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By Chandrama Anderson

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About this blog: About this blog: I am a LMFT specializing in couples counseling and grief and have lived in Silicon Valley since 1969. I'm the president of Connect2 Marriage Counseling. I worked in high-tech at Apple, Stanford University, and in ...  (More)

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The Four Stages of Competency*

Uploaded: Nov 22, 2019
I like to talk with my clients about the The Four Stages of Competency because it provides a simple structure for understanding where we are in therapy, personally or with our partner, or with one specific issue, trait, or behavior.

The Four Stages of Competency are:

Unconscious Incompetency
Conscious Incompetency
Conscious Competency
Unconscious Competency

Let's look at them one-by-one.

First, Unconscious Incompetency: We don't know what we don't know. An example: We get angry quickly. Perhaps underneath that is hurt, fear, shame, or another emotion. So if one of those feelings comes up, we might blast our partner or others around us. We  may miss the cues in our body that let us know we're hurt, scared, shamed, or sad. Or maybe those feelings weren't allowed in our family growing up. These lashings could be seen as a primal cry for connection -- in a way that doesn't actually work for us OR our partner.

Second, Conscious Incompetency. To continue with the above example. Now we know that our flashes of anger are actually a cover-up for another feeling we don't like to have. That's the conscious part. We are still unable to behave (or perhaps think) differently -- yet. That's the incompetent part. This is where experiments come in as so important.

Third, Conscious Competence: We know that our flashes of anger are actually a cover-up for another feeling we don't like to have (conscious). Now we are able to do things differently, e.g., state, "I feel sad/hurt/alone/shame/scared," and make a choice to self-soothe through self-talk, turning down the volume on a feeling, breathing, exercise, meditation, and so on. We can ask our partner for reassurance and emotional attunement (not fixing). We are now competent in dealing with our feelings, issues, and traits. And, we still have to think about it to make the healthy choices of behavior, talk, and self-talk.

Lastly, Unconscious Competence: We are competent in dealing with our feelings and needs, and the feelings and needs of others in healthy ways (dare I say, interdependently).  Now we don't have to think about it or figure it out; it's ingrained in our authentic self (unconscious).

Where you are on this continuum? I invite you to use this system as a reality check and to help with motivation.

*Initially described as “Four Stages for Learning Any New Skill”, the theory was developed at the Gordon Training International by its employee Noel Burch in the 1970s.
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