition four. So by the time I retired, after edition four, I felt that the book had grown up. I’d written at last the book I wanted to write. And then when my editor said, will you do a fifth?  I said, no, I can’t. I have retired. I don’t have the experience any more. I can’t possibly.

And she said, well, we’ll find somebody. It’s a massive publisher, Sage, absolutely enormous. It’s American. And I said, Oh, I can’t have somebody else doing it. And she said, don’t worry, you trust me. And I did trust her. She was amazing. I will find just the right person.

And she did. She found absolutely the right person whom I did find I could completely trust. And he actually said and says about the sixth edition, that for him, it’s a huge privilege to work on it, which is wonderful for me.

Alison Jones: Yes. I noticed in his preface he said that, I don’t know if you realize this, but at the time that he started his career in teaching was the year that the first edition came out and it was an absolutely formative thing for him. So it’s a lovely continuity, isn’t it?

Gillie Bolton: It is. It is. And so he’ll have to do quite a bit more work for the sixth edition. And because I trust him and I do entirely trust my new editor. And also, I’m retired and my book has grown up and it’s still growing in the world. And of course I’m tremendously proud that over 20 years on, it’s still growing in the big world and that people actually more and more need these kinds of approaches, which really enable them to come to grips with what they think and feel, and know, and experience and need to know, and they need to develop their understandings and therefore develop their practice.

And that’s tremendously thrilling.

Alison Jones: Absolutely. And actually that brings us back into the thick of how we use this and why it matters because I have a theory that writing is terribly undervalued, or writing in this sense, reflective practice writing, exploratory writing, whatever you call it, it’s not commonly appreciated,  particularly I think in the business world. I think most people think of writing as the stuff that is forward-facing, is in front of the curtain at the Opera House. It’s stuff, you know, you get up on stage and do.

So if somebody is interested in this more private, behind-the-curtain sort of writing, how can they start?  They’re not lucky enough to actually be in one of your classes, how can they start for themselves?

Gillie Bolton: Well, it couldn’t actually be more simple and more undemanding. All it requires is at least six minutes, a piece of paper and a pencil or pen. I don’t really recommend the screen because when we work on a screen, we expect to write something that’s finished.

It comes up in print on the screen. And so we think of it as print. Whereas when you scribble and scrawl with a pen or a pencil, you can see this as formative thinking rather than formed thinking.

Alison Jones: It’s such an important distinction, isn’t it? I was reading a quote from Barack Obama actually earlier today that said something like, if he’s doing early ideas, he needs to write longhand because type gives a finished gloss to the most half-baked thoughts, which I thought was really interesting.

Gillie Bolton: I’m thrilled that Obama knows this too. That’s fantastic. Yes. To think. Yes, we want everyone to discover this really because it’s so significant. We’re actually talking about respect and trust. We’re talking about respecting and trusting ourselves as thinkers.

And so to return to how to start, you take a pencil or pen and a piece of paper and a bit of privacy. Or rather a lump of privacy, make sure you’re on your own.

Alison Jones:  At least six minutes of it.

Gillie Bolton: All of six minutes to start with.

And allow yourself to write anything on the paper, and I mean, anything, it might seem to be absolute nonsense. Some people write disconnected words, odd phrases, half sentences. You can be incredibly surprised about suddenly where you go when you think I’m going to write anything on this piece of paper. It might take you anywhere.

And the way of allowing yourself to write anything, which is hard, because as you say, our censor is hard at work there, the way of allowing yourself to write anything is to say A) nobody else is going to read this, okay, it doesn’t matter if it’s nonsense, I can burn it, rip it up immediately if I want to. B) I don’t have to obey any rules of writing. I can forget all those boring, old rules of proper sentences, paragraphs, spelling, all those things I was taught at school.

So you can write in any old form that you want to, and it doesn’t have to reach the edge of the page or anything at all. And giving ourselves these kinds of permission is, once more, all about respect and trust of ourselves because all those rules come from outside us. And what we’re saying is I am going to do what I want here. And that’s power, that’s strength saying I’m going to write what I want to write, and that can really set you off.

And that gives power to your pen or pencil. And once you’ve started, once you’ve done the six minutes, very often people find they can’t stop and they just carry on.

Otherwise, in my book, Reflective Practice Writing there is just heaps and heaps and heaps of ideas for how to carry on from there. Really, really fascinating things to explore.

Alison Jones: Yes. I particularly love the way that you storytell from different perspectives. I thought that was really powerful.

Gillie Bolton: Yes, it is powerful. That was the most powerful thing I ever did with people. Yes. It’s a real opener that if you write about an experience, any experience in your working life, you’ll find that a significant one will come up, you write about it, but of course you write about it from your own perspective, you think about it from your own perspective.

But if you could use writing to say, okay, I’m now going to explore that same incident, that same occasion, but from the point of view of the other most significant person there, whoever that was. And so you do, you set out and the I becomes the other person. So, you yourself, you have to give yourself your name. I would become Gillie. I would write about myself as Gillie and the other person is the I, and once you get into writing that story, you allow yourself to write it and think: this other person is never going to read this.

