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Four Stages of Competence

I hope that this article finds you and those important to you in good health during this lockdown that we are all experiencing. I did something this morning that I have done probably in excess of 15,000 times. But, this morning I found it really hard to do. In case you are wondering, I’m talking about shaving and the fact that it was difficult today was all my own fault! The reason that it was actually difficult was that I decided to shave in a different way. Look, I just thought it would be an interesting thing to do OK?????

the conscious competence learning model

Four stages of competence eagle training

The point is that I have been shaving for nearly 50 years now. I started when I was 17 and quickly found a way of doing it that felt comfortable and easy to do. I start from the same place (no, not in front of the mirror, on my face) and perform the same strokes in the same order and, hey presto, it’s done. I do it without even thinking about it.

As I say, this morning I decided to experiment and do it differently. The result was an amount of confusion; yes, really! I started from a different place on my face, which threw me from the start. I found myself having to think consciously about something that I have done unconsciously many thousands of time.

Four stages of competence

So what, I hear you cry. Well, it’s an example of something that is referred to as the 4 levels of competence, a concept originally developed by Noel Burch. The model is sometimes represented as a ladder, sometimes as a 2×2 matrix. Either way, the key elements are your consciousness and your competence.

This combination produces the following levels:

  • Unconscious Incompetence – this is where you don’t know that you don’t know how to do something or that you can’t do it well
  • Conscious Incompetence – this is where you know you don’t know how to do something or that you can’t do it well
  • Conscious Competence – this is where you know how to do something but you need to think about the task as you are doing it.
  • Unconscious Competence – this is where you know absolutely what you are doing and it’s become “automatic”; you do it well, without thinking about it.

Let me give you an example of how this process works.

Unconscious Incompetence

There was a time in my life when I did not know that I did not know how to drive. I was obviously very young. I was taken places by my parents. They used to throw me in the boot of the care, close the lid and then get me out when we reached our destination. Only kidding!!!!!

Conscious Incompetence

Then, when I was about 5 or 6 years old I realised that I did know that I did not know how to drive. All I knew was that it was my Dad who knew how to drive. Not that this was a problem of course, unlike a few years later.

Conscious Competence

When I was about 15 or 16 I could not get myself a girlfriend for love nor money (and I tried them both!!!). One day it came to me in a flash why I was having zero success in this area of my life. It was because I could not drive and did not have a car. I knew this because all the idiots who did have a car all had girlfriends. So, as soon as I was 17 I started to learn to drive. I passed the second time. I bought myself a car and guess what? Yep, I still had no success with the girls. There goes another theory up in smoke!

Unconscious Competence

Being serious for a moment, think about the first time you drove on your own after passing your driving test; assuming you have obviously. Did you drive effortlessly, elegantly? I doubt it. My guess is that still found it strange to be driving. But what about now? If you are like me, you will be driving in a trance-like state, without even thinking about how you do it. That’s unconscious competence. It’s mastery. It’s a habit. It’s a bit like me shaving thousands of times in the same way until I mess with the process like I did this morning. Then I go back into conscious competence and it’s strange. The danger at this level of competence is that you might become complacent and, also, that you stop looking for better ways of doing the things at which you have become unconsciously competent.

I hope that makes sense to you.

For me, the 4 levels of competence are really useful to understand the process that we go through when we learn, but you can also use it when you are teaching or coaching others, to guide them through the emotional ups and downs of acquiring new skills.

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