November 17, 2016

Discomfort as a sign that you are learning

About eight years ago my colleague Gwenda Schlundt Bodien and I did a big evaluation of our training courses. We wanted to find out what worked and what didn't in our courses. We send an e-mail to all participants who had attended our courses in the past years. We asked them to complete a brief survey in which we asked them which parts of our courses they had found most useful. On the list were items like: PowerPoint presentations, group discussions, video observations, practicing with other participants, practicing with the trainers, practicing with live clients, analyzing written dialogues, plenary discussion and explanations, reflecting team exercises, etc.

We were surprised at what we found

We were quite surprised when saw the results. The top 3 was very clear: practicing with the trainers, practicing with other participants, and practicing with the live client. What struck us was how they ended up head and shoulders above all other items. Perhaps even more surprising (and somewhat disappointing, I must admit) was the pitiful position of our theoretical PowerPoint presentations: at the very bottom of the list. Up til then we had always started our courses with a presentation of half an hour (sometimes it took a bit longer). Now and then, we noticed some participants losing their attention but we carried on because, hey, those participants needed to get some good background information, didn't they?

Good practice is uncomfortable

After this evaluation we have drastically changed our approach and priorities in our courses. We put much more emphasis on practicing and we don't do any presentations anymore. The way we practice has also changed and become more specific. We use deliberate practice (read here how that works). This way of practicing is not too comfortable because the focus is constantly on what you find hard to do. During practice you are constantly confronted with those parts of your performance which are not yet effective. Also, while practicing you get specific and detailed feedback. You keep practicing those hard parts over and over until they get better and better.

Some time ago, a participant who had just finished a course told us that, at first, he had found deliberate practice quire frustrating. He was surprised by this way of practicing and said it was quite different from what he had expected. At the same time, he noticed that it did work. He noticed that he had actually improved after 20 minutes of deliberate practice. This made him curious and he started reading more about deliberate practice. Gradually, he had become more and more motivated for deliberate practice. On the last day of the course he was very motivated.

While practicing together I saw signs of fruastration when things did not go right -which is normal during deliberate practice- but I also saw an eager attitude. He even smiled sometimes and said things like: "Okay, I'll just try once more." He kept trying again and again and he kept improving bit by bit. After about 15 minutes he had become clearly more competent at what he had been practicing.

Reflection

Deliberate practice is always uncomfortable. This discomfort may be worst the first time you practice. But it is important to explain that the discomfort will not go away. It is an inevitable aspect of deliberate practice. But we can get used to some extent to this discomfort. What gradually becomes clear is that this discomfort is part of a good learning process. In time, whenever we experience this discomfort, we may automatically think: "This discomfort is a sign that I am learning."

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