Instructional Designers + Introspective Thinking

The Key Relationship Between Introspective Thinking And Instructional Design 

I hope to show that understanding introspective thinking has a great deal to do with all aspects of management, and the management of learning especially, since management and instruction involves dealing with people, and people are by nature introspective.

As a race we are prone to looking within ourselves, searching for the right way to live or be. Just think about it, people cannot stop introspecting. We are in a constant state of self-review. We are constantly the subject of our own thoughts; navel-gazing our way through life.

Why do we do this? Because we can, perhaps. But I think it also must be an evolutionary strategy –and a successful one at that– since our compulsion to reflect is so apparent in almost all members of our species, and we are by far the most successful species. Introspection must have a very fundamental purpose.

Looking inwards, contemplating, meditating, or ruminating is a solitary endeavor, and yet almost no one lives an isolated life. We interact – a lot. Our life is largely about interactions between our reflective self and the reflective selves of others. Introspection is a conversation we have with our self –using our introspective skills– before interacting with whatever persona the other person chooses to show us, using their introspective skills. And we have no way of knowing if the person we are interacting with is presenting their authentic persona. They may not know.

Introspection is a coping mechanism at least, and a genuine search for meaning at most. Socrates famously said that “An unexamined life is not worth living”. And an examination of any life can only happen by introspective thinking.

It is the choice of managers or instructors to either ignore this deeply individualized and personal capacity and assume your group is homogeneous –big mistake– or assume diversity and leverage the hell out of it.

Digging A Little Deeper

People, or rather their personas, are a product of their mental and emotional states and processes. It seems like stating the obvious, but individuals are the only ones who can be said to be able to truly in touch with their mental and emotional states or processes. And then only if they chose to do so.

A boss cannot contemplate on behalf of a subordinate or anyone else. A manager cannot meditate on behalf of an employee and figure out their emotional state. A teammate cannot see the inner workings of a fellow collaborator. Even a psychologist or psychiatrist after a decade or more of study can only make an educated guess about a person’s emotional condition; and then only after asking a lot of questions and ordering up tests.

Getting into someone’s mind is impossible. We can by intuition guess what another person is thinking and have a good chance of being right. But relying on that being an accurate reflection of their state of mind is a gamble; but it is one we must take if we are to keep moving forwards.

There is a further difficulty you should know about when assessing your own or another person’s emotional or mental condition. We use our mind to do the assessing, yet we cannot even prove that there is such a thing as a mind. We are simply inferring its existence from a series of activities and outcomes we perceive, and we assume could only come from mental activity, and we give it a name - a mind. And to further complicate things we are using our own version of this ineffable entity to do the inferring. A shrink, a coach, an instructor and even an HR professional or FBI profiler is inherently limited in how much they can know about a person’s mental or emotional state. We just know that certain pills or processes work from an historical body of empirical research and statistics. And I am not demeaning this at all. If we did not have ways to put certain parameters on behavioral or personality types we would be in even more of a pickle.

There is no test that can make claims or diagnose mental and emotional conditions that are certain. We must content ourselves with trying to get close –and that means Introspecting– looking inwards –and Empathizing– putting ourselves in another person’s shoes – as best we can.

The best person to understand their emotional state is the person experiencing that condition. No one can know my sadness. They might know sadness in general; but they cannot know my sadness like I do. Two people looking at the same sunset are seeing different sunsets. Philosophers refer to this as Qualia simply put “the ways things seem to us”.

Obviously if eight people make up a group to consider a problem they will have eight different views making the group diverse. Each one is looking at the problem from a different set of skills and a different experiential background. This is an opportunity not a problem. But an instructor or teacher or parent will get better results if they make an effort to understand the processes that have resulted in an individual “seeing things the way they seem to them” in order to create order from otherwise random interactions.

Qualia is how each individual sees things. Empathy is how we try to see things from another's point of view. These two dynamics are at work in every human interaction, from gossip on up.

It is important to know that  introspection is a means of learning only about one's current, or very recent, mental states or processes. All else is remembering.

You can, of course, learn about your own mind in the same way you learn about others' minds, by reading psychology texts, by observing your facial expressions, by examining readouts of your brain activity or by noting patterns of past behavior – but it is generally believed that an individual can also learn about their own mind introspectively, in a way that no one else can.

