Experience May Not Always Be Your Best Teacher

Our global exposure, whether it’s through the Internet, travel, relationships, or other influences, requires us to be more versatile, if we choose evolution as a way of life.

Do you have an unresolved health issue or lifestyle need? Solutions or at least improvements may be accessible in places and through disciplines you haven’t yet explored. When your children partner with people whose cultural affiliations differ from yours, adapting to what matters in these relationships invites you on the journey with them. If you’re managing a global team, you may need to shift your predominant work styles since the values that drive managerial effectiveness vary across cultures.

The Center for Creative Leadership (ccl.org) offers a series of guides “for the practicing manager.” The strategies suggested in “Becoming a More Versatile Learner*” can be applied to almost any challenge.

CCL identifies four sets of learning tactics, described below. I included public speaking as an example for each tactic given its critical role in “executive presence:”

Acknowledging your feelings and resulting behaviors (e.g., avoidance, procrastination, etc.) as they relate to a learning challenge frees you to better manage anxiety and uncertainty. Identifying factors that contribute to your reactions, and recognizing the emotions of others prompts you to accept what is required, and mobilizes action.

For example, you determine that the panic which sets in when you need to perform, or speak in public relates to your fear of being judged or ridiculed (i.e., hurt), and to doubt about the value you bring. Conceding that forward movement in your career requires you to take start-up steps to improve your agility as a presenter, you enroll in an improvisational comedy class and regularly visualize yourself in a state of “flow” while addressing a group. In this visualization, you maintain an open body posture that’s supported by the ground beneath you. You feel at ease, calm, excited, and connected with the energy of participants, such that you are collectively a part of the outcomes of the talk. Replacing the panic reaction you know all too well with a repeated experience of your “flow” vision can reset your mind-body memory, much like relearning an exercise technique resets your muscle memory. LA-based actor, acting coach, writer, and producer Benson Simmonds (bensonsimmonds.com) suggests: “Instead of focusing on what people will think of you, focus on what you have to contribute. Focus on what you want to communicate and how you want to inspire others with your words.”

This tactic involves confronting challenges “head-on” by learning “in the line of fire,” sometimes with limited preparation or information. An example might be moving to a country where you don’t know the language, and learning by working and immersing yourself in that culture. A child who takes apart a toy and learns the mechanics of it well enough to put it back together is using an action tactic.

Action tactics for public speaking might include stepping up to address a group spontaneously, without planned remarks. While proficient public speakers often prep extensively, many speak naturally as occasions present themselves. They develop an ability to present organized thinking improvisationally, in part by engaging their emotions in the moment. Here are some ways to begin practicing: volunteer yourself to make a toast at a company dinner, offer remarks at a colleague’s resignation party, or participate in a training role play; accept an invitation to serve as a guest for a podcast; and conduct a Q & A session based on your expertise. Evaluating yourself, and inviting others to do so can help you to better manage feedback and prioritize your learning needs. Speaking to varied audiences, and in diverse forums, such as radio, TV, special events, and professional development programs, might require different skills sets and styles.

These tactics engage logic and analysis by looking at hypothetical situations and past events to inform current decision-making and buy-in. They include the ability to think independently, conduct research, integrate data from different sources in a cogent way, and extrapolate one’s own assessment of problems and solutions. Drawing on how you approached a similar situation, like a personal or professional loss, to generate positive results, can guide your response to anticipated or present-day circumstances.

Thinking tactics for public speaking include identifying the factors that contributed to your “peak experiences” as a presenter. The moments when you felt at your best might have been spontaneous (i.e., you didn’t have an opportunity to overthink your words!), or well rehearsed. You may have showcased your talent as a storyteller, meditated, and laughed hard before the talk to release tension. Maybe you outlined a few talking points in your head to speak in a thoughtful, organized way without sounding scripted. Trusting yourself to adjust your plans when new information emerges is another important thinking tactic. If you’re dressed formally, and come to see that your audience is “corporate casual,” removing your jacket or tie can enhance your relatability. Polling attendees may also help you to change the course of your talk to target issues that are of greatest value to them.

Accessing Other’s Tactics
Enlisting the expertise and guidance of others who have skillfully achieved goals or handled situations similar to yours is key to this tactic. Benefitting from the talents of others may also take the form of learning by observing them, participating in training programs, and using other learning tools.

Observing people who speak for a living, inviting the help of a coach who specializes in presentation skills, seeking the advice of a mentor, and co-presenting with professionals whose expertise complements yours, are reflective of this tactic.

CCL points out that relying too much on a preferred style for learning can limit growth from experience. For example, over-relying on feeling tactics may result in indecisiveness and cause others to perceive you as being too “soft.” Those who predominantly prefer action tactics may make decisions prematurely, wasting resources unnecessarily. In contrast, leaning disproportionately on the detailed information gathering of thinking tactics can be out of sync with the pace of production that is required in certain environments. Over-focusing on independent thinking can lead to forfeiting the advantages of shared decision-making. Counting too much on accessing the tactics of others may interfere with relying enough on your own judgment and capabilities.

Limiting your learning tactics is similar to how eating the same foods can incite food sensitivities, compromising your nutritional intake, immune system and overall health. It’s also a reason that years of experience does not imply expertise; we can learn more in three months of becoming more versatile than in years of sticking with our preferred ways of approaching challenges.

You may have a sense of which learning tactics you use the most, and which would enable you to more efficiently and effectively fulfill your growth needs. Honing the proficiency with which you integrate the various tactics can minimize your learning curve. This can be especially valuable in stagnant areas of your life where you need to focus immediate attention while change is still possible.

Source: Dalton, M. A. (1998). “Becoming a More Versatile Learner.” Greensboro, NC: Center for Creative Leadership.