To make a difficult task seem easier, smile.

March 16, 2018 by Nicholas Brandon
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Charles Garfield, the author of Peak Performance, once coached the Russian Olympic weight-lifting team. Garfield noticed that when team members lifted to exhaustion, they would invariably grimace at the painful effort. In an experiment, he encouraged the athletes to smile when they got to that point of exhaustion. This seemingly minor difference enabled them to add 2-3 more reps to their performance.

No matter the task, when you grimace or frown while doing it, you are sending your brain the message, “This is really difficult. I should stop.” The brain then responds by sending stress chemicals into your bloodstream. And this creates a vicious circle: the more stressed you are, the more difficult the task becomes.

Conversely, when you smile, your brain gets the message, “It’s not so bad. I can do this!”

Learning and training in stages
Put simply:

Learners or trainees tend to begin at stage 1 – ‘unconscious incompetence’.

They pass through stage 2 – ‘conscious incompetence’, then through stage 3 – ‘conscious competence’.

And ideally end at stage 4 – ‘unconscious competence’.

Perhaps the simplest illustration of importance of appreciating the need for staged learning is that teachers and trainers can wrongly assume trainees to be at stage 2, and focus effort towards achieving stage 3, when often trainees are still at stage 1. Here the trainer assumes the trainee is aware of the skill existence, nature, relevance, deficiency, and that there will be a benefit from acquiring the new skill. Whereas trainees at stage 1 – unconscious incompetence – have none of these things in place, and will not be able to address achieving conscious competence until they’ve become consciously and fully aware of their own incompetence. This is a fundamental reason for the failure of a lot of training and teaching.

If the awareness of skill and deficiency is low or non-existent – ie., the learner is at the unconscious incompetence stage – the trainee or learner will simply not see the need for learning. It’s essential to establish awareness of a weakness or training need (conscious incompetence) prior to attempting to impart or arrange training or skills necessary to move trainees from stage 2 to 3. People only respond to training when they are aware of their own need for it, and the personal benefit they will derive from achieving it.

conscious competence matrix

 

competence incompetence
conscious 3 – conscious competence

  • the person achieves ‘conscious competence’ in a skill when they can perform it reliably at will
  • the person will need to concentrate and think in order to perform the skill
  • the person can perform the skill without assistance
  • the person will not reliably perform the skill unless thinking about it – the skill is not yet ‘second nature’ or ‘automatic’
  • the person should be able to demonstrate the skill to another, but is unlikely to be able to teach it well to another person
  • the person should ideally continue to practise the new skill, and if appropriate commit to becoming ‘unconsciously competent’ at the new skill
  • practise is the singlemost effective way to move from stage 3 to 4
2 – conscious incompetence

  • the person becomes aware of the existence and relevance of the skill
  • the person is therefore also aware of their deficiency in this area, ideally by attempting or trying to use the skill
  • the person realises that by improving their skill or ability in this area their effectiveness will improve
  • ideally the person has a measure of the extent of their deficiency in the relevant skill, and a measure of what level of skill is required for their own competence
  • the person ideally makes a commitment to learn and practice the new skill, and to move to the ‘conscious competence’ stage
unconscious 4 – unconscious competence

  • the skill becomes so practised that it enters the unconscious parts of the brain – it becomes ‘second nature’
  • common examples are driving, sports activities, typing, manual dexterity tasks, listening and communicating
  • it becomes possible for certain skills to be performed while doing something else, for example, knitting while reading a book
  • the person might now be able to teach others in the skill concerned, although after some time of being unconsciously competent the person might actually have difficulty in explaining exactly how they do it – the skill has become largely instinctual
  • this arguably gives rise to the need for long-standing unconscious competence to be checked periodically against new standards
1 – unconscious incompetence

  • the person is not aware of the existence or relevance of the skill area
  • the person is not aware that they have a particular deficiency in the area concerned
  • the person might deny the relevance or usefulness of the new skill
  • the person must become conscious of their incompetence before development of the new skill or learning can begin
  • the aim of the trainee or learner and the trainer or teacher is to move the person into the ‘conscious competence’ stage, by demonstrating the skill or ability and the benefit that it will bring to the person’s effectiveness

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