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Chapter 11:

Conscious Competence

“Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”
—Oscar Wilde

“Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something.”


It’s a bit broad, but if I were to bumper-sticker this lesson, it would read: Pay Attention!

But that’s too general. What I really want is for you to not be on autopilot in certain high-leverage stages of preparing for, and executing, important meetings. Another way to think about autopilot is something called unconscious competence. When a baby is born, they can’t tie their shoes, and they aren’t even aware that’s a skill they need to have. That is unconscious incompetence. When they get a bit older, they become aware that they need the skill, but lack it and still need help. Then they are consciously incompetent.

When they do become skilled, however, especially the first few times, watch how they are totally focused on the task in front of them, being intentional to ensure success. That’s called conscious competence.

Eventually, though, they have shoe-tying on autopilot and can succeed with little to no conscious thought. That’s unconscious competence. Operating on an unconscious competence level is fine for many things, but when getting a good result is important, it’s good to reexamine those bits where we’ve gone on autopilot and regain our conscious competence.



 Even if we’ve had thousands of meetings, we will always do better if we can revert to a consciously competent level in preparing certain high-leverage parts of the meeting or conversation. It needn’t take long, but it is axiomatic that we get better results when we’ve got a plan.


























I emphasize and recommend thoughtful planning for:

  • Being crystal clear about your objective

  • Using the first 90 seconds to get you and your client aligned

  • Creating the best environment for a conversation

  • Putting forth the most confident and persuasive version of yourself


One thing that’s worth special mention here, especially in light of the seismic shift our culture is undergoing at the time of this writing, is to add cultural competence to your skills and awareness. There are volumes written, mostly of late, that address the interplay of cultural differences in a wide variety of settings. The Internet is bulging with helpful information. Use it. It's your responsibility to know your audience, so if cultural differences seem as if they might be an impediment to your being able to clearly communicate your message and interact in a way that promotes trust and respect, you have a little extra preparation to do. (21)

Research the basics about the culture of your audience. Consult with colleagues or learned friends. Don’t stereotype. Pay attention to potential gender dynamics. Ensure that all parties are on the same page about process and expectations. Explain your decision-making process and ask for theirs.

This advice may seem basic, but most people don’t prepare like this and it shows. When I taught this material to high-level executives, they unfailingly told me they wished they had learned this much earlier in their careers. Don’t wait. Start using these tools right away and reap the benefits.


(21) Here’s an example. When I was a lay preacher, I was asked to fill the pulpit at a predominantly black church, on Martin Luther King Sunday, no less. The hazards of a privileged white man, a stranger, turning in a cringe worthy performance was obvious. I already clap on 2 & 4, but but I had no idea how the spirit moved in this congregation. So, I scouted services the pevious Sunday and heard the call and response was the same as every Baptist or AME service I had attended. Nothing too unique. That week, I wrote a long- forgotten sermon titled, 'One nation under the bed.' My fervent wish was to speak from the heart, with love, and to avoid the temptation to tell anyone anything that was not rooted in my experience. It went very well. Meaning, I felt authentic.

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