Training your people and getting results can be a complex and, let’s face it, frustrating process. Getting your people from a state of not knowing to being confident to take on tasks independently can, unfortunately, involve frustration on your part as the teacher and on the learner’s part as they criticise themselves for not knowing. The secret to reducing this frustration and achieving results with training is through a more compassionate approach which is enabled by the Learning Ladder. Keep reading to discover how the Learning Ladder can empower you and your teams to achieve training excellence.

What is the Learning Ladder useful for?


In short, the Learning Ladder is a way of describing the process of learning and identifying where learners are at. Understanding the four stages of learning can really help you to get the best out of yourself and others during the learning process. It is sometimes presented as a linear ladder or as a matrix:

Stage 1 – Unconscious Incompetence

You don’t know that you can’t do it.

At this stage of learning, people are generally happy in relation to the skill or activity in question because they are blissfully unaware of the existence of that thing. This can sometimes be problematic for others who are at a more advanced level. Sometimes we take for granted the skills that others may or may not have because our own experiences form the basis of our perspective.

To move out of this stage we need awareness. Someone or something to help us realise that a particular skill exists, and we don’t have it yet. This needs to be done sensitively and constructively.

Stage 2 – Conscious Incompetence

You know that you can’t do it.

At this stage people’s emotions depend on their attitude to the skill or knowledge in question. They can be very happy very happy indeed – either because they are not interested in learning that skill or because they are accepting that they are not ready for it. Or they may feel a range of negative emotions (incapable, dejected, pressured, inadequate, frustrated) because they identify that they would like to be able to do something but can’t.

Ideally, what would happen at this stage is someone would make a proactive decision i.e. “I can’t do ______ YET, but I would like to learn.” They would then undertake a process of tuition, training, practice and / or research in order to begin learning the skill.

This stage of learning is the hardest place to be. This is the place where we are most likely to feel like giving up. There may not be any concrete results yet, but awareness of others’ performance is high and this can lead to self-doubt. To successfully move out of this stage we need resilience and self acceptance.

Stage 3 – Conscious Competence

You know that you can do it.

At this stage people generally feel satisfied with themselves but can also be tired after long periods of time doing the activity because of the effort it takes. They may also be slower or slightly less ‘polished’ than someone at stage 4 – which may come with a small dose of negative comparison.

It is especially important, at this stage, to build in time to properly rest as this stage is so tiring. If someone is at this stage in multiple areas of their life e.g., new job and new house then they may have higher stress levels.

To move on to the next stage, practice is needed. Continuing to put in extra hours will hone skills, make things more automatic and more effortless.

Stage 4 – Unconscious Competence

You don’t know that can do it.

At this stage, the skill has become so integrated that you hardly even have to think about it, and sometimes don’t appreciate the difficulty involved in doing it. Most people who are responsible for training others are at stage 4. This can be problematic when your learner or mentee is in such a different place. To be able effectively train others, empathy is essential – remember what it was like for you when you were learning and appreciate that the other person needs time.

Achieving stage 4 doesn’t necessarily mean that a skill is secured for life. Changes of circumstance can require you to move back down the ladder (such as driving in another country). To stay at this stage, you need to continue practicing to maintain a good skill level and be aware of new information. Many things may interrupt your flow; when you are knocked back down the learning ladder, it is important to continue to practice self acceptance.


Marcel looks at the screen over Jenny’s shoulder, rolling his eyes. “No, you input the figure from form 2a before you can calculate the overall output.” He declares in frustration. Jenny grimaces and sinks down in her chair a little. “It’s been 5 days,” she thinks, “Everyone else can do it, I ought to remember this by now.” Marcel lets out a heavy sigh and looks at the clock. “Right, let’s go again.”

Who do you spend more time feeling like? A frustrated teacher who can’t seem to find that moment when the penny drops? Or maybe a slow student who isn’t learning the ropes fast enough? What if you applied the Learning Ladder and a more compassionate approach, how might things be different for your people?

Marcel looks at the screen over Jenny’s shoulder, smiling. “Remember to input the figure from form 2a before you calculate the overall output.” He says reassuringly. Jenny gives a short sigh and changes it. “It’s been 5 days,” she thinks, “I can do the first half of the form now, but I still need to work on getting this order right.” Marcel says “Don’t worry about it. You’re making progress each day and it took me a while when I first learned too. Let’s go again.”


As you can see, the Learning Ladder is a powerful tool for approaching training with compassion and empowering your people throughout their learning journey. This is training that gets results. For more support in engaging your teams and delivering learning programmes with a difference, get in touch with us today. The Self Leadership Initiative has been empowering teams like yours to deliver real impact in the world for 7 years.