Gibbs' Reflective Cycle

Helping People Learn From Experience

Sky reflected on water.

Use this simple tool to encourage your team members to reflect on their experiences.

© iStockphoto/ermingut

Many people find that they learn best from experience.

However, if they don't reflect on their experience, and if they don't consciously think about how they could do better next time, it's hard for them to learn anything at all.

This is where Gibbs' Reflective Cycle is useful. You can use it to help your people make sense of situations at work, so that they can understand what they did well and what they could do better in the future.

About the Model

Professor Graham Gibbs published his Reflective Cycle in his 1988 book "Learning by Doing." It's particularly useful for helping people learn from situations that they experience regularly, especially when these don't go well.

Gibbs' cycle is shown below.

Figure 1 – Gibbs' Reflective Cycle

Gibbs' Reflective Cycle Diagram

From "Learning by Doing" by Graham Gibbs. Published by Oxford Polytechnic, 1988.


Gibbs' original model had six stages. The stage we haven't covered here is "Analysis" – we've included this as part of the Evaluation stage.

Using the Model

You can use the model to explore a situation yourself, or you can use it with someone you're coaching   – we look at coaching use in this article, but you can apply the same approach when you're on your own.

To structure a coaching session using Gibbs' Cycle, choose a situation to analyze and then work through the steps below.

Step 1: Description

First, ask the person you're coaching to describe the situation in detail. At this stage, you simply want to know what happened – you'll draw conclusions later.

Consider asking questions like these to help him describe the situation:

  • When and where did this happen?
  • Why were you there?
  • Who else was there?
  • What happened?
  • What did you do?
  • What did other people do?
  • What was the result of this situation?

Step 2: Feelings

Next, encourage him to talk about what he thought and felt during the experience. At this stage, avoid commenting on his emotions.

Use questions like these to guide the discussion:

  • What did you feel before this situation took place?
  • What did you feel while this situation took place?
  • What do you think other people felt during this situation?
  • What did you feel after the situation?
  • What do you think about the situation now?
  • What do you think other people feel about the situation now?

Tip 1:

It might be difficult for some people to talk honestly about their feelings. Use Empathic Listening   at this stage to connect with them emotionally, and to try to see things from their point of view.

Tip 2:

You can use the Perceptual Positions   technique to help this person see the situation from other people's perspectives.

Step 3: Evaluation

Now you need to encourage the person you're coaching to look objectively at what approaches worked, and which ones didn't.

Ask him:

  • What was positive about this situation?
  • What was negative?
  • What went well?
  • What didn't go so well?
  • What did you and other people do to contribute to the situation (either positively or negatively)?

If appropriate, use a technique such as the 5 Whys   to help your team member uncover the root cause of the issue.

Step 4: Conclusions

Once you've evaluated the situation, you can help your team member draw conclusions about what happened.

Encourage him to think about the situation again, using the information that you've collected so far. Then ask questions like these:

  • How could this have been a more positive experience for everyone involved?
  • If you were faced with the same situation again, what would you do differently?
  • What skills do you need to develop, so that you can handle this type of situation better?

Step 5: Action

You should now have some possible actions that your team member can take to deal with similar situations more effectively in the future.

In this last stage, you need to come up with a plan so that he can make these changes.

Once you've identified the areas he will work on, get him to commit to taking action, and agree a date on which you will both review progress.


This tool is structured as a cycle, reflecting an ongoing coaching relationship. Whether you use it this way depends on the situation and your relationship with the person being coached.

Key Points

Graham Gibbs published his Reflective Cycle in 1988.

There are five stages in the cycle:

1. Description.
2. Feelings.
3. Evaluation.
4. Conclusions.
5. Action.

You can use it to help team members think about how they deal with situations, so that they can understand what they did well, and so that they know where they need to improve.

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Comments (3)
  • april123 wrote Over a month ago
    I'm always interested to try and figure out where someone's thinking is at. If I learn how they think, I may be able to coach them better. Probably more or less the same as you said about finding out where people are headed.

    I also like asking:
    How would you handle that? (on a hypothetical situation)
    Why is that the direction you would take? (on a hypothetical situation or when discussing a real situation that requires action)
    What is your objective when doing XYZ?
    What would you like the outcome to be? (gives me an idea about how they're thinking)
    The last two questions often help people see that even though they mean well by what they want to do, it won't give them the desired result.

    The book you mentioned sounds interesting - thanks.

  • StellaOnTheRun wrote Over a month ago
    This is a great tool!

    I still find it difficult though, to coach employees to have "insights" or see the situation form a different light. Combine with the tool with the 5 why's and an inexperienced coach and you might end up with a completely wrong conclusion and therefore - totally inappropriate actions.

    How do you make sure this doesn't happen?
    I have been trying the working with the tools (6 steps) described in the Quiet Leadership by David Rock:
    Focusing on Solutions without getting into detail, or about listening for
    where people are heading, rather than for what might not be

    Anybody else having a way that'd work better?

  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    This is a profound article. The principle of learning from life experiences is crucial for personal growth. It's sad (and at times very frustrating) to seee adults making the same mistakes over and over again because they fail to learn from the experience.

    The article also mentions the perceptual positions technique - it's something I often use during training, coaching and counselling. If you learn to see things from others people's perspective, the need to prove a point often diminishes. It also teaches us one of the habits as described in the book 'The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People' (Stephen R Covey): seek to understand before being understood.

    Looking forward to hear comments from others.


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