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We hope you enjoyed our last issue, "Be Prepared." We appreciate the comments many of you made about the article. It’s our real desire to share the ideas and concepts underlying what we call "High-Stakes Communication."

In the spirit of being prepared for critical communication situations, we’ll be presenting in this issue a model for understanding how we learn any new skill. This paradigm is actually a cyclical process of four stages of learning that has very practical implications for mastering vital communication skills.

To get started, let’s review an expression we’ve all heard before but never really like to encounter:

"You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know"
Vol. 4, No. 2

About 12 years ago, at the invitation of one of my sons, I decided I could really bond with him by joining him in a session of his newest favorite sport—golf. I had played several decades earlier, in my youth and vigor, in northern Michigan, where we spent several summers [and not far from where I plowed up my dad’s car, as described in the previous issue of PSSP]. We went to a little par 3 course, and I, with rented 7-iron and putter in hand, strode confidently up to the first tee box. Wanting to suitably impress my son with my athletic prowess, I took a mighty swing at the ball. Then I took another, having hit my first of several "air balls" of the day. The best I can say about the second swing is that at least the ball left the tee, but it sizzled down the fairway buzzing the grass in its wake.

The rest of the day was pretty much more of the same. I was clearly not shooting par that day. I was, however, getting my first lesson in "knowing what I didn’t know," in this case, about golf. The addiction part came later, but now I was getting immediate feedback (the trajectory of the ball) about my skill level. And twelve years, two sets of golf clubs, numerous golf lessons, a club membership, every gimmick and piece of golf equipment you can imagine, and countless lost balls later, I now know what I do know: a Tiger Woods I’ll never be!

The other insight I have gained from this "nice walk spoiled," as Mark Twain defined the game of golf, is a visceral as well as cognitive awareness of the human learning process. We at CEI now share our understanding of this process as applied to communication with every client we help to "be prepared."

We present the human learning process as a cycle consisting of four stages shown on the diagram below:

Starting at the lower left corner at 1), Unconscious Incompetence, anyone attempting to learn a new skill (like golf, driving a car, learning a foreign language, or any other skill, especially of the psychomotor sort) approaches that challenge not truly knowing what he or she doesn’t know [remember my car accident in the previous PSSP issue? Go to "Be Prepared" in http://www.talk2cei.com/library]. After getting a rude awakening from immediate feedback, like the tree I hit or my errant golf shots, you move to a state of Conscious Incompetence, a humbling place, which tells you how far you still have to go to master the skill in question.

Many people just stop there at Phase 2. They see the task as too daunting, and throw in the towel (or the golf clubs in the pond, as I was so often tempted to do). Others are enticed by the challenge, but realize they have to get training in the desired skill to move toward Phase 3, Conscious Competence. Here’s where persistence, and some talent, pay off. The golfer still has to concentrate hard on alignments, course management, and shot-making. The musician works assiduously on scales and theory. And the basketball player studies moves and strategies to get the ball into the basket.

Then, after much experience and practice after Phase 3, a wonderful thing happens. The ballerina creates true art, seemingly effortlessly, with her body. The basketball player gets "in the zone." And the golfer just keeps winning tournaments. These people have reached Phase 4, Unconscious Competence.

Then, guess what? When you want to learn a new skill, you get to start the whole process all over again. You do not get to pass "Go." You’re again in the place where you "Don’t Know What You Don’t Know."

Jan and I experience the effects of the Learning Cycle frequently, as we coach our clients in presentation skills. As we and the client craft a set of goals for our time together, we always ask how comfortable the client is with speaking in public. In almost every case, the client says, "I’m fine with it. No particular problem." When, however, that person appears on camera, quite a different picture emerges [see our PSSP on "Closing the Perceptual Gap" at http://www.talk2cei.com/library]. The client frequently exhibits a considerably smaller-than-life-size presence, with poor projection and audience connection. The camera (feedback) doesn’t lie, but it doesn’t tell the whole truth either. We have to show the now "Consciously Incompetent" client many things he or she is doing that are quite positive. Then through our special techniques of coaching and training, we help the client build in a set of behaviors, moving him or her to the place of Conscious Competence. Here, however, we get reactions like, "I can’t think of what to say while I’m standing still, gesturing with my hands, and keeping my chin down all at the same time!" This is often the state of affairs at this stage. Only with practice and experience will all these factors fall into place, moving the client toward Unconscious Competence.

Jan and I see this Learning Cycle at work while traveling on the speaking circuit. We’re frequently approached by audience members who declare their desire to become motivational speakers. Many of these well-meaning people assure us that they’re ready to "give up their day job" to pursue a career like this immediately (Phase 1). Others, however, having been stung by massive stage fright in previous attempts to speak before groups, realize there’s more to this speaking business than at first meets the eye (Phase 2). We encourage both Phase 1 and Phase 2 people to secure training in this complex art and science. What’s great to see is people who have been trained (Phase 3) coming back to tell you of a big success they have had presenting to a large group or to high-level executives in the Board Room. These people get on fire to speak and eventually find themselves giving dynamic, entertaining presentations and enjoying influence, fame, and fortune (Phase 4).

Another place we see people moving through the four Phases is in learning facilitation skills. Phase 1 people may have suddenly had "greatness thrust upon them," being put into a situation of having to facilitate a dicey group discussion. The experience turns out to be disheartening as they lose control of the group, with people shouting at one another. Again, the determined ones accept the negative feedback and move through Phase 2 to secure training in this remarkable skill. Through training, dedication, and experience, often a great facilitator or mediator is born, who is enabled to bring strongly conflicted individuals and groups together.

Probably the single most important benefit of knowing this learning cycle is that you can pinpoint where you are in any learning undertaking and determine what you need to do to move forward. You’ll also know how prepared you are to face any High-Stakes Communication situation.

Yours in great communication,

Jan and Neal Palmer


Interested in learning more about how we train executives in interpersonal communication, public speaking, and team-building, when the stakes are high? Please give us a call at (800) 410-4CEI (4234) or send us an email at cei@talk2cei.com. We’d be glad to talk with you.

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