Reflective Competence


Most people understand the hierarchy of learning, unconscious incompetence – I don’t know how to do it and I can’t do it. Conscious incompetence – I know what to do, but I can’t do it. Conscious competence – I know what to do and I can do it with concentration. Unconscious Competence – I know how to do it and I can do it without thinking about it.

The classic example usually used is learning to drive, which seems quite topical for some reason! When you start, you don’t know how to drive at all and don’t know what you have to learn. You probably know there’s steering, brakes, gears, clutch and highway code. But not much about how it comes together. You are pretty much unconsciously incompetent. Then you start lessons and you understand what you need to do, but you can’t do it on your own, consciously incompetent.

As you progress you become consciously competent. You can drive, you can pass your test, but your focus is on the mechanics of driving. With more practice, driving becomes automatic, you can do it and hold a conversation. Your body works automatically to shift the gears, work the clutch, all that stuff is unconsciously competent. I failed my test twice, only passing on the third time when that phase had started with me, much of the mechanics had become unconscious.

What people talk less about is the Reflective Competence. This is the super-stage. This is where you boost your skills to the next level by reflecting on them, picking apart what you are doing, understanding how you are doing it and improving it.

One of the best ways to get value out of reflective competence is to teach someone else something you know. That forces you to break it down again, re-understand at a deeper level so you can explain it to someone else. It’s a really useful tool I’ve relied on for many years to help push my own skills and understanding on.

Sometimes, the opportunity to teach someone else isn’t there. That’s where I’ve found blogging a useful tool. If I can write it down for a generalised audience, it helps me clarify in my head for myself. As I “talk” to the blog, it forces me to understand and improve. It also feels like in some small way I’m giving back, if one person reads it and finds it helpful – then that’s good.

Sharing what we know helps us all.