The Power of Incompetence
I recently completed a motorcycle rider course at a local community college. My experience gave me some added benefits. It allowed me to have a powerful opportunity to live what my mediation students encounter in their training. This article shares those lessons with other mediation coaches, mentors, teachers, and supervisors (these role titles will be used interchangeably in the articles). My hope is that through this learning, we can “raise the bar” on the quality and proficiency of the members of our profession placed in our tutelage.
Most of the students in the motorcycle course, including myself, had ridden bikes before – Harleys, Goldwings, Ducatis, BSAs. There wasn’t an admitted pedestrian or moped rider in the group! But the challenge of learning good practice was an assault on our egos! What if we can’t keep within the lines, what if we forget an important function, what if we fail the test, or – the worst fear of all – what if we fall off our bike!
All the students were in middle class careers with the cultural motivation to be successful in all of their efforts. The thought of failing – being incompetent – raised all of our anxiety levels! The truth was our real learning only began when deep feelings of incompetence set in! Until that occurred, we were not going to meet the challenge and gain the benefits of the course. We had to discover our incompetence if we were going to become safe, effective riders.
The same is true for a new mediator. Just as buying a motorcycle does not make you an effective and safe rider, completing a classroom course in mediation does not make you a mediator, regardless of your previous professional training.
Incompetence, and all its anxiety, is essential to learning anything important and worthwhile. Milton Erickson, noted therapist, helped us understand this in terms of the four levels of learning.
We are first unconsicously incompetent, that is we do not know that we do not know something. Here we depend on previously learned knowledge and skills when facing new things, without awareness of what and why. It is a more automatic response below our conscious awareness. We repeat old ways in the face of new situations and assume we are doing worthwhile things. The result is we risk wasting opportunities, generating unneeded costs, or doing harm. For example, 92% of motorcycle accidents involves a rider who had not taken a training course. Likewise in mediation, John Haynes said that if parties reach impasse, the mediator should examine themself first.
When we discover a new area of learning, function, or activity – like mediation – we get excited by the prospect of this new area and what we can do with it. We fantasize about its possibilities and enthusiasm grows. For adult learners with established professions, this also needs to equate to our recognizing that we lack knowledge and ability in this area – that we are incompetent. Even in academic settings, we will not learn unless we recognize that we need to learn. At this point of realization we are becoming consciously incompetent.
Here the heightened anxiety accompanying the sense of incompetence is a motivator to learn. The “alert” reaction that accompanies heightened anxiety helps us be open to a wide range of inputs, picking up at first a chaotic array of sights and sounds and thoughts, that eventually coalesce with repeated practice into an organized piece of information or skill as we execute each maneuver. For example, it takes 34 functions to drive a car, 220 functions to operate a motorcycle. In mediation knowing when to reframe, reflect, redirect, summarize need to be learned.
As the new knowledge and skill begin to coalesce through conscious practice, we are becoming consciously competent. We are continually thinking and processing the input from out mind and body and senses. We make mistakes, we scold ourselves, we receive correction, we talk ourselves through additional exercises. It seems awkward and stumbling as we try to integrate instructions, principles, and actions into an effective whole that produces the benefit. Whereas anxiety motivated the previous level of learning, here successful completion of a task motivates the process. Repetition of this success more effectively embeds the knowing or skill. For example, telling myself to have faith in the motorcycle and what it was designed to do helped me develop competence. In mediation – rehearsing our monologue until it comes forth with our conviction is an important goal.
When a skill or principle becomes so embedded that we are not thinking about it anymore, the learning has moved to the level of being unconsciously competent. At this point the principle or skill has been acquired and accessible at a more readily intuitive level. For example, you turn a corner on a motorcycle without thinking about what steps it took to maneuver the turn. In mediation, you observe parents reaching agreement without knowing how you got them there.
When a mentor understands the power of incompetence in the student’s clinical learning experience, the effectiveness of the learning will significantly increase. The mentor is responsible for designing the opportunities for incompetence in both the clinical program’s design and the mentor’s own style. Future discussion will offer some ideas on how to consider the power of incompetence in clinical training of new mediators.
As I mentioned earlier, I recently completed a motorcycle rider course. It helped me appreciate the power of incompetence and how it could help me better understand how to approach my mediation students.
The course was wisely designed to help us encounter our incompetence in small manageable pieces. This was so we could survive the “assault” to our egos and learn. It involved real-life exercises where we had to face the risk and let the risk help us understand our need to learn and acquire skill. The more real the risk, the more powerful the learning, and the skill was more quickly learned.
We started with embarrassingly simple but real-life tasks like walking our motorcycles crab-style across the parking lot. But each successive task built on the last by challenging the cutting edge of our incompetence and stretching our ability. The course ended with tasks like stopping the bike on a dime and making a figure-8 type maneuver within a 20-foot wide box without putting our feet on the ground.
