Understanding the unsaid – For Effective Coaching

Ever wanted to read minds? In order to be an effective coach we need to pay attention to the subtle cues all around us – our Coachee will tell us volumes about themselves without opening their mouth. So whilst we can’t give you an actual super power to read minds (yet, anyway) this article explores how to gets us as close as possible to using the unsaid for an impactful coaching session.

In this article we are going to discuss why sensory acuity is important, what it is and how we can utilise it to build better relationships with our Coachee and help them to get better outcomes as they strive to achieve their goals. Isn’t that really what we are here to do?

That said, before we continue with this article, we need to agree on something…

Would a Leader or Coach seek to motivate?

Would a Leader or Coach seek to inspire people to act?

Would a Leader or Coach seek to understand their Coachee in order to help them achieve?

You may have heard this before but due to the below content, it may be beneficial to give ourselves a reminder. – The tool kit of a Leader or Coach is the same tool kit as a Manipulator. It can be an uneasy realisation but it is an important one to make. There is one key difference between ourselves as Leaders and a manipulator however – and that is the intention behind the tool. A manipulator uses their tools for their own gain. A Leader or Coach uses their tools to help others grow, develop and achieve. The following article discusses how to utilise non-verbal cues to understand our Coachee and thus, if we are not careful can lead to manipulation. If you are a Coach or Leader that is purely there to develop people and help them achieve, read on, enjoy and utilise these valuable tools to help people grow. If you are planning on using this for your own gain here are 2 key reminders:

  1. Integrity is doing the right things when no-one is watching.
  2. People can sniff out a manipulator – your success will not last and neither will your legacy. Helping people on the other hand, will be remembered by those you develop – long after they have outgrown your support.

With that said, lets begin exploring the valuable tool known as Sensory Acuity.


Why is sensory acuity important?

Have you ever noticed that a sales person on the street extends one foot towards you? It’s a subtle gesture that says “I’m not in your way, I’ve actually got something else to do – so I’ll be quick!” They’re half in the conversation, ready to pivot out and leave you to it…giving you the perception of control and sending signals to your brain that they clearly have something else to do, so it won’t take up much time. They can hold that stance for hours and your brain will keep thinking “they’re going to leave any second now”. You see, you already use Sensory acuity to:

  • Evaluate danger
  • Make snap judgements
  • Understand a situation
  • Get an idea of someone’s intention

What we may not be doing is processing this data on a conscious level – meaning that we are constantly leaving this up to our subconscious to do and increasing our likelihood to be reactive in a situation rather than being purposeful. Consider Coaching or Leading – how valuable would it be to effectively and consciously assess our Coachee/Team members:

  • Engagement level
  • Stress level
  • Motivation level
  • Positive reaction
  • Negative reaction
  • Anxiety level
  • Excitement Level
  • Confidence level

Pretty valuable right?

If we care about our people, their goals and ability to achieve them, these are definitely things we want to tune into. By consciously looking out for these factors, we can consciously gauge their commitment level and likelihood to succeed – giving us some amazing foundations for effective questions that get us to their core values and beliefs. Once we’re there, our ability to get our Coachee wherever they need to be skyrockets.

Take some time to think about what the benefits would be of instantly understanding your team members; motivation, engagement, commitment, anxiety or confidence levels. Write down your answers and we can compare our thoughts together.

Done? Awesome.

This is our list, did we miss anything?


The benefits of Sensory Acuity are:
  • Understand Coachees beliefs and values
  • Get honest and instant reactions (the body won’t lie!)
  • Establish what motivates them to increase performance
  • Identify uncomfortable barriers and help overcome them
  • Establish the best way forward
  • Understand preferences, likes and dislikes
  • Gauge your relationship level
  • Understand your coachees state (mind set or emotion)
  • Change and manage your coachees state
  • Utilising these will help you become an effective and engaging coach.

Now we see the value of Sensory Acuity…let’s define what it means.


What is Sensory Acuity?

That’s a great question. Based on the above benefits and why we would want to use it, what do you think it is?

Take a moment to reflect before continuing.

Sensory Acuity is really just about paying attention to what is going on. It’s being present and monitoring your Coachee for their;

  • Body language
  • Facial expressions
  • Skin tone changes
  • Eye movements
  • Vocal pitch, speed and volume
  • Breathing

All of these can give us a strong indication to our Coachee’s state changes – an invaluable insight into how they think, feel and behave, enabling us to be more effective in our ability to coach and lead them to their goals. Now we understand why it’s important and what it is, let’s discover the foundations on how to use Sensory Acuity to help and support your Coachee.


How to use Sensory Acuity

There is a simple acronym to aid us with remembering what to look out for in Sensory Acuity; VIBES – Voice, Inclination (body language), Breathing, Eyes and Skin. To become effective at this, we will need to break each stage down and know what to look out for.



Whilst the 7%-38%-55% rule has since been debunked (by its author), we can still obtain a vast amount of information about a person’s state based on the words they use and the voice they say it in – for example:

If someone who normally talks with a steady tempo starts talking fast, what do you think this could indicate? Excitement? Fear? Nerves? What could it indicate if they slowed their voice down? Relaxed? Uncertain? Authority? – realistically, we will have to group various pieces of information together to get a complete picture, but a person’s voice and the words they use can help us identify our Coachee’s state.

When tuning in to our Coachee’s voice we need to consider: pitch, tone, tempo, timbre,  words used and volume. Each of these factors can indicate what state our Coachee is in and enables us to be more effective coaches. The same goes for the words used, for example:

“I might do that” – indicates a lack of commitment and realistically,  that they are unlikely to follow through with the plan.

“What will people think?” – indicates that this person is driven by external influences and will likely side with the majority.

“I can see it now.” – indicates a visual state.

“I did this and then this and then…” – indicates the person is in a process state.


Inclination of the spine

Simply put, this is looking at body language.

If someone is slumped in their chair, eyes at the floor, arms folded – What could their body language be telling us? – potentially disengaged? Bored? Frustrated? Closed off? Depressed? On the otherside if someone is leaving forward, almost ready to explode off of their chair, making eye contact with you – it may indicate a state of being ready, motivated and engaged.

