There are lot of frameworks available to impart learning. It is also easier to learn new competencies & behaviours than to unlearn. This is because unlearning is an internal process to oneself. How can we unlearn? This is the big question that most of us have.


I have been delivering business outcomes through projects & programs over past many years. Few unconscious behaviours that had crept in because of long term association with the trade are:

Driving conversations towards a desired or pre-determined outcome
Adhering to plan, processes & documentation
Being directive etc

I started coaching in parallel with my current role since last couple of years. Initially it was quite difficult as my unconscious behaviours always used to be that of a Project Manager. I felt the need to be conscious about my behavioural shift during coaching conversations. I also need to retain the existing behaviours of being a project manager as being mandated by my role. Precedence is given to consciously validate if it can be a coaching conversation first.

What we need to be clear is about what is that we are looking to unlearn? Skills or competencies or behaviours!!! All of these or some of these. Let’s first establish clarity around how these are related.

According to DR Marshall Goldsmith, there are eleven reasons given below to try Feed Forward as against feedback to successfully coach for performance improvement and excellence.

Skill is an ability and capacity acquired through deliberate, systematic, and sustained effort to smoothly and adaptively carryout complex activities or job functions involving ideas (cognitive skills), things (technical skills), and/or people (interpersonal skills). – Wikepedia

Competency is the ability to do something successfully or efficiently

We build our skills attending trainings, watching videos, reading books etc. We build our competencies through application of skills consistently. Competencies practiced over a period of time along with beliefs & values drives our behaviours. As advised by Sir John Whitmore in “Coaching for performance”, we build our competencies & behaviours through the below cycle.

We build conscious competence & behaviours associated based on the demands of the roles & responsibilities we perform on day to day basis. These when consistently practiced over a long term become our unconscious competencies.

Learning & unlearning processes run in parallel. The Learning process is moving from Unconscious incompetence to Unconscious Competence while Unlearning happens the other way round.

“Before people can begin something new, they have to end what used to be and unlearn the old way.” — William Bridges

The first step in the unlearning process as outlined below:

Unconscious Competence to Conscious Competence:

Need: One should be clear on the need for unlearning (Always start with WHY). Why do you want to unlearn? What is it that you are looking to accomplish? How determined you are to unlearn?

Analysis & Acknowledgement: One needs to analyse on the specific behaviours that you are required to unlearn and acknowledge. This involves identifying the desired and undesired traits & behaviours to map to WHY. Once identified, acknowledge those that need to be unlearned.

You could use SWOT (Strengths, Weakness, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis to come up with the current behaviours you have. Use gap analysis to identify the behaviours that need to be unlearned and those to be learned.

Consciousness: Be conscious about the undesired behaviours that need to be avoided in a given role / scenario.

By following above steps, one would have moved the undesired traits from Unconscious competence to Conscious Competence. You would have accomplished the first step towards unlearning. Also, the new behaviours that you are learning would be moving from Unconscious Incompetence to Conscious Competence.

“Every mile you go in the wrong direction is really a two mile error. Unlearning is twice as hard as learning.” –Unknown Conscious Competence to Unconscious Competence

Prioritising: Next is to move the undesired behaviours from conscious competence to unconscious incompetence. This can be achieved by prioritising & practicing the newly desired behaviours consistently and making them part of our Unconscious Competence. By continuously establishing & showcasing the desired traits one loses conscious of the undesired.

Unconscious Competence to Unconscious Incompetence

Undesired behaviours that are not focused on and practiced over a long period will most likely be forgotten. Thereby those behaviours move from Unconscious Competence to Unconscious Incompetence. Skills once inherited would remain with us and we will need to put them into practice when we look to build competency.


The reason why many look at Unlearning as a challenge is because of the barriers. These can be Internal as well as external. Listed below are few of many that you could face:

I can adapt: This is one the barriers most of us would face. Having gone through different life experiences, we always feel we could adapt our behaviour to any given role or scenario. If you have not identified the undesired traits, this is more than likely fail you. The reason being that the natural behaviours (Unconscious Competence) takes over when you are faced with pressure, demanding and stressful situations.

It takes too long: Building new behaviours does need consistent, conscious effort over a considerable period of time. Being aware of this, motivated enough and continuous self-reflection on your progress is the key to success.

I am already doing it: This is the most comforting of the barriers. Thinking about those rare situations where we might have used some of the behaviours makes us believe we have naturalised them. Which in fact is definitely not true.

What would people think: This barrier is driven by social expectations. We all have established a certain impression amongst our peers, friends & family through our existing behaviours. The tendency is to fear about the reactions of those close to you when you look to adapt an entirely different behaviours as against what has been established. We can turn this to our advantage instead of looking at this negatively. Be open about why you are looking to change and what you are trying to accomplish with those around you. It also helps in garnering their reflections and feedback on your progress.

To conclude, we need to focus on unlearning the behaviours and the competencies would wane on their own. Unlearning should always be looked at as an opportunity as it will help you in learning new behaviours.

With the rapid changing Technology, leadership styles and next generation thought process, it is imperative that we all learn the way to unlearn. This is needed to not just progress in your professional career and life but even to stay relevant.

If you are looking for help in understanding what you need to unlearn as you move into a new role or taking up a new responsibility, give me a shout.

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