The KEY Questions: What is competence?

I sometimes tell an anecdote against myself concerning an incident many years ago when I worked in sales for a well-known computer company. Called into the boss’s office to give a weekly report I regaled him with a long list of grievances, mostly to do with the incompetence and inefficiency of my co-workers. The man listened attentively, deep in thought, stroking his chin. In my arrogance I assumed he was grateful to be given a heads-up in this way. Even as I spoke (I told myself) he would be making a mental note to shake up the whole department based on my forensic analysis of the present unhealthy situation.

It didn’t quite work out that way.

Instead when I finally came to the end of my rant he fixed me with a stern look, told me to get out of his office and not come back until I’d fixed one or more of the problems I’d so enthusiastically identified. Chastised, and more than a little humiliated, I left with my tail between my legs and soon after resigned from the firm, telling myself I wasn’t going to be spoken to like that. But of course he’d been right. Instead of recognising my responsibility and living up to it I had allowed myself to become caught up in a ‘thought storm’ of judgement and blame.

Calling out others for their lack of competence put my own in question. I had felt pretty confident in my abilities up until then but as it turns out real confidence springs from competence, not the other way around.

Cut to a few years later when I had mercifully switched from IT to personal development. Trying to be better at sales had led me to have a ‘light bulb’ moment when I finally saw a way to be not just a better salesman but a better human being – and maybe get more fun out of life into the bargain. As I began to coach clients in the techniques and methodology of NLP I would very often be asked the following question: ‘When I get my certificate will I be fully qualified to practise?’ The answer was yes they were. I was always at pains to give my students a thorough grounding in the subject to the extent that they weren’t just equipped to practise but on a deeper level would be able to change their own lives for the better.

But here’s the point: behind the question was a lot of insecurity about my clients’ need to believe in their ability to do the job, and a piece of paper could never give them that. I could sympathise of course. A certificate is evidence that you’ve been somewhere and heard some useful things, perhaps even passed some kind of test. However it does not mean you are competent in your chosen field. Competence in any activity comes from repeated exposure to the demands of that activity, whether it’s life coaching, juggling or sumo wrestling. (And it’s worth adding that in all my years of coaching literally thousands of clients I have never once been asked to prove my credentials).

If you’ve never thought of it before, here is how competence works:

Step One. You are unconsciously incompetent. You don’t know anything, but you don’t know that you don’t know. (Ignorance is bliss!)

Step Two. You are consciously incompetent. You don’t know anything, but at least you are aware of your ignorance. (Caution: steep learning curve ahead!)

Step Three. You are consciously competent. You know it all and you’re well aware that you know it all. (Danger! Ego!)

Step Four: You are unconsciously competent. You know it all but you embody it, so you have nothing to prove. (And everything to give).

This is the goal of all learning. This last state, unconscious competence, is one in which the mind is quiet, so that wisdom flows without effort. The understanding that I now coach my clients in – The ‘Three Principles’ – has no models to follow and no techniques to learn, hence no certificates need ever be handed out. The truth of our human experience, the way in which we create our internal reality through the principles of Mind, Consciousness and Thought, once fully grasped, is all any practitioner needs. He or she must simply speak from their grounding and trust that the client will hear the truth.

And the rest is exactly what’s implied by that word: ‘practitioner’.

As with anything else – practice!