You do have to say that to yourself. I’m never going to show it to them. And nobody else is ever going to read this either. Golly you can learn some things. And over all those years that I was working with people they learned the most amazing things about themselves and their work. It was an amazing privilege.

Alison Jones: It’s a great exercise in empathy, as well as self knowledge, isn’t it?

Gillie Bolton: Yes. It really, really is. And it’s a great exercise in listening and paying attention because once you realize, if you start writing from somebody else’s perspective, you might realize, Oh gosh, I don’t actually know. I can’t remember that.

Well, then you start paying attention more later. It’s more worth it.

Alison Jones: That’s fascinating. Yes. I hadn’t thought of that, but not only does writing give you a new perspective on the past and help you process and understand past experiences, as you become a writer, and as you gain that skill and that habit, you actually start noticing, you start living as a writer as well, don’t you? and noticing those details?

Gillie Bolton: Oh, yes. Yes. And that’s one of the characteristics of a writer. We are actually very quiet people, very quiet people. And we don’t say a lot, it’s because so much is going in and anyone can learn some of those skills. Obviously other people are much more self-assertive in speech and that sort of thing. So they wouldn’t take on that writerly attribute of being very quiet and listening and paying attention all the time.

But people certainly do once they’ve started realizing the power of being able to express these things and understand and learn from it. They do learn to listen. And pay attention more. Yes.

Alison Jones: Yes. Even the wild extroverts, I can vouch for that.

Gillie Bolton: Even the wild extroverts, yes.

Alison Jones: And six minutes. Let’s just go into that for a moment, because it does seem an odd number. And I have to say this for me has been absolutely transformational. I used to have a goal of writing for 10 minutes every day and I almost always failed. 10 minutes doesn’t sound much, actually it is. It’s a good chunk of time. And I tried five minutes and it wasn’t really quite long enough. Six minutes, amazing, because it takes you three or four minutes to kind of get the sludge out of the system, doesn’t it? And actually start finding a seam that you want to follow that’s really productive.

And by putting an extra minute on the end, suddenly you get a minute of pure good stuff. It was revelatory.

Gillie Bolton: That’s marvelous. You’ve said it for me. Yes. That’s all the six minutes is. Five minutes is too short and 10 minutes is too long. And you think, six minutes, that’s nothing. I can do that.

Alison Jones: And mentally, you round down to five minutes because of course I can find five minutes, you know?

Gillie Bolton: Yes, the whole point of starting with the six minutes is, as we say six minutes seems to be a manageable length of time. It’s not too long, but actually it is just long enough. And if you can allow yourself to write absolutely anything for six minutes, you’ve made a start. You’ve made a start on the piece of paper because a blank sheet of paper or blank screen is terrifying for even the most experienced writers, believe it or not.

You have to make a start. And so allowing yourself to put absolutely anything on the page, you’ve made a start and much more than that, you’ve made a start hopefully with some bit of what you really think and feel, know, understand, have experienced, are experiencing, and you can carry on from there.

Having started, you can then carry on. So you can either use one of the suggestions in my book. And there are very, very many, including the writing from another perspective, as we talked about before, or you can, what a lot of people do actually, and what I often do, is pick up from where you’ve got to in your writing.

So say your focus is perhaps I need to write this something or another about this, whatever it is for publication, which is different from reflective writing, but you still start off in exactly the same way because the blank screen or page is still just as frightening. But what you’ve managed to get down on the page in those six minutes is beginning to get at the core, the heart, of what you really think about what you need to say for this publication.

And the other advantage of it is, if you carry on from there, in that way, you’ll be saying it in your authentic voice. Whereas when we write for publication, we tend to think, people tend to think, Oh, I have got to write this properly, it’s got to be in this kind of,  or that kind of voice, this is the  kind of way to write.

Well, that’s absolute rubbish. What readers want is the authentic, true voice of the writer. And that’s what draws them in.

Alison Jones: That’s a lovely thought for business writing more generally as well. I mean, obviously a lot of people listening to this will be writing business books, which is great.

This is a great way to get into that, as you say, and discover your voice and just get those writing muscles working.

But actually if you’ve got to write a report, a presentation, a training course, anything like that, and you’re faced with a blank page, which as you say is horrifying, then six minutes of limbering up with this writing is a great way to start isn’t it.

Gillie Bolton: It is for every single possible reason and all you’ve wasted, if indeed you might’ve wasted it, or you fear you will waste it, is six minutes.

Yes, right, which

Alison Jones: you can probably spare out of a day, I don’t care how busy you are.

I just wanted to touch on one final personal thing, Gillie as well, because I was really interested that you’re a Friend, you’re a Quaker, which just seemed to chime beautifully with that sense of space and reflection and quietude.

So I just, I mean, what was the genesis of those two? How do you see them working together?

Gillie Bolton: Well, I’ve been a Friend, a Quaker, since 1970. So now for 50 years and it plays an extremely significant role in my life. Quakers, Friends, we don’t have a creed, we don’t have a set of beliefs at all.