When we look at body language, we need to take in as much information as possible. Take sometime and think about what the following could mean:

  • Arms folded and legs crossed
  • Sat upright, hands resting gently on their legs
  • Stood upright, legs more than shoulder width apart, hands clasped behind their back
  • Sat down but spread out on a sofa
  • Stood up, hands in pockets
  • Knees up against their chest, hands clasped around their legs
  • Hand across their mouth
  • Feet pointed towards the door

What did you get? Here are the general meanings to these:

  • Arms folded and legs crossed – Closed off / defensive
  • Sat upright, hands resting gently on their legs – relaxed / open
  • Stood upright, legs more than shoulder width apart, hands clasped behind their back – Authorative/threat (potentially concealing a weapon)
  • Sat down but spread out on a sofa – Confident / Powerful / Comfortable
  • Stood up, hands in pockets – Nervous
  • Knees up against their chest, hands clasped around their legs – Vulnerable / Closed / Low power and confidence
  • Hand across their mouth – Trying not to speak
  • Feet pointed towards the door – Wanting to leave

We need to look at a person’s gestures, movements and macro movements to understand our Coachee. Like with all aspects, we need to build a bigger picture by using all of the information available together.



Whilst breathing can difficult to assess sometimes, it can be a useful indicator for us. We need to think about what the breathing could indicate, consider the below and assess what is being said about our Coachee:

  • Rapid, shallow breathing
  • Slow, deep breathing
  • Top of their chest expanding on inhale
  • Diaphragm expanding on inhale
  • Lack of rhythm

Medical conditions aside, the above breathing may indicate:

  • Rapid, shallow breathing – Panic / fight or flight
  • Slow, deep breathing – relaxed / calm / focused
  • Top of their chest expanding on inhale – distress /anxiety
  • Diaphragm expanding on inhale – relaxed / calm

As we can see, our Coachee is giving us plenty of information about them already that we can utilise to get them to their goal effectively. We have covered Voice, Inclination of the spine and Breathing already, next up is Eyes.




Many NLP practitioners, coaches and investigators have historically used eye movements in order to detect congruency. Whilst there can be no definitive way to detect a lie, it used to be widely accepted that eye movements indicate accessing different areas of the brain. Ever heard that someone looking to the right as lying? This is based on a lie requiring us to create an event instead of recalling one. Whilst recent studies have debunked this theory for telling the truth, the jury is still out on NLP eye accessing cues and how they help us understand how our coachee processes their world. Here is an NLP eye accessing cues image to help us understand how our coachee is representing and processing their world:

Whilst eye accessing cues can be useful, there are other key indicators of the eyes that are widely accepted, what do these mean to you?

  • Pupils dilation
  • Pupil contraction
  • Blink rate
  • Eyes narrowing
  • Eyes widening

As with above, we cannot account for medical conditions and it makes sense to utilise these as part of painting a larger picture, but generally speaking, this is what they can mean:

  • Pupils dilation – typically indicates that you like what you see
  • Pupil contraction – indicates focus
  • Blink rate – fast Blink rate may indicate stress
  • Eyes narrowing – disgust or distaste
  • Eyes widening – surprise or fear

With eyes covered, we need to move onto the final consideration of VIBES.



Whilst skin colour and tone can change based on multiple factors and with some skin tones it can be difficult to track certain changes – this links back in with everything we have said previously, tie it into other factors and parts of the VIBES model to build a picture.

The first consideration is whether our coachee has any skin conditions that are impacted by stress such as dermatitis or psoriasis. Could an outbreak indicate that our coachee is stressed? With that said, what do you think the below could mean?

Lips pursed

Lips relaxed

Muscles tensed

Muscles relaxed


Glossy skin

Ready to discuss what the above could indicate?

Lips pursed – tense, disapproval, irritation or disgust

Lips relaxed – calm and relaxed

Muscles tensed – angry, hostile or threatened.

Muscles relaxed – calm and relaxed

Goosebumps – Fear or excitement

Glossy skin – if caused by perspiration may indicate stress or anxiety


How do I use this when people are different?

As useful as all of this information can be, we know that everyone will have different baselines, some people may have a faster Blink rate or maybe they are shallow breathers. Perhaps their eyes move more or they naturally fidget. All of these factors may throw us off if we live by the 1 size fits all approach. Therefore it’s important that we calibrate with our coachee. By calibrating we can understand their baseline and therefore notice differences more clearly when using VIBES.


Calibration exercise

Calibrating with our Coachee enables us to see and hear how they process different emotions and states. Helping us to more effectively monitor our Coachee and bring them into a more beneficial mindset.

The calibration can be quite easy to do in theory but bear in mind that some people don’t like being read and will try to keep the impacts of their state hidden  or even reversed if they know you are looking for it. This means we need to do one or both of the following.

  • Bring state changes on naturally through the flow of conversation
  • Explain to your coachee why you are eliciting states in them

When developing Leadership skills in others, I and many other Leadership Coaches will explain the same tactics and tools we use to our Coachee. We also let them know we will utilise these same tactics on them. You need to be mindful when sharing this information, you ideally will need a good relationship with them first. Why?

The tool kit of a Leader and a Manipulator are almost exactly the same, the reason we use these tools are what sets us apart. A Leader and Coach uses these tools to help people grow and achieve, a manipulator uses them to purely help themselves. You may benefit from demonstrating that you care deeply about your Coachee before sharing this information as without understanding your intention to help them grow, they may feel used.

Remember – purpose counts. When our Coachee truly knows every tool we utilise is for their benefit and each technique we use is carefully applied to help them get towards their outcome, they understand and accept it. Much the same as when someone I have shared a tool or technique with uses it on me, I feel a sense of pride because:


  1. I know they’ve learnt
  2. I know they are trying to help me


The calibration exercise goes as follows:

  • Get your Coachee into a neutral state – ask them to think about something that isn’t overly stimulating such as the weather.


This will help you understand their baseline.

  • Ask your Coachee to think about a time they were overjoyed. Ask them to really step back into that moment, hear, see and feel it like it was happening again.


Watch the changes in their face, body language, breathing – remember VIBES.

  • Return your Coachee to a neutral state
  • Elicit a different state, such as one of disgust and repeat step 2 and 3 until you have built up a good understanding on how your Coachee looks within each state – or at least the states that will be valuable for them.


