Conscious Competence

Conscious Competence successDo you wish there was a way to change an unhelpful habit? Perhaps a tendency to do yourself down or feel you’re not good enough? A pattern of rescuing others, rather than looking after yourself? A temptation to put things off that feel scary or to procrastinate rather than getting on with the task?

How would it be if you could turn this around, so that you achieved the things you want to achieve, were the person you wanted to be, and became your best?

Let me introduce you to an approach that we all use if we want to successfully learn something new, whether it’s a new habit or a new skill.

It’s called the Conscious Competence model (Noel Burch).

Conscious Competence

Unconscious Incompetence – Stage One is when you aren’t even aware that you don’t possess the new skill. You might be blissfully unaware or you may be denying that you don’t have or need to acquire the skill.

Conscious Incompetence – Stage Two is when you become aware that you are not yet competent in the skill. It’s a stage of self-awareness, but can be difficult because you can feel de-skilled or lacking. Learning the new skill can feel hard or even unattainable.

Conscious Competence – Stage Three is when you are consciously developing the new skill. If you work at it, keep practising, and consciously trying out the new skill, you become competent. It can feel hard at times because it takes conscious effort and lots of repetition.

Unconscious Competence – the final Stage Four is when you have mastered the skill, and don’t even have to think too much about how to do it. Your practice has born fruit and you are sufficiently competent that you just do it.

The model represents the stages we go through. It explains something of the repetition, time, energy and emotion involved in mastering a new skill or turning an old habit around.  It allows us to be gentle on ourselves as we learn. To keep going when the going gets tough. To recognise that we are learning and changing things, even when it feels difficult.

Examples might be when a toddler is learning to walk or we are learning to drive.  First we don’t even realise what we don’t know about the skill.  Then we take our first tentative steps (literally or metaphorically) and start to realise that we have not yet mastered things. Next we practise and practise, making some mistakes along the way (hopefully not too drastic ones!) Finally the toddler is running across the garden without even thinking about it, or we have driven home and wonder how we got there.  Our new skill or habit is ingrained and mastered.

How does this work in practice?

The way to success is to make it conscious.

The point at which we notice and are aware that we want (or need) to change is the point at which the learning starts.  Like the client who hadn’t realised he was giving himself such a hard time. He was doing himself down in his thoughts. As a consequence he lacked confidence, felt unsure of himself, and wasn’t feeling to move forward at work or in his personal life. By noticing what’s going on, he’s already moved from Unconscious Incompetence to Conscious Incompetence.

We recognise there are things we can or wish to do better. This is the point at which most coaching starts. Without that awareness, we may not even recognise the need to change and learning cannot begin.

As soon as we are conscious about what we want to change and how we want things to be different, we can start to make the changes required.  This client explored what he was doing that was getting in his way and holding him back. He also realised how he wanted to be instead. Together we worked out the steps he could take to get out of his own way and start to feel confident and sure of himself.

Once we begin to make changes we are already on our way to Conscious Competence.  The changes will take some effort. Yet each time we repeat the new habit, we are one step nearer to competence. Like learning to drive, we have to think about the gear change, and checking the mirror, but the more we do it, the better we get. It takes time, and requires lots of repetition, but with conscious effort we get more and more skilled.

The client practised a new way of thinking about himself. He was giving himself positive messages, noticing when he was achieving success, and building himself up rather than doing himself down.  It wasn’t easy, and sometimes he’d revert to his old habits. The coaching supported him to keep going in the right direction. By noticing what he was doing, and clocking his own success when he changed his thinking, he was starting a new, helpful habit.

If we keep going, instead of giving up when things get tough, we can become sufficiently skilled in our new habit that we no longer have to give it conscious effort.  Our driving becomes easy. Changing gears becomes second nature, without really thinking.  The toddler runs almost effortlessly. We think positively about ourselves without forcing that to happen.  We have mastered our new skill or new habit.


My tips to leave you with:

  1. Notice what it is that isn’t working or that you want to change
  2. Decide how you want things to be and the steps to get there
  3. Start practising
  4. Notice when you’re doing well, and let go of the times when it works less well
  5. Keep going
  6. Keep going
  7. Brilliant! You’ve mastered it!

And if this all feels too hard, get a good coach or mentor to help.

Do let me know your successes!



2 Responses to Conscious Competence

  1. Matt July 27, 2018 at 7:54 am #

    Hi Liz,

    This model has definitely helped me. I also find the driving analogy is useful to visualise the stages.

    Takes a lot of work to change anything that becomes habitual, but by having a model to identify where you are helps me with creating the steps to get to the next stage.

    Thanks as always 🙂

    • Elizabeth Juffs July 27, 2018 at 7:28 pm #

      Fabulous! It does take time and effort to change things, but, as you know, it is entirely possible. Glad you find the model and driving analogy helpful, Matt!

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