So what exactly is introspection thinking? No simple characterization is widely accepted, however, when we reflect on our thoughts, emotions, and memories and examine what they mean, we are engaging in introspection. A good manager or team member asks questions that will elicit reflective, introspective activities from the patient or employee thereby forcing them to self-reflect. The goal is not to pry but to get the employee to understand and possibly verbalize the issue that surfaces through introspection. It is enough that they realize what’s really going on emotionally. Once a person has been given time to reflect our innate gift for empathy allows us to help others.

I can think of no better way to manage people than to help them work through problems by encouraging self-reflective behavior. I can think of no better way to leverage a group working on a problem than to encourage each member to reflect on their opinion, and for the others in the group to do the same, and letting all of them give the others enough space and time to encourage introspective thinking.

Still Deeper

If you are convinced that unleashing the power of introspective thinking is worth trying, then consider understanding Epistemology. It simply means the study of the nature and scope of knowledge. It asks what knowledge is and how it is acquired. Self-reflection or introspection is an examination of our own knowledge and how we acquired it, so epistemology is worth a look especially if you are in the knowledge business – and who isn’t these days?

Philosophers believe that if you look inside yourself –introspection– you will discover you have three different kinds of knowledge. First, we know something to be a fact: 2+2=4, and that’s called declarative knowledge. Second, we know how to do things such as addition. That’s called procedural knowledge. And third, we know something by its existence. That’s called knowledge by acquaintance.

So, when I decide to reflect on my own self or help others reflect on their own emotional or mental state surely it helps to differentiate the ideas or thoughts according to whether they are facts, skills or are simply something we know because we have seen evidence for it. You know he’s late for work a lot – declarative knowledge. You know he knows how to get to work – procedural knowledge. So, after being prompted to reflect on these two pieces of evidence, what more can he tell you to change his behavior? Only the tardy person can acquaint himself with new knowledge and change. It comes from within – it always does.

If you are an individual, group leader, coach, teacher or a member of an autonomous team, your choice is clear: To be introspective in an undisciplined way and just randomly and reactively work through an issue, or you can make an attempt to reflect on the issue in a more structured manner.

Generally speaking introspection can have two kinds of outcomes:

  • Provable outcomes that are objective in nature. No argument needed.
  • A belief in something subjective that cannot be proved right or wrong. Lots of room for opinions and points-of-view.

A provable outcome such as the result of a mathematical equation is easy to accept. The trouble comes with belief or opinion on something that is not settled one way or another. A belief is an internal thought or memory which exists in one’s mind without one having proof. The overwhelming majority of our daily interactions deal with these subjective, unprovable ideas that we come to believe or not. Is this the right plan of action? Is that the right house, spouse, job or car?

The philosophers claim that for an idea to become a belief it must be justified and true. And the way of explaining the theory of justification is to say that a justified belief is one that we are "within our rights" in holding. The rights in question here are neither political nor moral, however, but intellectual.

For a process to qualify as “introspective”, it must minimally meet these conditions:

  • First, it must have a goal of generating knowledge, beliefs, and judgments about one’s mental state, not about the state of affairs outside the mind.
  • Second, it is current. Introspective thinking is thinking about how one feels, judges, and knows about one’s current state of mind in the moment. No “what ifs.’ Plenty of “what is” questions.


I hope I have demonstrated that introspection should be a deliberate effort; not a passive and disengaged process. Passing a mirror and noticing a frown and realizing that you are angry is a reflexive action. Introspection requires deliberate attention to, and direct detection of, one's ongoing mental states.

The conclusion is simple. Without introspection, which takes time, we are not optimizing our own functional ability, and since we are social beings we are not being the best team member we might be, which affects all others with whom we interact.

If all members of a team are given permission to think deeply about how they feel about an issue before contributing to the problem-solving task, the outcome will likely be better than gut reactions.

Finally, introspection in a group or alone is all about questioning. That’s the only tool we have to order our thinking. “How do I feel about this subjective issue?” “What is my reaction to this situation?” “Why am I reacting this way?”

It really, really helps to write your answers to your introspective questions.

My Terego Enterprise Training Methodology codifies and simplifies the process. Try the demo, it is free.

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