The heart of any clinical program is the opportunity for hands-on real-life learning. Here incompetence needs to be stressed so the student can be challenged to open themself to the learning opportunity of the program. They are facing a paradigm shift in order to become effective mediators. Otherwise they will continue to carry out their previous professional activity – law, therapy, etc. – in the guise of mediation and rob the clients of the intent and promise of mediation. This is deceptive and unethical.
A successful clinical mediation program will replicate this pattern of progressive opportunity to learn, building on previous clinical experiences. Breaking down the mediation process into its parts, then organizing the use of these parts with progressive responsibility will provide manageable learning exercises and minimize recovery efforts when needed.
Of course, such a process requires a well-thought-out structured outline to the program. In this way there is guidance for each learning task. And each encounter with incompetence is supported by collateral preparation.
Methods in clinical programs that can help build a focus on learning from incompetence are
1) introducing the concept of incompetence in an orientation to the program, preparing the student to learn from mistakes, as a pro-active way to introduce the anxiety, making it more manageable as part of the learning process;
2) creating risk-taking exercises by giving students progressively increasing responsibility in actual cases;
3) mentoring the process before and after each client session for immediate feedback; pre-session mentoring allowing the student’s assumptions to be challenged before they put them into practice; post-session mentoring reflecting on actions and assumptions that were practiced in real-life terms during the mediation session;
4) intervening during a mediation session to both instruct by example and rescue moments when incompetence might do harm or raise the cost of conflict; and
5) using formalized operational definitions of mediation skills and strategies to objectively help the student organize their experience.
Supervision and peer counseling can apply the same principles. While they typically do not offer a progressive learning opportunity like a clinical program, the mentor can guide the mediator to organize their self-observation and reflection on a progressively expanding outline of functions. Formalized operational definitions based on the elements of a typical mediation case may serve as the course of such consultation.
A key element to the student’s success in the motorcycle rider course was the coaches. The wrong people in this role would have produced a sad and frustrated group of students, all too prone to failure. Instead, our rider-coaches were patient and faithful as they helped us encounter our incompetence, then encouraged and supported us in acquiring the basic skills and understanding. Their success with us depended on a number of factors.
First and foremost was how the coaches responded to our displays of incompetence: and there was plenty of opportunity! Anytime a student found their incompetence obvious, they were exposing themselves to another person. This is a type of intimacy that makes most people uneasy, especially around people whom they have just met. When a coach respects this exposure, it becomes less of a problem for the student and the student is encouraged to look beyond the event. Examples of respect include keeping remarks about problems as simple as possible, avoiding negative judgment of the student, and offering corrective remarks that foster a belief that the student is capable of successfully performing the task.
The coaches’ own comfort stemmed from their full knowledge and personal sense of competence regarding the course content and the motorcycles. They had been where the student was, many times. They were not teaching theory but real life, and they were well experienced for the task. Persons who try to coach before they have experience deprive their students of the benefits of well-seasoned practice and the insights that go with it.
In addition, the coaches had a well-grounded understanding of the aspects of the process. This includes practical knowledge of the nuances and possibilities a part of the process can present. In the motorcycle course, it was encouraging to see the coaches make difficult maneuvers without a sweat. In mediation, a seasoned mediator – who has been through impasse many times, and will know a variety of possible strategies and techniques to use, as well as have insight into their own personal experience of the moment – will awe the new student by navigating the situation to a more successful completion. The student needs the encouraging example the coach can offer.
This was no better displayed than when the motorcycle rider-coaches stood in front of an oncoming motorcycle to teach us to make quick stops. Talk about putting yourself on the line! But that act of faith in the rider and the course did more to foster learning than any classroom lesson. The coaches made their efforts a personal commitment to the student. In mediation, coaches do this through the investment of time and attention they give to a student, and the trust the coach places in a student when they given them responsibility in a real life case. When a coach has confidence in their competence and their program, they convey that through the courage they display on behalf of the student.
The application of the coach’s confidence and competence is best seen in the attention they give to the student’s performance and how they approach incompetent moments. Addressing the student in a manner that recognizes the student’s individual qualities and needs bring the best result from the corrective effort. Sensitivity to their personality, strengths, and weaknesses helps the coach effectively address the student’s learning. This often requires a creative and flexible approach that comes from the coach’s own mature professional experience. This is best served by coaches who embrace artistry – Michael Lang/Allison Taylor’s term – in their own skill development. A coach who does not venture past the rote practice of skills will limit the student’s learning and actually be a source of a false sense of proficiency and the harm that may follow.
An effective coach will know and understand the importance of using boundaries and limit setting to teach. This helps them assess a student’s readiness for a progressive task. The coach needs a confidence about that assessment or they will let the student naively lead the learning and encounter risk before they are prepared. This means the coach will have a reflective quality that permits them to learn from their experience and organize that experience into landmarks that will guide their judgment about the student’s readiness. For example, it maybe necessary for a mediation coach to have a student repeat an exercise or lower level case format in order to gain the competence they need. Firmness, combined with direction and encouragement is needed to establish the student’s readiness for the challenge.