If you are new to Coaching, consider checking out our article on building an effective coaching structure by clicking here.

If one of your Coachee’s isn’t benefitting from your coaching style – could it be the wrong time for them to be coached? We have an article here about when to utilise coaching for maximum impact.

Finally, before our summary – if you are struggling to find an effective coaching model, here are 3 great tools you can use:

  1. GURUS – Our 5 step model, available on Amazon for £4.99 or FREE for Kindle Unlimited users.
  2. The GROW model – A staple in organisational coaching
  3. SMARTER goals – how to make your goal tangible

Sensory Acuity is simply paying attention to what is going on. It’s being present and monitoring your Coachee for their; Body language, Facial expressions, Skin tone changes, Eye movements, Vocal pitch, speed and volume – and Breathing. Giving us a valuable insight into how they think, feel and behave. VIBES is an easy way to remember what to look out for when helping our Coachee achieve their goal. It stands for; Voice, Inclination of the spine, Breathing, Eyes and Skin.

How we use these tools and techniques matter. Remember – as a Leader, we need to ensure that everything we do serves our Coachee and not ourselves. At the bottom of the page are some activities we can use to cement our understanding of Sensory Acuity.

Thank you for reading our article on Sensory Acuity. If you have found it valuable, please consider sharing it with others. Simon Tickner is the Author of G.U.R.U.S – The 5 step Goal Getting approach for Leaders, Coaches and people who want to win. You can get your copy on Amazon today: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B09PSPDK3W/ref=cm_sw_r_apan_ZX67GPS31TPVSPNF82RZ



  • Calibrations

Try our calibration exercises out with someone. Try to keep the conversation flowing naturally instead of just cutting and jumping from 1 state to another. Be persistent, the more you practice the better you get. Try with different people.


What does VIBES stand for?

  • Meanings:

Recall what these might mean:

  • Fast pace when talking
  • Quite voice
  • Using words such as ‘Maybe’
  • Arms folded and legs crossed
  • Sat upright, hands resting gently on their legs
  • Stood upright, legs more than shoulder width apart, hands clasped behind their back
  • Sat down but spread out on a sofa
  • Stood up, hands in pockets
  • Knees up against their chest, hands clasped around their legs
  • Hand across their mouth
  • Feet pointed towards the door
  • Rapid, shallow breathing
  • Slow, deep breathing
  • Top of their chest expanding on inhale
  • Diaphragm expanding on inhale
  • Lack of rhythm
  • Pupils dilation
  • Pupil contraction
  • Blink rate
  • Eyes narrowing
  • Eyes widening
  • Lips pursed
  • Lips relaxed
  • Muscles tensed
  • Muscles relaxed
  • Goosebumps
  • Glossy skin

If you are ready to take your coaching to the next level, consider booking in a free, no obligation session with us today:

Learning Styles – Facts, Fiction and Future

Have learning styles lost their shine?

Learning styles have been around for a long time, with the VAK model (Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic) being created in 1920 and Kolb’s model in 1984. Whilst there have been many adaptations throughout the years, alongside personality identifiers such as Myres-Briggs, there is little empirical evidence that they are right. Despite this lack of evidence though, the chances are you’ve heard people say they are a ‘visual learner’, an ‘INFJ’ or alternative at least once in your life! I know I’ve been guilty of it before…but it’s time to actually look at whether or not these tests have a positive impact on our ability to train and learn. 

The truth is, we have all likely been through at least one personality or learning styles test in our lives. Recent studies have tried to understand whether or not these techniques are beneficial or detrimental to our ability to learn. We are going to look at 3 of these studies today to discover; what Learning Styles are, understand what the science says, take a look at Learning Strategies and how you can create effective learning content.

What are learning styles?

Learning styles were explored as a way for people to identify how they learn, so that trainers, teachers and coaches could provide a method of communication that best suited the individuals they were working with. Whilst there will be more styles than those I have listed below, these are the main ones; Visual, Auditory, Kinaesthetic, Verbal, Individual and Socio-Interpersonal.

For example, Visual learners learn by seeing, so in order to cater for this style, the trainer should provide visual stimuli such as a PowerPoint presentation, a video, simple images of the topic being discussed or provide handouts that the learner can take away from the session and look at.  Auditory Learners need to hear the trainer speak, listen to music, read out loud and may prefer audio recordings instead or making notes.

The table below highlights the major styles, how people use them to learn and examples on how you can cater to these styles in a training room.

The 6 main Learning styles are meant to help people digest information by working on their strengths…but what does the science say about it?

The Science

To get a broad understanding of the scientific studies, we break it down into 4 main categories; Abilities vs styles, Multi-sensory, Style Scale and Strategy over Style. You will be able to make an informed decision by the end of this article on the value you place on Learning Styles and how you could utilise them to succeed.

1) Abilities vs Styles

In Lili Kumari Padhi and Deepanjali Mishra’s paper Learning How to Learn: An Analysis Through Styles and Strategies, they touch on the importance of working towards a person’s ability instead of their preferred learning style. This is because a persons preferred way of learning doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best way to teach them – you need to take into account the person and what they are able to do.

For example, if you have a Kinaesthetic learner and you are training them on how to differentiate between different types of snow (yup, there are!) – you may not be able to just give them 4 variations and let them get to work. They may not have the ability or knowledge to differentiate yet (me neither) so whilst Kinaesthetic learners will want to touch the snow and get to grips with it,  unless they already have a sound understanding on the different types of snow, they will still need verbal and/or visual instruction on how to identify their differences. Despite being a Kinaesthetic learner, they do not have the ability to just be taught using this style, they will need to blend it with other styles. If however, they had a sound understanding of the types of snow, getting hands on straight away may be beneficial to them – it all depends on ability.

The other consideration about ability is to ask yourself “am I teaching and training my delegates the most effective skills to learn and develop or just catering to their style?” – If you are training people on the works of a specific artist for example, your styles will mainly be visual – what brush strokes are used? What colours? How do colours contrast and blend? What style of painting is the artist known for? – All of these will require visual training aids and potentially kinaesthetic if you wanted your trainees to learn how to paint like the artist themselves.

