The Process of Competence Development

Being Competent is a Worthy Goal

By now, you’ve read the word competent multiple times throughout this book. You will continue to read it throughout the remaining chapters, too. So it is important to take a moment to understand what is and is not meant by the term.

Broadly, competence refers to your ability to do something proficiently. However, while competence infers a standard of performance that people normally aspire toward, for some people it is a word that also carries a negative connotation. That’s because sometimes competent is used to signal that someone meets bare minimum standards or exhibits average performance.

But being competent is not about minimum standards. It is about possessing the knowledge, skills, and abilities to perform consistently at a high level. Competent communicators know how to approach communication challenges. They are confident in their abilities. They know that even in the most challenging situations, they will have a good result.

When it comes to communication, being competent is not about being average. It is about excelling at a set of skills that are difficult to master. So becoming a competent communicator is a worthy goal and something to be proud of achieving.

Becoming Competent is a Process

Here we describe how people become competent in general terms. Then we will turn our attention to what the core competencies of business communication.

Becoming competent is a difficult endeavor—no matter what it is you are working toward. Not only does competence development require you to learn new things, but it sometimes requires you to unlearn old things or break entrenched habits. Additionally, the process of becoming competent often makes people uncomfortable, at least for a little while.

Competency development occurs through a four-stage process.[1] The first stage is called unconscious incompetence. This stage refers to when you do not know that you do not know how to do something. Alternatively, you might not be aware that you are doing something incorrectly.

For instance, one bad habit that many people have is using filler words when they speak. They might say “umm,” “you know,” or “like” a lot when they speak. But if they have never paid careful attention to their speech habits, they might be unaware they use annoying filler. To themselves, their word choice sounds just fine. That’s unconscious incompetence.

The second stage of competence development is called conscious incompetence. This is the stage where people become mindful of either something they do not know how to do or something they do incorrectly. For many people, this is a terribly uncomfortable stage. They may be embarrassed or frustrated to learn they are incompetent. In some cases, people may even try to deny that their incompetence is a problem by downplaying its significance. But they still are consciously aware at this point that there is a weakness.

If people learn of their use of filler words after delivering a speech in a class or at a Toastmasters meeting, if they hear a recording of themselves speaking, or if a peer or mentor points out the problem, that’s when they enter the stage of conscious incompetence. Even though conscious incompetence is uncomfortable, it is a necessary step to becoming competent.

The third stage of competence development is conscious competence. This is the stage where people must work mindfully at doing something correctly. It takes a lot of mental energy to ensure you are performing competently. Going back to the example of filler words, people in the conscious competence stage who catch themselves using “like” too much, may likely stop every time they say the word and then correct the sentence. Or they may learn how to anticipate when they might say it and take a deep breath and think of a different word (or just consciously skip over “like”). They might also improve their ability to eliminate filler words by thinking through what they want and “practice” saying it silently before saying it out loud in order to avoid fillers.

The final stage is unconscious competence. This is the stage when people are able to perform competently with little, if any, thought. When people are skilled at something, others might remark, “They make it look so easy.” It is not that the skill is necessarily easy, but instead that people are so competent that they don’t have to engage in much conscious effort to do it well. For the people who mindfully work at using “like” less frequently, the task will eventually get easier and avoiding fillers will feel more natural. They will exert less mental energy to have the same filler-free delivery.

It is also worth noting that once you get to the stage of unconscious competence, it does not mean that you can stop working altogether. Even people who are talented at what they do have to keep practicing their craft mindfully. Otherwise, the old adage applies: If you don’t use it, you lose it. Therefore, people may sometimes slip back into a stage of unconscious or conscious incompetence and the progression through the stages will have to begin again.

  1. The “four stage” model is reported to be developed by Noel Burch Gordon Training International as a teaching tool in the 1970s and was billed as the process of learning “any skill” ( In 1982, William S. Howell developed this framework into “competencies,” settling on the figure that unconsciously competent communicators will save 75% of their work potential compared to less competent people doing the same job. William S. Howell, The Empathic Communicator (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1986).


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Business Communication: Five Core Competencies Copyright © 2023 by Kristen Lucas, Jacob D. Rawlins, and Jenna Haugen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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