The link between coaching and learning

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And lunch will be at, er, lunchtime
And lunch will be at, er, lunchtime

Take a look at most of the learning and development activity in any organization and you’ll find a concentration on what I’ll call ‘events’. By this I mean training courses, special meetings, workshops, seminars, or even time set aside for on line or distance learning. All well and good but the problem with this concentration on ‘events’ is that it reinforces the limiting belief that learning and performing are separate and competing activities.

We worry about the ‘transfer’ of learning and we ponder how to take learning ‘back’ into the work situation. Coaching resolves the tension between learning and performing by making them part and parcel of the same thing.

With coaching support our people can learn whilst they perform and perform as they learn. Coaching can also provide a far more enjoyable and cost effective route into learning without the reliance on events.

There is a well known model that suggests that learning – or becoming competent – is a question of passing through four distinct phases. Let’s attempt to see how this applies in a typical work situation.

Meet Ed. Ed is a young man who works in a conference centre. Until very recently Ed’s job has been largely manual; putting the chairs in place, rearranging tables, setting up the IT equipment and sorting out flipcharts. One Friday afternoon Ed’s boss informs him that from the following Monday morning she would like Ed to also run through the domestic arrangements with groups of delegates once they have been escorted from the coffee area to the conference room.

 Unconscious incompetence

That Friday evening Ed becomes a bit worried; he starts to fret about Monday. He has listened to his colleagues make the announcements hundreds of times, but he has never addressed a group before. He thinks it might be very difficult, but doesn’t really know why he thinks that.

Conscious incompetence

On Monday morning Ed takes a deep breath and begins his address. Unfortunately he forgets to mention the fire alarm test and tells the group that they will have lunch in the restaurant when in fact they are going to have a buffet in the conference room. He is so nervous that his mouth becomes dry and this makes him even more uncertain in his speech. However he notices many of the people in the room smiling warmly at him and some even chuckle when he makes a couple of witty remarks.

Conscious competence

Over the next couple of week’s it gets easier, Ed has written the points he must cover on a prompt card and finds the whole notion of addressing a group less threatening. He takes a few deep breaths and has a quiet ‘chat with himself’ before entering the room and this all seems to help.

Unconscious competence

Some weeks later Ed barely thinks about announcing the domestic arrangements. He has other things to worry about and when the time comes, he pops into the conference room reels off the announcements and quickly moves on to other things. To the outsider Ed looks the picture of confidence, but he does have a tendency to forget bits of information and can look a bit distracted at times.

We can similarly apply this cycle to most tasks and activities at work. The main lesson for coaching managers is to recognize that learning can only take place in the conscious – or I might say aware – phases of the cycle. Thus coaching questions move people from Unconscious Incompetence to Conscious Competence but also from Unconscious Competence back to Conscious Competence to address any bad habits.

We normally let the cycle run its course, but coaching can dramatically accelerate the speed of our journey around it. We often think that we only go round the cycle once, but what would happen if we chose to repeat the cycle time and time again?

Matt Somers

Matt Somers

Matt Somers is the UK’s leading trainer of managers as coaches. His coaching skills training programmes, books, articles and seminars have helped thousands of managers achieve outstanding results through their people.

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9 Responses

  1. Interesting piece, thanks. Do you have a reference for the learning model on which it is based please?

    Best Wishes,


  2. Hi Phil

    To the best of my knowledge the origins of this model remain unclear. It seems that most people that utilise it refer to it as The Competency Cycle or similar.

    A quick look at the wonderful reveals:

    “It is not clear who originated the very first ‘conscious competence’ learning model. As well as various modern authors, sources as old as Confucius and Socrates are cited as possible earliest originators.

    You will see here that Gordon Training International is popularly considered to be the originator of the conscious competence model. The Gordon Training ‘Learning Stages’ model certainly matches the definitions within what we know as the conscious competence model, although it refers to the stages as ‘skilled and unskilled’, rather than ‘competence and incompetence’. Interestingly many people prefer the words skilled/unskilled terms because they are less likely to offend people. Gordon Training have confirmed to me that they did use the terminology competent/incompetent prior to redefining the terminology, but they did not develop the matrix presentation of the concept, and it remains unclear where the ‘competence’ originally term came from, and whether it pre-dated the Gordon model, or was a subsequent interpretation. The California-based Gordon Training organisation, founded by Dr Thomas Thomas Gordon, states that their Learning Stages model (called ‘The Four Stages for Learning Any New Skill’) was developed by former GTI employee, Noel Burch over 30 years ago. To what extent GTI and Noel Burch based their Learning Stages concept on earlier ideas is not clear – perhaps none, perhaps a little. Whatever, Gordon Training International certainly seem today to be the most commonly referenced source in connection with the conscious competence (‘skilled/unskilled learning stages’) theory.”

    Hope that helps.


  3. Hi there folks,

    I believe the origins of this model are based on Johari’s window – certainly comparisons can be drawn. Again .. Business Balls for more info.

    Cheers .. Gren

  4. The unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence cycle is, I would argue, based on our own personal experience. Learning to drive a car is a good example. Thanks for your blog, Matt!

  5. I blog often and I genuinely thank you for your content.
    Your article has really peaked my interest. I will book mark your site and keep checking for
    new details about once a week. I opted in for your RSS feed too.

    1. Thank you! I hope it didn’t take too much courage to get in contact: I try hard not to be too scary 🙂
      I appreciate the positive comments and I’m glad you find the blog useful. Matt

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