Alternatively, take it to the next level, are you just teaching subject matter or are you giving your trainees valuable problem solving skills and learning strategies that they can utilise outside of the training room?

The key take away from this part of the study questions the validity of catering to a person’s learning style. What is more important for you? Getting your single message across or giving people the skills, tools and strategies to continue learning, adapting and evolving? Do you really want to rely solely on giving people information in their preferred learning style or do you want to mix it up and find more appropriate styles and strategies that will help them develop long-term skills and strategies?

2) Multi-Sensory

The science of learning shows us that we retain more information the more senses it passes through. Relying on a single style does not therefore give us the best opportunity to learn. In the case of our snow example, it may be an idea to watch a video on the different types of snow (visual) with narration covering the important differentiators (auditory) whilst having the snow available to touch (Kinaesthetic). By blending the different senses, our learner has a better chance of embedding the information.

We also need to consider that we cannot simply cater for each learning style. If for example, we were training people on identifying different genres of music, you may struggle to cater for Visual and Kinaesthetic learners as the majority of what you would focus on would be auditory. You would play the music and discuss it, visuals may not play a big part in the learning and neither would getting hands on with it.

In ‘Make It Stick’ the author Peter Brown discussed that it is much more important for the style to match what is being taught instead of what people prefer. For example, visual instruction for film studies or geometry, verbal instruction for poetry, and kinaesthetic activities for crafting. When the delivery matches the topic, the information embeds better in the learners mind.

3) It’s a scale

One key criticism of learning styles and other personality tests is that all results are really on a scale instead of being a concrete answer. For example, you could be introverted at work but extroverted at home. You could be a visual learner for art but and auditory learner for music. Our personality and learning styles work as a scale, based on the situation at hand. Looking at a paper by An and Carr, they highlight the importance of using multiple styles when learning.

Further to mixing your styles up, when we think in absolute terms it can damage our ability to teach and take in different sources based on our beliefs.  If you believe that you cannot learn using Visual methods, only auditory and that belief is based on a questionnaire or ’what feels right’ to you, your belief will limit the amount of information you can actually take in. If you aren’t so sure about that, in a 2007 study about mind-set, exercise and the placebo effect, researchers found that when cleaners were told that their job satisfied exercise guidelines, they became fitter in just 4 weeks – whereas the control group that were not told this information did not see these benefits. The full study can be found online but here is an extract from it:

In fact, science argues that learning styles can be worked on, increasing your abilities in each style. If you limit yourself by putting your ability to learn in a pigeon hole, maybe its time to break free of this limiting belief. It’s important to work on your strengths – absolutely but balance this with working on your development areas as well to give yourself and others the best chance to learn.

4) Strategy over style

Science is telling us that the best approach to learn is to adopt a strategy, not a style. In their 2016 paper titles “Learning strategies” Dr Yana Weinstein and Dr Megan Smith provide readers with multiple techniques and strategies to aid with learning. We will briefly touch on the following techniques from their paper: Spaced, Interleaving, Elaboration, Concrete examples, Dual coding, Retrieval. Alongside this, in Lili Kumari Padhi and Deepanjali Mishra’s paper, they also discussed Oxfords 1990 review, out of these we will explore Affective strategy, Social Strategy and Metacognitive strategy.


Spaced Practice

This is where you study the same material repeatedly but with gaps in between. For this to work, it’s a good idea to schedule in your practice. Make it frequent initially but as you become more familiar with the content, start to space it out slightly. For example, you may want to start with 4 times a week for an hour a day. It might look like this: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. You may then start creating longer times between the study sessions and potentially just using Monday and Thursday, then over time just Monday and then fortnightly and then monthly. What is important is to keep dipping into what you want to study over time. Research has found that studying on individual days commits to long term memory much more efficiently than cramming does.

Tip for yourself: Find the best time of the day for you to study and set yourself a schedule, use reminders on your phone. As recall becomes easier, begin to space out your practice more. For plus points, use Interleaving (discussed next) alongside Spaced practice. One tactic you can use is Flash cards with the topic on 1 side and on the other side, all of the key points you need to remember – this method falls into a subcategory called ‘memory strategy’.

Tip for training: Where possible, put your training into a journey. A month before training starts, email out an agenda for the training and key points / objectives. Include a quiz that makes people think – ask them questions they are unlikely to know the answer to yet but will after training (this falls into its own strategy called ‘Compensation’ and helps to embed learning through effortful thought). Use posters with quotes or key concepts around the office or via email. Consider small and bite sized elearning content that can explain a key point in a few slides. – Try to keep the words minimal and an image that connects the content. Build this strategy up until the training and deliver your amazing content. Consider how you could use Spaced Practice in the training room to recap. Post-delivery, email out a summary piece (think of a one page guide or similar) and resend the same quiz you sent out in the beginning. Ask your Leadership team to build the content into coaching sessions and so on.



This approach is where you look at different ideas within in a sequence, mixing up the practice instead of just focusing on 1 area such as with block studying. For example, if you had 10 maths problems, instead of doin 5 addition problems followed by 5 subtraction problems, it would be more effective to interleave the addition and subtraction like this:

  1. 1+2 =
  2. 3+1 =
  3. 2 – 5 =
  4. 6 + 8 =
  5. 3-9 =
  6. 7+2 =
  7. 10 – 6 =
  8. 4 – 3 =
  9. 2 + 6 =
  10. 1 – 3 =

In the above example, we have interleaved the subtraction and addition questions instead of blocking questions 1 – 5 as addition and 6 – 10 as subtraction. The theory behind this is that it challenges people to find the right method for each problem, it keeps them constantly thinking about the right approach and how to apply the right method rather than blocking out the same problem and just practicing and repeating the same approach. You can swap the order of your Interleaving practice to make it more varied and see if you can make connections between the different topics you are studying. You can interleave as many topics as you want.

Tip for yourself: Mix up different topics all together with your interleaving and change the order each time.

Tip for training: It may be difficult to verbally recap whilst jumping from 1 topic to another, so consider quizzes interlaced in the training that mix up different parts of the session.



This strategy involves explaining a topic in your own words, in as much detail as possible. It

is also where you connect new information to information you already know and experiences you have been through. This helps you to elaborate and connect with the material in new ways and can help you see it from different perspectives.

