Ever fall off a bike?
Often the best way to alter unhelpful behavior is to first recognize the change you want to make, commit to improvement, and then practice the solution until it becomes second nature. Going from ignorance of a problem to unconscious perfection is often referred to as the “Four Stages of Learning.”
This model appeals to my avidity for the step by step process, even in the creative realms. I tell all of my theater students the same thing – you can’t accidentally become a better performer. Improv requires being open to crazy and unexpected ideas. Messing around and being playful during rehearsals is part of that. But eventually, you need to flex a specific muscle and intentionally decide to move from a lower level of ability to a higher one. It’s not just practice, it’s practice with purpose.
Unconscious Incompetence ("I didn't even know I was doing that!")
Many habits are so ingrained we don’t even realize we are doing them. I’ve noticed in my work that men often pace when they are feeling anxious. Young women in particular sometimes stand with their ankles crossed for the same reason.
When I was 9 years old my older brother broke me of a lingering childish habit. He said, “Every time you put your thumb in your mouth, take it out again.” I had literally been doing it my entire life and he had to point it out for me to stop. Fortunately, he had found the quick fix. (Years later I used the same technique on a student who constantly put his hands in his pockets.) One of the challenges of improving behavior is knowing where to start.
Conscious Incompetence ("Ugh, why am I doing that!")
I recently worked with an accomplished but quiet woman who was fighting against a lifetime of reinforced introversion. Growing up in Russia, she dutifully adhered to the principle of a common proverb, “’I’ is the last letter of the alphabet.” (Indeed, the letter ‘я’ or “ya” does come last in the Russian alphabet.)
She was raised believing it was culturally inappropriate to draw attention to herself. At this stage of her improvement she recognizes her stumbling block and actively tries to buck that trend by speaking up, looking people in the eye and offering a firm handshake.
It helps to be self aware during social interactions. Things like texting or checking your watch during a face to face conversation, or talking over someone in a meeting and other seemingly innocuous actions can have an eroding effect over time. Understanding these marginalizing behaviors as they happen will help you “live edit” your interactions.
Conscious Competence ("This is the way we wash our hands!")
This is where all of your thoughtful observations start to pay off. Where you begin to think, “Ok, I’m doing this thing now!” When I teach presentation skills to students they practice walking into the room, planting their feet firmly shoulder’s width apart, introducing themselves and smiling before they begin.
It’s a step by step process but delightfully simple and the perfect plan to overcome the pacing, fast talking and anxiety often associated with public speaking. You know you are doing it – you are fully aware of your motions. Like the first time you rode a bicycle.
Unconscious Competence ("I am awesome? Thank you, I hadn't noticed.")
And like learning to ride a bicycle, you eventually stop stressing about how to push the pedals. No one wants to think to themselves, “I need to smile now.” But the repetition and positive feedback – like not crashing, literally and figuratively – encourages progress. That once awkward action becomes second nature. You have become the master of your own behavior!
Humans are creatures of habit but are also very adaptable when circumstances require. So when you embark on your decision to be more assertive in your professional life, or become a more powerful presenter, or practice a more empathic style of management, remember to practice. And not just practice, practice with purpose!