The Four Stages of Competence

stages of competence

When acquiring a new skill, you have a pre-existing level of competence. To improve, you will need go through different levels of competence. In NLP we call these the 4 stages of competence.

Black belts, Olympic athletes, business people, actors, everyone who is good at anything goes through these four stages of competence. Knowing how to spot them can help to shorten your learning curve.

The Four Stages of Competence

Think about something that you enjoy doing. Maybe a business activity or a favorite hobby. It can be something physical or mental. Think about how good you are at performing the behavior.

Now, as you read the following descriptions, see if you can spot where you see yourself among the 4 stages of competence.

Stage 1 – Unconsciously Incompetent

Ever hear the saying “You don’t know what you don’t know”? This is the first stage in the competency process. Some people never move on from this stage.

In order for you to move from this stage you need to be made knowledgeable of the fact that they are not very good at a particular thing. Usually, the reason a person doesn’t know this is because they have never attempted to acquire that particular skill.

Since I’m a martial artist, I like to use examples from martial arts training. This would be someone who watches martial arts movies and thinks “That’s easy, anyone can do that,” without ever practicing.

Stage 2 – Consciously Incompetent

This stage only happens after you try something. Think back to an experience where you attempted something new and found you were woefully inadequate at it. You have just moved from stage 1 to stage 2.

You will never know if you are very good at performing a particular activity until after you actually try it. Once you try it, the feedback you receive helps increase your awareness.

Let’s go back to the martial arts. You rustle up the courage to go to a class and find that training in the martial arts is quite difficult. In order to “get good” you’re going to have to attend a lot more classes. You have moved to “knowing what you do not know.”

Stage 3 Consciously Competent

While there is no guarantee you will move from stage 2 to stage 3, practicing is they only way you’ll find out if you can.

In the last stage, you recognized you “sucked” at something. So you sought out information and resources to help you perform better. You are intentionally concentrating your activities and time on learning how to become better at a task or skill.

Back to the martial arts example. You realize you need to make conscious and repetitive efforts to improve. As a result, you attend as many classes as possible and practice as much as you can.

Stage 4 Unconsciously Competent

Have you ever watched someone perform who seems to focus little attention on a particular skill, yet performs at a very high level? These people are members of stage 4. They are unconsciously competent.  

Most people get to this level through repeated practice. They also usually have a coach or mentor to help them through their difficulties. .    

This is really the “secret” of martial arts training. Making a decision to continue training and practicing with an instructor who can help you make the adjustments you need. After continued practice, you become a black belt, or person who is unconsciously competent at the martial arts.

Moving Through Four Stages of Competence

To become better requires traying. You cannot simply say, “I would be good at that thing.” Not only is this misleading, it can be outright dangerous. Think about scuba diving or jumping out of an airplane.

To improve at anything, you have to make the effort to discover your level of competence. Using this knowledge, you can take steps to repetitively practice the processes needed to improve. What you’ll find is you will eventually think little about what you are doing.

Then, like a black belt, you will be one of the elites in your field.

About the Author:

Wil Dieck

Wil Dieck is an author, speaker, college professor and researcher. He is also a master hypnotherapist, NLP Trainer and master martial arts instructor. For the past forty years, he has taught people, from a variety of backgrounds, how to create and maintain the habits of success.

Wil runs a leadership and peak performance coaching practice in San Diego, California. He helps his clients create the belief systems of successful people and leaders, allowing them to make the most of their personal and professional lives.

Wil is also a professor of psychology and business at San Diego University for Integrated Studies.

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