It is believed that the reason this works is that it helps you connect to the material on a deeper level and this in turn, helps your store and remember it:

One of the key techniques for Elaboration is covered in Weinstein, Madan and Sumeracki’s paper, it is called ‘Elaborative Interrogation’ and involves students questioning the material they are reading with ‘how’ and ‘why’ based questions. The next step is for the students to answer these questions, finding a deeper understanding than they would have got just by reading the material.

Tip for yourself: Write down the key concepts of the material you are learning, formulate questions about ‘how’ and ‘why’ the concept is there and works. Answer these questions and attempt to link it to your life experiences or other knowledge.

Tip for training: Get the team to brainstorm questions about the content and its main concepts. When they are done, get them to discuss each question and try to find the answers. Facilitate the discussion and where you can encourage the team to share experiences that are similar.


Concrete Examples

This strategy is used to give a tangible example of an abstract idea. Similar to elaboration in that you are connecting a theory or concept to help embed the learning. One of the best ways to do this is to provide multiple Concrete examples that vary on the surface but have the same guiding principles or structure on a deeper level. Having multiple examples allows you to recall the abstract idea or concept better than just having 1 concrete example. The issue with only using 1 concrete example is that you may remember the example better than the abstract idea, which isn’t the intention. The trick here is to make the concrete examples as clear and connected to the abstract idea as possible, leave out any irrelevant features.

Tip for yourself: Similar to Elaboration, think about how you can turn a key concept into a concrete example. Let’s take an abstract idea, such as Freedom, first we will look at what freedom can mean and then provide concrete examples.

Abstract: Freedom by definition is “the power to act, speak or think as one wants.”

Concrete example 1: The diversity and inclusion policy at work gave people the right to express themselves and work towards their strengths. This policy empowered Amber to utilise her differences effectively and complete project B to a high standard.

Concrete example 2: American president Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery.

Concrete example 3: In the film Croods 2 (spoiler alert!) Grug makes the decision to eat all of the bananas, despite the only rule being not to eat any of them. Perhaps if Phil had explained the issue to Greg and Guy in the first place, this wouldn’t have happened.

Concrete example 4: In the United Kingdom, the principle of Free Speech enables people to share ideas and opinions with others. Whilst freedom of speech exists, any communication that is threatening or abusive, and is intended to harass, alarm, or distress someone is not allowed. If you decide to conduct yourself in this way, you may face the consequences such as fines or imprisonment.

Concrete example 5: Stephen Downing was wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for a crime he did not commit.

Concrete example 6: In 1215 the Magna Carter acknowledged that subjects of the crown were entitled to legal rights. It also made it so that the law applied to Kings and Queens as well.

Tip for yourself: As you study, search for cases or situations that can be explained through the concept you are learning.

Tip for training: Provide multiple concrete examples that are different on the surface but have the same underlying principles. Consider placing examples around the room and getting people to walk from one example to the next in order to find the abstract ideas behind the scenarios.


Dual Coding

This strategy utilises Multiple senses or formats to convey a message. You could include a draw a picture that illustrates the text beneath it for example or have an image on your PowerPoint which covers the abstract concept whilst you verbal deliver concrete examples. Dual coding can include touch, smell and feelings as well. Simply put, the more senses you can bring in, the better the information will be anchored. Obviously you can’t make every study or training session packed with sensory stimulation otherwise it may lost its impact or lead to overload but consider the different senses and formats you can bring in to drive key messages home.

Tip for yourself: Consider how you can anchor the key concepts by using a mixture of visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, olfactory, emotions and so on. Try to connect what you are learning using a sensible format – you don’t want to evoke an emotion for every concept, its not always going to be possible to anchor a concept using a sense of smell – do what makes sense.

Tip for training: Use the space around the room or power point to include key images that will help people remember abstract concepts. Where possible and it makes sense, get people to recall memories and experiences and how they felt in those moments.


Affective Strategy

The focus point here is managing emotions and feelings, it looks at making learners feel comfortable, helps them regulate feelings, reduce anxiety and create a sense of motivation. Learning can cause anxiety in some learners, leading them to catastrophize, reach an Action Crisis (where you question whether the end result is worth the work you’re putting in) and potentially give up on their journey. Whilst we aren’t going into too much detail here, a good tactic consider is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. In this pyramid, you need to ensure that as many of the levels are covered as possible, so that people can be comfortable in their environment and focus on what they are learning.

The bottom layers cover basic needs – such as food, shelter, security and so on. As we travel up the pyramid, we look at social acceptance, self-esteem and the top layer achieving your full potential. If you are satisfying all of the needs on the pyramid, the learning will feel easier and people will be less likely to suffer from anxiety or be distracted by the other areas of concern on the pyramid. Let’s face it, if you are hungry, need the toilet or are stressing about losing your home, it will be difficult to concentrate on learning. Put yourself in a good place physically and emotionally to learn.

Tip for yourself: Make the room comfortable, ensure water is at hand and that you are not hungry going into your studying. Remind yourself of the end result of your learning, what you hope to achieve and take a few moments to recognise how far you have already come by setting out on this journey.

Tip for training: Prep the room, put water, pens and paper out ready. Check the temperature, lighting and layout of the room – does it create a learning environment? When people come into the room, set expectations about it being a safe environment to share ideas and support each other. Go through the agenda with rough timings so people know when the next breaks are and understand the learning journey you are embarking on together. During group discussions, be positive in your facilitation and explore answers that initially appear to be wrong. Create psychological and physical safety to put people at ease.


Social Strategy

This technique involves learning through others, whether it is in a group discussion, with a mentor or by seeking out an expert. When we link this to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we see the importance of social strategies at both the love and belonging stage and esteem stage. Bring others in as a way to group learn or seek out the knowledge of an expert.

Tip for yourself: Seek out an expert in the field or local groups with similar interests.

Tip of training: Include group discussions and ensure that there are not any overly dominant people in the group. You could bring an expert in to talk or find videos of them online that you can share.


Metacognitive Strategy

This refers to the awareness the learner has on how they learn and the strategies they are using. Some examples of metacognitive strategies that you can use are: reflection, understanding and working towards your strengths / on your weaknesses, Mnemonic Aids such as rhymes or associations, visualisation strategies and so on.

