What happens when we learn new skills that take us out of our comfort zone? When we're striving to be authentic, is it OK when we act with intention and forethought?
The Conscious Competence model, developed by Martin Broadwell in the late 1960s, offers a useful framework to address these questions.
In most areas where we face a challenge, we start out in Unconscious Incompetence (quadrant #1 above): We're screwing up, and we don't even know it. In the context of my work with coaching clients and MBA students, this usually involves difficulties in working relationships and interpersonal situations. We believe our behavior is having the desired effect on others, but it's not--and we don't even realize it.
But these mistakes accumulate, and their consequences heighten our awareness, and we find ourselves in Conscious Incompetence (quadrant #2): We know we're screwing up, and we may even know what we need to do differently, but we haven't yet figured out how to do it. Here's where we need to paddle like hell and catch that wave--and this is where we often fall short. We know we need to adopt some new behaviors to be more effective in these relationships and situations, but our heightened awareness becomes self-consciousness, and we find ourselves paralyzed by awkwardness or by a fear of inauthenticity.
As for the awkwardness, one of the most common themes in my work with coaching clients and MBA students is increasing our comfort with discomfort. We need to expand our capacity to tolerate discomfort to ensure that when we experience it we can manage the resulting emotions and avoid any reflexive responses that might be counterproductive. One of the ways we can pursue this goal is by retraining our response to awkwardness and other forms of discomfort; rather than allowing ourselves to be governed by our aversion to these feelings, we can simply note them, reframe the situation as a learning opportunity, and continue experimenting with new behaviors even in the face of these feelings.
As for the inauthenticity, Scott Bristol, a Lecturer at Stanford with whom I've worked closely over the years, offers this perspective: If we view authenticity as something to be discovered, as an innate state of being that precedes our consciousness, then we experience the feelings of awkwardness that inevitably accompany new behaviors as signs of inauthenticity. But if instead we view authenticity as something to be created, as a state of being that evolves over time through our conscious intervention, then we're free to be both awkward and authentic; the two aren't mutually exclusive.
All of this is easy to write about and very difficult to put into practice--and yet persistent effort can change our relationship to these feelings and to any new behaviors we're attempting that give rise to them. The University of Washington psychologist John Gottman has discussed the concept of meta-emotion--the feelings and thoughts we have about our own emotions (and he notes that parents who have a less negative response to emotion appear to raise children who are better able to manage and express their own emotions.) My experience as a coach suggests that we can influence our meta-emotional state over time; by repeatedly exposing ourselves to emotions such as awkwardness and embarrassment, we feel less negatively about them, and we can change how we respond to them. We become more comfortable with discomfort.
When this happens we're able to cross over into Conscious Competence (quadrant #3) and begin the process of refining any new behaviors and determining which ones we'll integrate into our permanent repertoire. We're acting intentionally with increasingly positive effect, and with continued practice these newly adopted behaviors become second nature, and we slip into Unconscious Competence (quadrant #4).
Our trajectory from this point forward depends on our circumstances. Occasionally our expanded behavioral repertoire is sufficient to allow us to continue on, highly competent and blissfully unaware. We devote little active thought to our interactions in certain relationships and situations, and yet we continue to meet with success. But the dynamic nature of most interpersonal experiences means that we usually wind up back where we started, in quadrant #1, unconsciously incompetent and unaware that our current behavior isn't meeting our goals. And the cycle begins again.
Photo by Tsuyoshi Uda. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.