Several years ago, the adult child of a family friend came out as nonbinary and asked everyone to use they/them pronouns for them. As I discussed this development with my daughter, I kept messing up by saying “she.” My daughter patiently corrected me every time.
I was embarrassed. I’m a DEI professional, I thought. How can I be so incompetent?
I was experiencing an especially stressful moment in any learning process called Conscious Incompetence. We map it on a slide we show at the end of most of our workshops. It shows a diagram of escalating levels:
I explain this journey with the example of learning to drive a car.
Riding in the backseat while my parents drove me around, I didn’t give much thought to how it happened. I was incompetent, but I didn’t know it: Unconscious Incompetence.
I still remember the first time I got behind a wheel, though. I had studied the traffic rules, but once the car started to move I was overwhelmed. I became keenly aware of how much more practice I would need to be safe on the road: Conscious Incompetence.
And that first time on the highway, trying to merge? My heart was pounding. How did people do this every day?
A few more tries and I started to feel competent. But I couldn’t relax because I was reminding myself to check the mirrors, look at the speedometer, monitor my distance from the car in front of me, and breathe. I was in the Conscious Competence stage.
Today I can spend a day in the car running errands, talking to friends, listening to podcasts, and daydreaming, while navigate the quirky streets—alongside the unpredictable drivers—of Massachusetts. My brain has moved into the Unconscious Competence phase. This phase doesn’t mean we are “perfect” but we are comfortable, relaxed, able to correct mistakes and adjust as needed.
We go through these phases with everything we learn, including DEI issues. Nobody is born knowing everything about our diverse world, so it’s not our fault that we are unconsciously incompetent. Then we discover—often through a mistake—that we have a hole in our knowledge or skills. “I didn’t mean to offend you!” we exclaim as we step into that next, very vulnerable threshold when our incompetence is visible to us, and to others.
It helps me to manage my defensiveness to remember these steps when this happens. A mistake is an entry point into consciousness. As Maya Angelou said, “When you know better, do better.”
And we might as well get used to the pattern, because as competent as we get in one area, something will come up in another to show us we have learning to do.
Practice will eventually make those habits as unconscious as a day of driving in Boston traffic.