We believe that what matters is how we live our lives and that we live our lives according to very significant values and principles. And so everything in our life, it’s not just on Sundays and it’s not just for doing specific things. It’s absolutely everything. It’s family, shopping, work, everything. And so those values have been a significant part of my life for 50 years and they completely underlie all my work.

You only have to read anything I’ve written knowing anything about Quaker principles and values to see them. That they are there, and also that sense of paying attention, which is what I talked about before. Paying attention to other people, listening, because we do what we call listen on the spirit.

And that’s what we’re doing in Quaker meeting. We’re listening for leadings, we’re listening for the inner light. We’re listening to hear the truth from other people. And so we’re listening and we also are enjoined to walk cheerfully over the world, seeking that of God in everyone else, and also to take heed to the promptings of love and truth in our hearts.

And you can see all those things in my work.

Alison Jones: It’s all of one. I love that. And it’s a lovely, we talk a lot about values and purpose in business. And it’s a lovely expression of how that plays out in how you are, as well as who you are and what you do.

Gillie Bolton: I never tell anyone I’m a Quaker and I’ve never said it in my books.

Alison Jones: Yes, well I picked it up in a biography and I just thought how interesting, having read your work it chimed very much. So thank you for sharing that. That’s really, really interesting to know a little bit more about the principles, that the whole kind of philosophy behind it, which makes complete sense.

Now I always ask people Gillie for, coming right back to the practical, tactical stuff here now, sorry, but I always ask people for their best tip for a first time author. Now, clearly six minutes of free writing or reflective practice writing is kind of where we’re going with this, but is there a specific tip that you would give somebody who has the ambition to write a book, but is daunted by just the magnitude of the task ahead of them?

Gillie Bolton: Yes. And I will return to the trust and respect I mentioned before that nobody is ever going to write it a good book without trusting and respecting themselves.

So, before you start, before even you do the six minutes, you need to make contact with your strong self, your wise self, and know that you have a strong self and a wise self, and you have total respect for that strong, wise self. And you’re going to allow that strong, wise self to speak onto the page.

And if you start on the six minutes with that sense of love and trust and respect for yourself, it’ll happen. So that’s stage one and stage two is you’re not going to write 60,000 words or however many words it is straight off.  Rather like Bilbo Baggins said when he set off to find that dragon, he said the journey starts with one step outside my front door.

It’s the same with a book.

Alison Jones: Yes. Anybody can take one step otside their house, anybody can sit and write for six minutes, and you just build it up day after day, session after session. Yes.

Gillie Bolton: Yes. Lots of six minutes.

Alison Jones: Yes. There’s only one way to eat an elephant as my neighbour said to me.

Gillie Bolton: That’s right. A mouthful at a time.

Alison Jones: Wonderful. Thank you. It’s a beautiful blend of really inspirational and downright practical and tactical. So thank you, that’s perfect.

Gillie Bolton: Thank you very much for inviting me.

Alison Jones: Oh, I’m not finished with you yet. I’m going to ask you to recommend a business book. It doesn’t have to be a business book, but a book that you feel, I mean, clearly people should genuinely go and read Reflective Practice, and I will put that upon the show notes, but is there another book that you think would be, you would recommend to people that’s shaped how you think about life, about business, about writing?

Gillie Bolton: Well, one thing I would recommend is Reflexive Leadership: Organizing in an Imperfect World by Mats Alvesson. And I think because it’s research based, and I think from my own work experience that all my learning has been done from other people. I’ve learned so much from other people. And that’s what this book is based on. It’s based on the experience of other people and it foregrounds reflexivity, and reflexivity is a process whereby we query ourselves, we query our engagement with roles, assumptions, values, and principles, and try and work out where we fit in with what’s going on around us.

So that’s a book I would recommend.

Alison Jones: Wonderful. I don’t know it, it sounds absolutely fascinating. And actually that’s such a core of your book, isn’t it? That distinction between all the kind of interplay between reflection and reflexion, reflectiveness and reflexion, it doesn’t work when you say out loud, does it?

Gillie Bolton: That’s what people get in a tangle about what reflexivity is, but reflexivity is quite simply examining yourself, what am I doing here? Or if it’s a group, if you have a reflexive session with a group, we think who what’s going on in our group, what are we actually doing? That’s the kind of thing you’re looking at and that’s the kind of thing we’re not used to doing in our culture. And it’s very powerful.

Alison Jones: Absolutely. And I think I’m going to have to have you back on the show at some point to talk about collaborative reflective practice writing, because we didn’t even get onto that, but it’s really powerful, but we’re running out of time.

So Gillie, if people want to find out more about you, more about the book, more about your practices, where could they go?

Gillie Bolton: www.gilliebolton.com. So all you have to do, if you can remember my name and just put it into Google and you’ll get me.

Alison Jones: And if you can’t remember her name, you can go to the show notes at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com as usual. You’ll find the transcript of this conversation, which I think we’ll be rereading several times, and I’ll put that link up there as well.

Gillie, it was just a delight to talk to you today. Thank you so much for your time.

Gillie Bolton: Thank you very much. It’s been marvelous.

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