How Unlearning Gets Change Stuck

Unlearning is often part of difficult change. It is a process with specific stages and there are obstacles you need to overcome to move from one stage to the next. Ignoring Unlearning may mean running into invisible walls. Knowing how to guide people through Unlearning allows you to see those invisible walls so you can help people bypass or overcome them.

To intuitively understand Unlearning, we should probably start with what Unlearning is not.

Try to think of a time you learned a brand new skill. It can be anything from deliberately learning how to swim to more subconsciously learning how to respond to conflict. Which steps did you take in order to learn something brand new? For skills like swimming, most people say they learn by observing, collecting information, and through trial and error. For less deliberately acquired skills like how we respond to conflict, most people say they learn from observing others around them and from the meaning they assigned to specific experiences in the past. Either way, when we learn, we only add something new. With than in mind, try to imagine a skill or response you've been reinforcing for a long time. If at some point, you decide to significantly change the way you apply a skill, how do you think the Unlearning involved will be different from learning?

In what way is learning to change the way you swim different than learning to swim for the first time? How is unlearning your previous responses to conflict and adopting new responses to replace them any different from learning how to respond to conflict in the first place? Most people recognize Unlearning is more difficult than learning, that with Unlearning we are working against preexisting patterns, and that because of those patterns, Unlearning-related change requires much greater awareness and attention. But to most, unlearning seems like a vague process. Unfortunately, in many cases, unless this vague process is managed correctly, it will interfere with the acquisition of the new.

Until recently, the challenges of Unlearning were invisible to us. Now, thanks to developments in neuroscience, we have access to identifying critical obstacles in the Unlearning-relearning process. Knowing what those obstacles are allows us to guide people through the acquisition of new skills much more effectively, quickly, and consistently.

When people need to acquire new behaviors and skills they often simultaneously need to unlearn previously “reinforced” behaviors, responses, and skills to “make room” for new ones. Traditionally, we used to only focus on training people to use new skills and behaviors without managing the process of letting go of preexisting ones. For example, we may provide leadership development programs that focus on what ideal leadership practices should be acquired, without managing the letting go of previous leadership practices which were in practice to that point. We may try to facilitate a culture change and train people to adopt new values, skills, and behaviors without managing the letting go of previous values, skills, and behaviors. Ignoring Unlearning doesn't make the challenges associated with it go away. It just means they may come up in a less predictable way and get us stuck. Unless the Unlearning of certain previous beha