Reflective dialogue for transformational learning

I was excited by the idea of double-loop learning when I first read about it. Developed by Chris Argyris in the late 70s, it became a leadership classic in 1991 when the Harvard Business Review published Argyris’s article, Teaching smart people how to learn.

Argyris’ describes the astonishing blind spots that some smart people have, with their tendency to become extremely defensive when their performance is under scrutiny. Smart people are so used to being successful, they miss the opportunity to learn the basic resilience skills that the rest of us are learning every time we fail. This makes them avoid looking inward and owning up to their own part in the problems they are trying to solve. As Argyris says:

First, most people define learning too narrowly as mere ‘‘problem solving,’’ so they focus on identifying and correcting errors in the external environment. Solving problems is important. But if learning is to persist, managers and employees must also look inward. They need to reflect critically on their own behavior, identify the ways they often inadvertently contribute to the organization’s problems, and then change how they act. In particular, they must learn how the very way they go about defining and solving problems can be a source of problems in its own right.

-Chris Argyris, 1991

The capacity to reflect critically – and to take critical feedback – is what makes double-loop learning so effective for leaders and organisations who want to transform the way they work and their impact in the world.

Any form of reflection is helpful to bring awareness to your blind spots and to respond creatively to the challenges of leadership without defensiveness. But the nature of blind spots is that they’re very hard to see on your own. Deeper learning calls for reflection in dialogue with others.

I am now re-imagining double-loop learning in the language of mindful leadership to try to encourage leaders who want to be more mindful to seek out and embrace opportunities to learn more deeply. This is when learning can become truly transformational and the benefits can be enjoyed not only in the way you lead, but also in the rest of your life.

This type of learning always begins with learning about yourself – how you are thinking, feeling and behaving – and what you may be contributing to the problems you’re trying to solve. Sure, other people could be contributing to the problems too, but it’s possible you are a bigger part of the problem than you realise. What hope is there for middle managers or team members to take responsibility for their part in the myriad of workplace problems they face, if they don’t see personal responsibility being modelled from the top?

It’s possible you are a bigger part of the problem than you realise.

Single and double-loop learning

Single-loop learning is useful, even essential in any organisation. We reflect and review, either on our own or with colleagues and managers, on the tasks, issues or problems we are facing. We plan what to do next, implement our plan and, if all goes well, we achieve our improvement goals.  Continuing in this way, we are part of a process of continuous improvement.

Sounds great doesn’t it? We all want to improve our own performance and the performance of the people we manage. But sometimes people simply go around the loop with little or no real improvement. Some people even go backwards. The problem with single-loop learning is the focus is limited to performance. We are solving problems by thinking about how systems, policies and processes can be applied, or maybe tweaked, to reach our goals.

Double loop learning

Diagram 1: Transformational Learning – Re-imagining double-loop learning

Where the reflection or review stage is done alone, the limitations of single-loop learning are more stark. Intrapersonal reflection (thinking or writing on your own) certainly has a place and can be effective in helping people reach deeper understanding of their concerns. Journaling is a good example. Over the years it has helped me to better understand my internal and external worlds. But when I’ve read back over journal entries I wrote years ago, it is interesting to find that years later I am still writing about the same old issues. Has anything really changed?

Intrapersonal reflection is not enough for transformational learning. With single-loop learning it is very likely that you will collude with yourself to maintain your blind spots. It is easy to become stuck in your unquestioned beliefs and values if there is no-one challenging your status quo.

Interpersonal reflection, or reflective dialogue, is where we add the perspective of another person to take reflection deeper. That other person could be a mentor, coach or supervisor, in an individual or group context.

Sometimes reflective dialogue is still only single-loop learning and there’s nothing wrong with that. All organisations need this for performance improvement. But if you want to move into double-loop learning, the key is to have a learning relationship that is based on trust so that you, as the learner, can be challenged in a way that is psychologically safe. Reflective dialogue then becomes an intentional process that “engages the person (who is in dialogue) at the edge of their knowledge, sense of self and the world” (Brockbank and McGill, 2007).

But if you want to move into double-loop learning, the key is to have a learning relationship that is based on trust so that you, as the learner, can be challenged in a way that is psychologically safe.

This is similar to what I mean when I talk about working with people at their “growing edge”. The key is self-reflexive awareness, which I explored in my article Awareness is Revolutionary, and the willingness to stay open and curious as you learn. In reflective dialogue, you are challenged to increase your awareness of yourself, other people and the situation, and this enables you to see new possibilities and to be part of the paradigm shift that is needed.

The paradigm shift can happen at the organisational level but what might actually be needed is a shift in your personal paradigms, the stories you tell yourself about yourself and your world. Challenging the status quo will almost certainly involve rethinking systems and processes, as well as norms and values – at both the personal and organisational levels. This is when creativity and innovation will flourish, and personal and organisational transformation becomes possible.

Taking feedback

Reflective dialogue will inevitably challenge you to consider and acknowledge your own part in any problems that are getting in the way of your personal or organisational goals.  No transformation will be possible if you leave yourself out of the dialogue.

It’s an eye-opening process to own up to what you are contributing to a problem, either at work or in your personal life. It’s often uncomfortable but always worth it in terms of learning and growth.  Looking at yourself honestly, in dialogue with others, is like climbing a mountain. It can be hard work but you need to keep going, one step at a time. If you’re willing to stretch beyond your comfort zone, you will reach the top and get a great sense of satisfaction. When you look down on the view you will have a whole new perspective.  You will be able to see further and understand the full lie of the land.


Every leader needs to be willing to climb their own mountain, participate in reflective dialogue – and take the feedback. Sometimes the feedback will be critical so this takes courage. Let people know you’re open to feedback and model what it looks like to take the feedback and to take responsibility for your actions.  

Being open to feedback is not just a technical skill. It is an emotional intelligence competency and an ethical responsibility for leaders. I make this important point – that mindful leaders are ethical leaders – in my article What is mindfulness and what is its significance for leaders?

When I was a CEO, I had an excellent Operations Manager who was fearless in her willingness to give me feedback. I think I made it possible for her to give me critical feedback because I always took it on the chin. In all honesty, I just wanted to be a better CEO so I valued the feedback and the opportunity to learn. I believe most leaders genuinely do want to learn and to do a better job as leaders. Reflective dialogue is essential for leaders to move into double-loop learning, to learn to be open to feedback and to model personal responsibility and ethical leadership for those you lead.

Sadly, we’re not used to hearing our leaders say “yes, I think you’re right. I could have done that better. I’m sorry I let everyone down. I’m going to work on this so that I don’t do it again.”

Imagine all our leaders responded in this way? The world really would be a better place. But this doesn’t have to be a fantasy. We can change the world one leader at a time. And it starts with you.

Maria Brett
The Growing Edge

Maria Brett is a trainer and coach who helps people lead more mindfully. As a former CEO, who has been a practitioner of mindfulness for more than 25 years, she knows the mindful leadership territory well. Learn about mindful leadership through Maria’s Transformational Coaching Program. To find out more, contact Maria.

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Argyris, C. (1991).  Teaching Smart People How to Learn. Harvard Business Review, May-June 1991.

Brockbank, A., & McGill, I. (2007). Facilitating Reflective Learning in Higher Education (2nd ed.). Maidenhead: Open University Press McGraw-Hill.

© Maria Brett, 2021