Tip for yourself: Read up on different strategies (there are more than we have covered here!!!), try them out over a few months and find a few that work best for you.

Tip for training: Keep training varied, see if you can link key parts of the training to something people will see every day. In ‘Make it Stick’ the authors talk about a psychology professor that took his team to numerous coffee shops, it was there that they connected key parts of what they had learnt to the layouts of each coffee shop, including the ornaments, seating, menus, uniform and so on. When it was time for their exam, the students visualised walking into the coffee shop and instantly knew where to go mentally in the venue to retrieve information.


So what does this mean?

As most recent studies point out, there is no evidence to suggest that working towards your preferred learning style actually works. In An and Carr’s study, they quote Mckay to drive home this point:

It appears that focusing on learning strategies is a much better solution for learning than focusing on learning styles. That doesn’t mean ignore them altogether though. What we do know is that the more variety you can bring into the training, the more engaging it is. Try to match the content with the learning style, it may not make much sense to cater for auditory styles when looking at images of cars to differentiate makes and models based solely on appearance.

Whilst I wouldn’t suggest catering your training or studying to preferred learning styles, it does make sense to use a variety of resources and techniques to increase engagement and help people remember key points on multiple sensory levels.

To add to this, some people fully identify with a specific learning style and they believe this to their core. It is incredibly difficult to educate people effectively when their identity is being called into question. In fact, you may be reading this and still thinking “Well, I still know I’m an Auditory learner! The science isn’t right for me.” – and that’s okay too. What’s important for people to acknowledge is that it is through hard work, that we learn the best. So if you have a learner who is adamant that they need to be taught in a specific style, help them understand that using a range of styles will help embed the material better because how hard they will have to work to assimilate the information. You can always use their (or your) preferred style of learning as a reward for going through the other learning styles.

We have discussed what learning styles are, looked at some more effective strategies to use both on ourselves and in the training room and briefly covered what that means for us going forward as Learning and Development professionals in the training room. At the bottom of this article you will find some resources that may help you plan and deliver engaging workshops based on scientifically proven learning strategies and ensuring your training is varied.

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Demolishing Doubt During the 5 Stages of Learning

Could you be damaging your psychological and physiological well-being when trying to achieve a goal or learn something new?

In a 2012 study about giving up personal goals, the researchers found that when we reach the stage in goal attainment where we believe the difficulty of the task outweighs the value of completing it (known as an action crisis) we not only damage our psychological and physiological wellbeing but we also smother our ability to evaluate the goal at hand effectively.

The thought of damaging our mental and physical well-being when facing difficulty may start to make sense when we reflect on the below questions:

  • Have you ever given up on something you wanted?
  • Have you ever felt so defeated and frustrated that you were unable to complete a challenge or task?
  • Have you ever felt like a failure for being unable to grasp what you initially perceived to be something simple?
  • Have you ever wondered why you even bother?

Each of the above questions may have conjured up negative feelings and memories for you, which helps us make sense of what they found in the study.

Most people will have given up on a goal or pursuit of a skill at least once in their life. Most of us know how that feels and the impacts it can have on our confidence, well-being and overall health. If this is or has been you, consider adding the 5 stages of learning to your tool kit, it can help you understand and combat some of these pain points so that you can more effectively push through these difficult stages and become an expert at your chosen skill.

Think about how good will you feel when this difficult task, skill or goal becomes so familiar to you that you can do it in autopilot. Better yet, how will you feel becoming so masterful that you will be able to teach your skill to others?

The goal of this article is to help you lead yourself and others through the 5 Stages of Learning – using empathy, coaching and persistence to get the best out of the situation. We will discuss the different stages, what they look like and how you can guide people through their learning journey. Supporting effectively through the difficult times and celebrating together through the successes.

What are the 5 Stages of Learning?

The initial model only had 4 stages of learning and was often displayed as a matrix instead of a pyramid. A final and 5th stage was added and it is now often displayed as a pyramid or ladder. The new model is the one we will look at today.

The 5 stages are used to describe the different phases people go through when they are learning something new. This allows you to understand where you or your Followers are on their learning journey, enabling you to find the best way to help progression through each stage. 

The author of this model is unknown, with different people claiming it as their own. Given this and the fact that we have been unable to find any real challengers to the theory, the 5 Stages of Learning look to be more of a universal truth rather than just a model. Whilst we will refer to it as the 5 Stages of Learning, you may have heard of it as the Conscious Competence Matrix or the Learning Matrix.

Whilst we will go through these stages in more detail later in the article The 5 Stages of Learning are:

  • Unconscious Incompetence
  • Conscious incompetence
  • Conscious competence
  • Unconscious competence
  • Reflective Competence

It’s time to break this model down into its individual phases:

Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence

Unconscious Incompetence is where we all begin on our learning journey. At this stage, it is simply impossible for us to grasp the scope of what we do not know. This is what we mean by Unconscious Incompetence – we are that incompetent, we don’t even know it!

Consider the arm-chair coach, who thinks they  know better than the actual coaches and the athletes on TV who have dedicated their lives to mastering a sport.

This stage could also be likened to a child that sees a parent driving, it looks simple – the child would probably be brimming with confidence about being able to drive because to them, all they need to do is turn a wheel. They don’t know anything about the degree in which to turn the wheel, let alone the theory, the law, road signs, traffic lights, crossings, clutch control, gears, indicators, fuel, engine checks and so on – They are unconsciously incompetent, they do not know the extent of how much there is to learn.

This was explained in Dunning & Kruger’s 1999 study where they identified that those with low competence greatly overestimated their actual competence levels and those with higher competency slightly underestimated their competency, in other words, it takes competency to identify competency!

So let’s put ourselves at this stage – we are blissfully unaware of what we don’t know, we are overestimating our abilities and our ego is telling us how great we are. What do you think a good thing to do here would be?

If you’re thinking take a step back and assess, you’re on the right track. We know that setting unrealistic goals is one way to make ourselves feel deflated when we inevitably fail to reach the impossible. We know that where we don’t prepare for a threat, we are less capable to deal with it and we know that when we don’t look at our strengths and available resources, we are not operating at our full capacity.

