The Steps To Change

by Michael Hargrove     

At the beginning of most of the workshops I do around the country, I have found it very effective to first help my clients understand how it is that we all learn, or how we effect a lasting change in our behavior. For this purpose, I like to use The Model for Change familiar to most professional trainers. It identifies the four stages of learning each of us go through. These are the exact same steps we all take in order to learn how to walk, or how to kiss, or how to hit a fastball, or how to acquire any new skill or habit. It identifies these four stages of change as follows:

The first stage is called unconscious incompetence or pre-change. That’s when we don’t know how much it costs us to not do the things we don’t know we should be doing. And, no, ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance is just ignorance, or simply fewer choices.

This stage becomes a reoccurring roadblock to success for those who consider themselves an “expert.” The problem with considering ourselves an “expert” is that too many of us start to believe that we know all there is to know about a particular science, or profession, or discipline, etc. And when we think we know it all, we tend to be less open to new ideas and, consequently, that tendency eventually stops the learning process all together. Both of which are the kiss of death in our careers.

You see, the world around us is changing so fast, especially the customer service and retail sales industries, that if we’re not constantly learning, then we are rapidly becoming stupid! (At one of my workshops, I once was given a wonderful definition of an expert. An expert is a guy who knows a hundred different ways to make love, but doesn’t know any women!)

It’s important that we acknowledge the profound difference between being an expert and owning a level of expertise. According to Webster, these are one in the same. But in the real world, the the former often implies a destination achieved, while the latter implies an asset that requires constant care, updating, and management (essentially forcing its owner to become a perpetual student of that discipline).

Now, just in case we’re saying to ourselves right now, “Well, I don’t think I know it all!” allow me to clarify these positions by the following examples.

The “expert” seldom attends any seminars or workshops. While the “student” knows that learning events outside the work place are fertile ground for taking their career to the next level of success. The “expert” rarely reads books or other publications about their field anymore. The “student” is an absolute pig for that knowledge and information. The “expert” constantly looks for reasons why new ideas or strategies won’t possibly work and often uses phrases like; “the right way” or “the best way ” which is generally the only way they know. The “student” knows that nothing works all the time and rarely will any one thing be effective for everybody but if it’s working for someone else, then maybe it will for them too. The “expert” uses the excuse that they spend so much time doing this stuff at work that they don’t need to devote any of their “free time” to it. The “student” is passionate about what they do and therefore derives pleasure from growing and evolving their craft. The “expert” tends to live paycheck to paycheck and often reminisces about a time when the business was easier and more lucrative. The “student” is usually one of the top producers and is absolutely energized at the prospect of what the future will bring. Which one are you?

The second stage of change is called conscious incompetence or waking up. That is when we do know how much it’s been costing us to not do what we now know we should have been doing. This is the single most important step to change; the broadening of our awareness. Fortunately, once we get to this stage, we seldom ever go back to the first one.

It can sometimes be difficult for us to admit that perhaps there is a better way to do what we think we’ve been doing well all along. “New ways” require change and change is a drag because it takes effort. That’s why we sometimes simply dismiss them without ever trying them out for ourselves first. The “new way” poses such a threat that we’ll even attack the person sharing it with us (they sell a different product, work in a different area, have a different clientele, are less experienced, don’t make as much money as I do,etc.).

Einstein once said, “The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know.” Socrates once said something to the effect that, “The only thing I know, is that I know nothing.” And as far as discounting a “new way” simply because we heard it first from someone who is presently less experienced or less effective than us, we’ll do well to remember the adage; “Wise men learn more from fools than fools ever learn from wise men!”

If we don’t fall victim to simply dismissing a “new way” the first time we hear about it, then the next and third stage of change is identified as conscious competence or choosing change. This is where we struggle to master what we now know we should do. This is usually the most awkward of the four stages where we feel the stiffness and strangeness of trying something new or different.

This is also the stage where most children excel and most adults fail. By adult I mean anyone who has a fairly well formed definition of themselves, the universe, and their role in that universe. Also, adults have an intense need to defend those definitions.

Let me ask you something. How long would you give the average child to learn to walk? Eight months? Twelve? Maybe even fourteen months? Okay, lets say sixteen.

What if after eighteen months our child still wasn’t walking? Imagine telling that child: “Hey look Junior…this walking thing…it’s not for everybody. Don’t worry about it, buddy. No big deal.” Would we tell them that? Of course not!

Let’s reverse it for a second. After the bruises and scrapes of several weeks of falling down while trying, what if Junior came up to us and said: “Hey Dad…you know this walking thing…what a bunch of crap! I mean, maybe it’s okay for other kids but heck…why don’t I just wait a few more months and then I’ll just get right into running! What do you think, huh Dad?!”

Of course, that’s even more ridiculous than the first example but don’t we know adults guilty of the same reasoning?

You see, kids don’t think like that because falling down doesn’t equal failure to them… yet. They see others walking so they just keep trying and trying and trying until they get it. But for an adult, it’s not cool to fall down, it’s too embarrassing to look foolish, it’s too painful to fail. That’s why change is so hard and why we resist it so much.

We’ll try something new once or twice and if we don’t meet with instant success, we start making excuses. “Yeah, that may work in Birmingham but it doesn’t work here in Seattle.” or “Our clients are different from theirs.” or “I gave it a fair try but I knew it wouldn’t work” or “Well, it just wasn’t me.”

Instead, we need to follow the example of that child learning to walk. After each fall, we need to ask ourselves what we learned, what could we do differently to get a better result, and how quickly can we get back up and try it again? Take it from someone who personally knows; if you fail enough, it stops hurting! In this, the third stage of owning a new skill, we may also feel discouraged or disheartened as we fall back into old habits or old ways of doing things.

It is perfectly natural to feel and do just that, but with patience, perseverance, and practice we will get to the fourth stage of change which is unconscious competence. This is when the things we know we should do, come naturally and become a habit. We no longer have to struggle with a new skill. We own it.

This is where techniques stop being simply techniques and actually become a part of us. We no longer even have to consciously do something. It simply becomes a natural thing for us to do. But, beware, even at this stage, without consistent practice and study we can still fall back into that awkward conscious competence stage.

That’s why I also make a point in my workshops to teach my clients how to make role playing effective and fun. I have seen how vitally important daily role playing is to our continued success. The ability and habit of regularly practicing old and new skills in a non threatening, safe, and even fun learning environment are something all peak performers have in common.

I have shared this model of change so we don’t become too discouraged when we experience the small setbacks that are inevitable. Instead, we’ll be able to recognize where it is we are in this learning model and just pick ourselves up to continue. With practice, we too will acquire the skills and the habits we all need to succeed.


© Copyright 2013 by Michael D. Hargrove and Bottom Line Underwriters, Inc. All rights reserved. Michael D. Hargrove is the founder and president of Bottom Line Underwriters Inc.

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