From Incompetence to Competence

An accepted model for learning in the training world is the 4 step move from 'Unconscious Incompetence' passing through 'Conscious Incompetence' and 'Conscious Competence', ending at 'Unconscious Competence'. Usually, this model is expressed as a progression upwards through the levels, like up a flight of steps. However, in working as a trainer, in fact, in any honest field of endeavour, I would suggest, if progress is indeed like a flight of steps it is at very least a spiral staircase.

Allow me to explain!

A typical example of the traditional model is a young person learning to drive. Initially, they are 'unconsciously incompetent' where it comes to driving. They have been driven around since early childhood. They have sat in a car with their mother or father and driving seems not much more complicated than pointing the car in the right direction, working a brake and occasionally using a steering wheel to turn. When it comes to driving they are unaware of how challenging learning to drive is going to be. Once they start to learn, they move to 'conscious incompetence'. Driving is, in fact, a lot harder than it seemed from the outside. With a bit of practice, the learner will progress to 'conscious competence'. That is, they begin to drive effectively if they concentrate really carefully and no one talks to them while they are thinking. And then a few years later they are reversing out of the garage, using only one hand, programming the radio with the other and holding a conversation at the same time. I am not suggesting this is a safe way to drive, but it means that the mechanics of driving are now so well ingrained that you do them without thinking, which means you are now 'unconsciously competent' as a driver.

And that is where the traditional model usually ends. However to follow the driving analogy one step further, we are probably all aware of long-standing drivers, who cut corners, no longer indicate properly, cease to use their mirrors and hold the car on a hill with the footbrake alone. The Incompetence to Competence learning model is in fact not a straight upward path; at worst it is a circle, at best a spiral, because once one is unconsciously competent, like a sportsman who no longer trains properly or a musician who ceases to take lessons, it is possible to unconsciously slip back into a form of incompetence.

The solution? The Workshop leader's best friend. Feedback!

As a communicator, it is feedback that stops us from tumbling from unconscious competence back into unconscious incompetence. Most training and workshop feedback forms consist of a rather bland series of general questions whose answers amount to little more than 'Yes, I had a nice day'. Feedback should be challenging. It should make both the trainer and the participant think. No one likes to feel they are being criticised. And one of the unfortunate apparent rules is that often the most useful feedback is not expressed very tactfully. As a trainer, you need to embrace feedback. If you do a good job and remain consciously competent, then most of the feedback will be more than acceptable, and the occasional sharp comment will help keep you at the top of your game.

Feedback, however, is not just an end of session event. A good leader should be looking for signs all the time; body language, actively listening, continually asking questions about pace and content to make sure everybody is still on board. There is not much point in completing the day's training if half the participants go 'missing in action'.

So for the genuine communicator, like the serious artist, the learning process is not a straight linear path; instead, it is a continuous cycle. It is about staying humble and using feedback to make sure professional competence never slips into professional incompetence.

This article was written by Michael Ronayne, director at the College of Public Speaking and four-time UK National Public Speaking Champion.

To discover more of Michael's top training techniques, check out his professionally accredited Train the Trainer course here