With this in mind, a SWOT analysis can be a useful tool to honestly look at your situation, your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats associated with this new learning journey.

From here you can use the SMART model (or any goal setting model) to set realistic goals. If you are looking to help others or have a wider group of people to train, consider a training needs analysis to build an effective program to support your learners.

Another useful tool to use at this stage is Situational Leadership. Hersey, Angelim, and Carakushansky (1982) found evidence that using the Situational Leadership model during a learning journey can help embed information and aid in learners development.

At this stage, we would look to utilise Directive leadership – a Telling approach where step by step guidance is provided. This helps yourself or others understand exactly what is involved in the task and can aid in repetitive practice.  This method also ties in the wider purpose and objectives associated to the steps so the learner can begin to understand the importance of these tasks. 

Think back to a time you wanted to learn a new skill, you likely sought out expert guidance in the form of books, people you respected, videos, podcasts and articles. These formats don’t engage you in discussion about what to do, they tell you what needs to be done. 

The benefits to this are:

– It provides clear steps on what you need to do

– It helps you understand why the steps are important

– When dealing with the unknown, an authoritative voice can build confidence 

– It helps you see how much work you need to put in, giving you realistic expectations

Pro Tip: Positive feedback is vital here to increase confidence and reinforce positive behaviours towards success.

Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence

As you begin to understand your development areas, the journey ahead of you and what skills you need to develop in order to be successful, you begin to move into the conscious incompetence stage. Here you are getting the grips with what you dont know.

Lets think about what this may be like.

We’ll take Jim for example, he has seen Mixed Martial Arts on TV, he is confident he can do it and that he will be a champion in no time (Unconscious Incompetence). He goes to his first training session and the following happens:

In the warm up session, Jim struggles to breathe and keep up with everyone else.

Then, someone smaller than Jim gets him to submit (give up) due to a submission.

Another person lands multiple body shots on Jim, who has never been hit before – causing more pain than he expected.

When practicing basic jiujitsu transitions, Jim struggles to get to grips with the movements.

Consider how Jim felt at the start of the session – full of confidence and ego. How is he feeling now? – take a few minutes to reflect on this.

Did you get the below?

  • Defeated
  • Low confidence levels
  • Unfit
  • Unworthy
  • Weak
  • Stupid
  • Like he’s made a mistake
  • Like he wishes he never started
  • Like he doesn’t see the value in continuing 

Jim is now conscious about what he doesn’t know – and that feeling can weigh a lot of people down, leading to regret, frustration and low self esteem. Knowing about this stage allows you to positively reinforce the correct behaviours or actions taken, helping to counter some of the negative feelings associated with Conscious Incompetence. This is the stage we will most likely reach an Action Crisis – where we question if the task is worth it and consider giving up. Try to remember that an action crisis isn’t good for you psychologically of physiologically. Your opinion on the worth of the goal will also be clouded by the difficulties you are facing. Be kind to yourself and others here, this is a normal phase to go through.

It’s important here to remind people why they are on their journey, consider Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle or emphasising their purpose, reignite the passion that caused them to start this journey. The Golden Circle works on the basis that your ‘Why’ should drive your ‘How’ and ‘What’. Your goals should be connected with a higher purpose, this will help you understand the importance of the task and can keep you going when your journey gets tough.

If we use Situational Leadership here, we would look for the Coaching or Selling style of leadership. Here we encourage people to work towards their own solutions using their experience alongside providing direction and reinforcing the purpose of the tasks and the outcome of their success.

Here are some great motivating questions:

  • What did I set out to achieve in the first place? How will it add value to my life?
  • What lessons can I take from this?
  • What did I do well and what am I proud of?
  • What can I do differently to make this a more valuable experience?
  • How can I use this to add value to others?
  • What will my life be like after I get back up and achieve?

Be patient with people here, understand that frustration and disappointment are normal and can make people react in less than beneficial ways. Mix empathy with positive reinforcement to help yourself or others build the skills to become competent.

There are other methods to motivate and rekindle passion – consider what works for you whether that’s a vision board, reviewing your end goals and the results of your success or even just understanding that discipline and resilience can get you through the process when motivation levels are low. This is a tough stage – so keep a clear picture in your mind of what awaits you when you pass it and begin to reach mastery.

Stage 3: Conscious Competence

By being resilient, getting back up and working on your skills you reach the next stage, conscious competence. Here, you are fully aware of what you know and the skills that are enabling you to be competent at the task you are performing.

You are aware of your actions as you do them, methodically working through the steps required, making conscious effort to perform each part of the process. This is a great time to celebrate, you have done it! All of your hard work had led to this moment and you deserve to be proud of yourself as you mindfully work your way through each part of the process you have just learnt.

At this stage, you still have to pay attention to what you are doing so take as many opportunities as you can to practice, embed and improve your skill set. Remember to celebrate how far you have come but understand that now is not the time to tick the skill off as complete and move onto something else. Encourage practice here to reinforce your skill or behaviour to really see progression and movement into mastery.

As you work on your own or your Followers confidence here, consider a facilitation style of leadership. This method can drastically improve confidence and motivation levels in skilled individuals. Practice your new skill in different situations and settings, making your practice varied and somewhat unpredictable can give you a greater understanding and ability to utilise your new skills. For example, if your goal was to throw a ball into a hoop that’s 10 feet away, you would be better if you practiced at varying distances of 5, 10 and 15 feet instead of just repetitions at 10 feet.

Support through reflection and questioning, allowing yourself or your Followers to apply your or their own thoughts, experiences and creativity to the newly learnt skill. Think about the different situations you have already or could use your new skill in, we know that when we can connect ideas from one skill to another, it helps embed and refine our understanding. This is called Elaboration and was discussed in Peter Browns, Henry Roediger III and Mark McDaniels book ‘Make it stick – The Science of Successful Learning’ – here’s what they said:

Stage 4 Unconscious competence

The penultimate stage (or final in the original model) is Unconscious Competence. Here, you are so skilled that you don’t need to think about what you are doing, the process happens in autopilot.

At face value this sounds like a great state to be in and whilst it does have its advantages, it actually comes with it’s own set of risks. What do you think some of the risks could be for someone who is Unconsciously Competent? – take a few moments to consider this before moving on.

