The Conscious Unconscious Competent

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I sat on an airplane earlier this month—it was the third flight I’d been on within a week.  I stared out the window watching the many planes getting ready for takeoff.  I realized I had completely ignored the pilot’s lengthy instructions.  In fact, I was starting to wonder if they even gave instructions anymore until I heard the pilot’s dull monotone voice and noticed the flight attendants acting out mock emergency scenarios.

This pattern of absentmindedness is easy to fall into.  We know the general instructions.  We know what to do in the case of an emergency. And, the scenarios never change.  I didn’t need to listen to the pilot’s instructions to know to turn off my phone, my ipod, my laptop, or my kindle.  I had already fastened my seatbelt securely, and put my luggage squarely under the seat in front of me.  I did all of this without the pilot reminding me!

I realized that I tune out the instructions, turn off my mind, and simply follow my own routine.  However, despite my perceived knowledge of the rules, without paying careful attention, I may make mistakes. Without being conscious of my actions, I may forget to dot my “i’s” and cross all my “t’s.”

In life too, we get into habits and forget to think as we go through the motions.  With this tendency to get into a routine, it is important to realize how humans learn and process information.  As individuals, we learn things in four stages: (1) unconscious incompetence, (2) conscious incompetence, (3) conscious competence, and (4) unconscious competence.

William Howell applied the four-level learning process to how we communicate.1 Howell identified the unconscious incompetent as an individual who is unaware that she is misinterpreting other’s behaviors and communicating ineffectively.  When an individual realizes that they are an ineffective communicator, she becomes a conscious incompetent. As one becomes a more effective communicator, the individual becomes a conscious competent who is aware of her communication behaviors and effective communication skills.  The conscious competent has been viewed as being “mindful” which involves “attending to ones internal assumptions, cognitions, and emotions and simultaneously attuning attentively to the other’s assumptions, cognitions, and emotions while focusing the five senses.”2  The unconscious competent effectively communicates and no longer needs to think about her communications skills because they “run on autopilot.”3

Many argue that the unconscious competent is not the ultimate level.  In fact, many scholars suggest that the conscious competent is more competent than the unconscious competent because the conscious competent can constantly gauge her communication skills and fluidly alter behaviors that become ineffective while the unconscious competent is not able to adapt and alter communication behaviors when they become ineffective.  To reflect this idea, Robert W. Pike actually created a fifth level entitled “conscious unconscious competence.”4 Pike suggests that an unconscious competent is able to competently run on autopilot while a conscious unconscious competent is able to competently run on autopilot and explain and “verbalize to others the how-to’s of how [they’re] able to do what [they] do.”5  This awareness of why and how an individual is successfully communicating is a safeguard that prevents the unconscious competent from slipping into communication patterns that are no longer effective.

What does this mean?  You must take time to reflect on your patterns and habits. If you find yourself slipping into the “unconscious competent” take a step back and look at the mistakes you might be overlooking as you drift through life on autopilot.  Strive to be a conscious unconscious competent.  We often think that operating in autopilot is a good thing—and in certain situations it may be.  But to do good quality work, striving for perfection, you need to step back and examine each step and action to ensure that no mistakes are being made.  Examine your strengths and be fully conscious of any actions that may make you less effective.  Strive to reach level five: the conscious unconscious competent.



2 WILLIAM B. GUNDYKUNST, HANDBOOK OF INTERNATIONAL AND INTERCULTURAL COMMUNICATION (1995) 214. Effective communication involves being mindful of ourselves and others to properly monitor our bias and the other’s bias.  Id. at 214.

3 See HOWELL, supra note 1.


5 Id.


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Mikita Weaver
Mikita is the Editor-in-Chief of ADR Times. She is also an attorney at Seastrom Tuttle & Murphy focusing solely on Family Law. Before that, she worked predominantly in litigation and arbitration in the field of construction and business litigation insurance defense. She received her Juris Doctorate at Pepperdine and a Masters in Dispute Resolution from the Straus Institute. Mikita has been published in the Pepperdine Dispute Resolution Law Journal and worked at the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution in London. As an avid traveler, she continues to explore various dispute resolution issues and how they vary from region to region. She welcomes your inquiries, and can be reached at [email protected] or (800) 616-1202

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