The Joys of New Learning

I recently became a part-time student on an intensive three month course. I found myself in a class with sixteen others, all of whom were from different occupations and sectors. We were all competent, confident practitioners in our own fields.

I was interested to note that through the initial intensive full-time week and some of the subsequent part-time weeks, the competent and confident became the incompetent and the highly anxious. When faced with new areas of learning – masses of information, unfamiliar processes, new sector jargon – plus tight deadlines and pressures to do new things with little preparation time, confidence took wings and flew out the window.

In talking to classmates over that time, I heard that different things created different stressors at different times. For some it was the pressure of long hours with competing demands in personal lives and specific new things not quite ‘grasped’. For others it was information overload, slowness to recall important steps in a process, fear of failure or not keeping up. Others had concerns about looking or sounding overly tentative and unsure. Common to us all, especially at the beginning, was the acute discomfort in being so consciously and unconsciously incompetent – and in being outside our usual comfort zones.

The experience made me think of new staff and their initial few months in a role or when experienced people go into a new role. I thought of the temptation, when faced with people learning the ropes, to be frustrated by their slowness. I thought of the time it takes to guide, coach and teach others and how easy it is to think and say it’s quicker, easier and probably better ‘if I did it myself.’

The experience was also a reminder that the acquisition of new skills, knowledge and confidence in ‘new’ doing, is a slow process. There are a number of sequential stages to be gone through in the learning process and they can’t be skipped, however much we’d like to do so. So, what are some of the steps to keep in mind.

It can be said that we’re unconsciously incompetent when we head into any new learning situation. We don’t really know what we don’t know, however we do know we don’t know. We hear ourselves saying things like ‘I don’t know very much about…….’ or ‘I haven’t a clue’ and we aren’t entirely sure of the exact scope and degree of our lack of knowledge. We feel uncomfortable and nervous, as well as interested and excited.

Once we’re underway and we are in the new learning situation, we soon discover what we don’t know. Lights appear above our heads. We can identify to the nth degree all the things we don’t know. We realise then we are consciously incompetent. Inevitably, as the lights stay on, we feel increasingly uncomfortable about our lack of knowledge, skill and overall competency. We are not used to feeling this incompetent. It’s a difficult time.

Over a period of time however, we slide into the next stage – conscious competence. We find that one day, magically, we have crossed a fine line and the new knowledge and skills have suddenly come together. We’re deliberate in what we do and how we do it. We consciously think about what we’re doing and we do it well. Our confidence returns.

The journey continues and we move unconsciously into the final stage. One day we realise we’re doing the new things without consciously thinking about every step we’re taking. We just know what to do, how to do it, to the right degree and consistency. We know we’ve got it all together – we’re now unconsciously competent. We’re confident and our skill is such that what we do might appear effortless. Halleluiah! Then we forget, as we do, at the length of time the learning process took and most of the pain that accompanied the gain.

If you are coaching or supporting something through their learning experience, encourage them in self reflection. You’ll inevitably find a person’s harshest critic is themselves. No one else tends to do such a thorough job of finding their practice and knowledge gaps or seeing themselves in the worst possible light.

They may not see the progress they’ve already made. They may be blinded by the amount they have still to acquire. They may not know the stages through incompetency to competency and they may need reassurance as well as practical support. Encourage them and offer a balanced perspective. Remind them that although the two early stages of incompetency are indeed uncomfortable, they’re not permanent conditions. They will, like all difficult things, soon pass.

First Published in NZBusiness April 2004�

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