Did you get the below?

  • Overconfidence
  • Complacency
  • Mistakes get made
  • Bad habits may get reinforced
  • You stop looking for efficiency or improvement
  • You may stop reflecting
  • You may not be teaching or coaching others
  • You may not be empathetic to those going through the other stages of learning – you have forgotten your journey and don’t understand why others don’t find it as easy as you.

Unconscious Competence is great for automating but as you can see, operating at an unconscious level has its risks.

Some great methods to combat this Unconscious Competence stage come from the next step of the Learning Matrix – so don’t rest here for long!

Stage 5: Reflective Competence

As you have likely gathered, a person that has spent a lot of their resources and efforts getting to the Unconscious Competence stage, to then discover that potentially the best way to be consistently good and attentive to your skill is to step back down to Conscious Competence, could be quite disheartening.

Numerous people have put in a new fifth stage of the Learning Matrix – Reflective Competence. This creates a level above Unconscious Competence, creating real expertise and mastery. Remember the Dunning-Kruger effect? Being this skilled allows you to rate competency in others and identify where on the learning journey they are! What does that mean though? Well, it varies from author to author but here’s a summary below of a few key points.

Linking theories

Reflective Learning can create ‘lightbulb’ moments where you can connect what you have learnt to different situations. a eureka style moment where you gain a deeper understanding – this is the Elaboration method we looked at before.

Early on in my leadership career, I was given the task of bringing an entire new policy and process to a different part of the company I was working with. I had come from a site the policy and process had been created and tested on and was told there would be resistance to the change at the other site. The culture at this other office, despite being the same company was vastly different. My approach was very matter of fact with the process changes and made the process much harder than it needed to be. Whilst this initially inspired me to research change management and influencing techniques, which improved my relationshp management skills, it wasn’t until reading the book ‘Scaling Up Excellence’ by Huggy Rao and Robert Sutton, that allowed me to reflect on my approach almost a decade later with a ‘lightbulb’ moment, connecting the dots for me in ways that my other research and experience hadn’t. It felt like I had flipped a switch where I instantly understood the times to be strict with process and policy implementation and when to allow for culture to influence the change, I saw my mistakes now not just from an influencing and relationship management perspective but also understood what makes the most business sense and how to establish essential parts of process implementation versus ‘nice to haves.’

A key message here is to ensure you reinforce yourself and others at this stage, it isn’t an easy task to keep assimilating and adapting – keep morale high by celebrating that you are still learning and evolving. True masters of a skill look out for ways to refine their technique further and rarely rest at their current level.

Reflecting on performance

This is a great way to maintain competence in a field. Thinking about how and what you did to accomplish your activity enables you to find errors and areas of improvement as well as focus on the most efficient and effective parts of your process. By reflecting, you begin to reinforce your skills and behaviours, rewarding and training your brain by focusing on the right actions. Let’s say you want to work on your communication skills, after each meeting you could take time to reflect on the following:

Who spoke the most and what was the reaction to this?

Who was the most effective at listening and how do I know this?

What body language was used?

Who was most influential?

How conscious of this was I in the moment?

You can quickly develop your own reflective questions when you understand what it is you want to work on.

Pro Tip: We tend to have reflection templates in the resources part of each article we write for you to utilise, check them out and consider which type of questions work well for you in order to create your own reflection template.

Teaching others

Noticing incompetence in others is regarded as one of the key skills linked with Reflective Competence. It gives you a great opportunity to establish where in the Learning Matrix others are in order to effectively guide them through it. As much as you may think you know about a certain topic, it is only when you begin to teach it that your understanding reaches new depths. When you reflect over the task, the best way to accomplish it and how you will transfer this knowledge to someone else, you begin making more connections and thus build a deeper understanding. Teaching others ensures you are at the top of your game as you will have to keep up to date with your skills and the wider field to ensure you are in the best position to train others.

Exercise: Consider something you are proficient in, take 15 minutes to write down all of the skills or attributes that make you great at it.

Next, list the ways you could impart your knowledge, skills and attributes to others. Write down how they could use this knowledge to become proficient themselves. How could you get your understanding across to others as simply as possible? Notice how you feel about this exercise, have you achieved a greater understanding just by doing this alone? Take it a step further, write a session plan and deliver it to someone, how did this engagement make you feel? What did you learn from it?


The 5 Stages of Learning are:

Unconscious Incompetence – Here, you have no idea how much you there is to learn. As such, people at this stage are often over confident. A SWOT analysis to take stock of your strengths and weaknesses. Its important here to be realistic about your abilities as the higher your confidence is at this stage, the tougher the next stage will be for your ego to manage.  Directive or Telling approaches work well here.

Conscious Incompetence – At this phase, you are aware of how much you need to learn. It can be tough here to persevere as you weigh up the difficulty of the task and the end result. Use compassion, empathy, celebration and coaching to support people through their frustrations during this stage. Remember, 1 step a day is 365 steps a year – you’ll be miles ahead of the person who isn’t trying.

Keep yourself and others focused on the purpose of the mission, use coaching to help embed the learning and encourage people to adapt and overcome barriers. This is where you are likely to enter an ‘action crisis’ so use positive reinforcement and seek support on whether to keep trying, change your approach or identify a new goal. Being disheartened at this stage can unfairly influence whether you want to stick at the goal or not, a coach can help you find the best way forward.

Conscious Competence – This stage is where things start to click, you are skilled but you need to think about what you are doing. Keep practicing, getting feedback and reflecting at this stage to move into mastery.

Unconscious Competence – This phase is where your skill becomes almost auto-pilot. It takes very little effort to think about what you need to do – its second nature. Reward yourself for getting this far but be mindful not to linger here for too long, that can be risky.

Reflective Competence – The final stage is where you can identify competence in others and use your skills and knowledge to train people. Link theories together, reflect on your performance and train others to keep your skills sharp and effective.

Take some time to consider your skill sets and where within the five stage of learning you are for each skill. What was the most useful thing you will take from this article and how will you support yourself and others through the Stages of Learning?


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– 5 stages of learning one page guide

– 5 stages of learning reflection template

– 5 stages of learning Guidebook

File Name: 5-stages-of-learning-guidebook.pdf