The 6 Best Ways to Learn a New Skill


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High-Stake Interventions — New Ideas Issue 3 September 17, 2006

The 6 Hardest and Best Ways to Learn a New Skill
by Francis Wade


Coming up with a new topic each month for this eZine is an interesting exercise. Whereas I can happily put anything I want in my blog, and just “follow the way the wind is blowing,” I started to think that I should choose only “official” and “serious” topics for the eZine. The problem with doing that, is that I then began to focus on writing what I “should” rather than what I enjoy.

A wonderful book on the art of writing called “Weinberg on Writing,” advocates writing only about that which inspires, without exception. To break that law is to court real trouble, I am learning, as the “serious” topics are the ones that I find the hardest to complete.

Furthermore, finding the time to write “official” material seems to be impossible. People often ask me: “Where do you get the time to write?” When I follow Weinberg’s advice, and ignore my own fears, the answer is easy — I follow my own, positive, inner energy, and the result is a virtuous cycle of “needing to write” from which I have been unable to escape since I started writing my first blog last year.

And yes, I am loving it!


The 6 Hardest and Best Ways to Learn a New Skill

Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.
Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC)

Sometimes the best way to learn a new skill is to take the most difficult path.

The most effective, and by far the most challenging form of skill development I have found occurs using video-based training, accompanied with immediate “full frontal feedback.”

How does it work? Here is the recommended recipe in 6 Ways.

1. Start with a new interpersonal skill that is difficult to learn to do well.

It might be listening, motivating, reflecting or probing. Or, it might be a combination of several skills such as coaching, public speaking, performance feedback or selling.

In most cases of superior performance, the formula is simple:
success = frequent practice + unique distinctions.

Frequent practice involves creating multiple learning opportunities to improve performance. Unique distinctions are principles or mental models that are used to achieve better performance, but may only be used subconsciously by the most successful performers.

2. Create a workshop or seminar in which the new skill can be learned through repeated practice. Attempt to simulate the real environment in which the skill is to be used, and then provide opportunities to try different approaches, and learn from repeated attempts.

For example, if the skill is selling, a workshop could be built
around roleplays of typical, but difficult, selling situations.

3. To maximize learning, set the training up as an
opportunity to receive feedback. As the repeated practice is
undertaken, provide a combination of real-time feedback after each session, using coaches that are familiar to the
participant, and also new one coaches.

Working colleagues serve wonderfully as familiar sources of
feedback. They know the participant, and can explicitly or
implicitly include their past experience in the feedback they are giving during the simulated practice sessions. Sometimes, they find themselves providing a participant with feedback that they have been wanting to give for some time.

To balance the feedback given by colleagues, include someone new in the group giving feedback to provide a source of “fresh” insight. This person can double as the group’s facilitator.

4. To ensure that feedback is given at a rate at which
the participant can use it, ensure that the facilitator is
experienced in working with executives and senior managers.

5. Use video-tape recording to capture the simulated roleplay, and to replay key moments. This ensures that the feedback given is based on the factual events from the simulation as they are recorded, as opposed to how they are remembered.

6. Provide sound principles to participants at the precise moment when they are looking for clues on how to improve performance. These principles might be known to experienced managers from prior training. However, they gain new life when they can be used immediately to improve roleplay performance. Once they have heard the principles, give them a chance to practice them in untaped replays until their performance visibly improves.

The formula is simple enough. But, as someone who has used these 6 Ways in training managers throughout North and South America, I can say that the first reaction of participants is usually one of anxiety. Most people shy away from the mere idea of being taped. The few that welcome it are taken aback when they understand that the tape will be scrutinized by a group of their peers for immediate feedback!

Furthermore, most participants experience a slight shock when they see themselves on tape for the first time, struggling through a difficult roleplay.

When the feedback starts, most are quite nervous at being so
exposed, and wary about what they are about to hear. Being this naked can be unnerving.

Yet, most report at the end, that it is the best opportunity they have ever had to practice and learn at the same time.

Some of the reasons given are that the feedback is based on
recorded fact, rather than interpretation or memory. They
appreciate the numerous opportunities to practice and learn. It is easier to learn and use the principles, even if they are not
new, as participants can immediately see how they help.

Participants often report a particular surprising discovery.

Often, it starts with a feeling of embarrassment at a
less-than-stellar performance. It continues with feedback,
and further practice. It ends with a successful redo of the
roleplay that is warmly acknowledged by the group as a

Participants say they are surprised that the new approach they are trying feels strange, unfamiliar and even uncomfortable, in spite of being told that their performance in the replay has visibly improved. We liken this to learning to write with one’s non-preferred hand.

This is all the encouragement that a participant needs to give up old habits and learn new practices. They demonstrate that even though this method is nerve-wracking, it is ruthlessly effective.

In a recent project, we were able to use the 6 Ways to deliver training to 80+ executives in three Caribbean region countries from a single company. These top-level managers were able to receive more feedback from their peers in a single session than they had ever received before, and many were able to demonstrate immediate, observable improvements in skill.

It helped us see that, like their extra-regional counterparts,
the 6 Ways are an effective, but challenging way to teach critical skills.

Next Steps
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