I recall the first time I had to express such limit setting to a student. I call it the “bastard effect”. I felt uncomfortable talking to the student in such a limit setting way. But my remarks were based on my confidence in the program I was offering and my own competence. And my remarks paid off. The student was given a chance to confront their need to change their paradigm and successfully embrace the skill that helped them be an effective mediator. Often students will thank you when you have been confident enough to draw the line.
Translating Some Riding Principles into Mediation
Let me conclude with some reflections on my motorcycle riding course experience. Each expresses what comes from learning from the power of incompetence. While it may be a stretch to connect the principles of motorcycle riding to the practice of mediation, the insights of the former actually did help me understand the latter.
You will go where you are looking – Surprisingly the sources of failure in riding are often the same sources of failure in mediation. It was amazing to me to learn that the motorcycle goes where I am looking! If, for example, I go into a turn and I am looking at the ground, the motorcycle is more likely to fall over. Why? The source of this phenomenon is eye-hand coordination. My body, especially my hands, will follow the lead of my sight.
This compares with students and new mediators who try to mediate using the “sight” from their other vocation. For example, if an attorney looks at the parties’ situation in terms of law, guess what they will see? Legal factors. Likewise if a therapist looks at the parties’ situation in terms of therapy, what will they see? Dysfunction. And what they see will guide where they will go in the process, typically somewhere other than mediation.
I was amazed how effective I became when I got myself to look at where I wanted to go. I will never be an Evel Kneivel. But, I found that I could lean the bike through a curve without falling over when I watched the end of the curve. Likewise, if a mediator looks towards the various momentary goals in the process, each defined by the current energy of the parties and the intent to foster a cooperative outcome, trained intuition kicks in and the mediator finds the tools to negotiate the maneuver.
SEE – search, evaluate, execute – Motorcycle riders need to constantly see and be seen for safety. The three-fold principle we were taught was SEE – search, evaluate, and execute. It is an attitude of vigilance and readiness. An effective rider continually scans the situation in all directions, considering the needs and risks observed, and then carrying out their judgment of the best way to go.
Effective mediators are equally vigilant with parties. Searching for nuances and opportunities to guide the parties is the major contribution of the mediator’s neutrality to the process. The mediator is not limited to the rigors of a position and is free to see the whole landscape of the conflict. The art of mediation is then expressed in evaluating how and when the mediator will use these observations. And the benefit is realized by the skill the mediator uses to execute their judgment about the observation, helping the parties maneuver some new terrain in their situation.
To turn: slow, look, press, roll – Because a motorcycle is a two-dimensional force working in a three-dimensional world, it is unstable and vulnerable. This is seen most when turns are required. The process of maneuvering turns requires a deliberate effort to manage the energies of the bike, not control them. This requires a reduction in speed as the rider approaches the turn, looking for what is ahead and the destination at the end of the turn, pressing down on the handlebar on the side of the turn, then rolling on the throttle (slightly increasing the speed) through the turn. The task is to let the physics of the motorcycle work for the rider.
An important moment in any mediation is when the mediator tries to redirect the energies of the parties. These energies can benefit from the same series of redirecting steps. The mediator first hesitates at some point, allowing the energies to subside a bit, as they get the parties ready to move in another direction. All this time the mediator is looking for the best moment to “enter the turn”. They have already been considering the new direction through the SEE process, mentioned above. Then the mediator presses forward with the new theme and moves the topic forward to the point of discussion by giving some substance to the new direction, and offering a question to engage the parties in a new dialogue.
Creating a margin of safety – Because a motorcycle does present a challenge to the rider, keeping a margin of safety means getting home in one piece. This involves thoroughly knowing three things: your equipment, yourself, and the environment. This knowledge is essential to the rider creating this margin.
Offering effective and ethical services is the safest way for mediators to operate. Like motorcycle riding, this means we need to also know our “equipment”, ourselves, and the environment.
A mediator’s “equipment” is the process. It is the thing we “ride”. We need to know how the process works, what it can and cannot do, and the particular aspects of the field of mediation we are pursuing.
This means nothing if the mediator does not appreciate the nature of their own ability. Included here is knowing the strengths and limits of their skill and proficiency, where the cutting edge of their learning is, and what biases they need to manage. Key to a mediator knowing themself is determining their own mission statement. This core belief about oneself articulates their professional and practice goals. Without that key, they should not start their “equipment”.
Finally, an effective mediator will know the environment of their work. Whether community, family, corporate, farm, employment, environmental, or victim-offender, each has its own features that help or hinder the process. Each party also brings a unique set of considerations to the table, offering factors that also help or hinder the process.
Motorcycle riding offers a wonderful adventure for those who will prepare. Like mediation, it requires a commitment to encounter incompetence to acquire the art so the adventure can unfold.