A universal drive of people is to be competent and to become more competent. This drive for competence manifests itself in many aspects of life. Seeing oneself as competent and having the experience of becoming more competent contributes strongly to well-being. This is not only the case in the beginning of life. It remains so well into old age. Two factors are extremely helpful for enjoying the benefits of competence and its development. The first factor is the belief that your competence can be developed. I have written a lot about the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset (read this for some background information). A growth mindset, believing that your competence can be developed through effort, is a prerequisite for continued growth. The second factor is knowledge about how competence can be efficiently developed. Two critical things are useful to know about competence development.


One is that it may take much more effort and time than you might think. To become exceptionally good at something takes exceptionally much time and effort. Do you know classical pianist Lang Lang? He is celebrated as one of the best pianists in the world. Is that because he -obviously- is so talented? Of course, talent may play a role. But did you know that he once explained that he started playing the piano when he was 2 ½ years old, practiced 8 hours a day for the next 15 years, and now still practices 3 hours a day, without missing a day?

 

The second thing that is important to know is how practice is done most effectively. This best way was discovered through research and is called deliberate practice. With deliberate practice you design exercises which have specific goals. The goal is to stretch your skills. So the exercise should be just right. It should be hard, but no too hard. Therefore, in designing the exercise, it is important to know what you are now good at and what now find difficult. You practice small (and challenging) pieces of a task and arrange that you will get reliable and immediate feedback. You repeat a lot until your performance becomes better and better. You are constantly aware of how hard you find it and you notice specifically the parts of your performance that need improvement and continue to work on them in order to improve them. The process can be seen as one of eliminating errors (at least when there is a clear norm about what good performance is). If you are ambitious you will probably need to practice for hours a day (say 3- 5 hours) while taking regular short breaks. It is important to recognize that you are constantly stretching; practicing at the borders of your competence and that there may many moments of frustration.

 

In our solution-focused training programs we use deliberate practice to help participants develop their competence. Together we design small exercises which are aimed at improving their solution-focused skills. In order to this we may ask them what they find challenging in doing solution-focused conversations or what they are afraid of that might happen in a conversation. Then they practice, we provide feedback, they repeat, there is again feedback, and so on. While doing this, the exercise evolves in such a way that it remains challenging to them. This type of exercise requires a particular kind of ‘deal’ between the trainer and the participant. This is so because, during this process, it sometimes looks as if the participants experience some frustration, sometimes a lot of frustration (“WHY am I making this mistake again!”). This may happen when, as a trainer, we give honest detailed feedback on a micro level. Why do they allow us to do this? The reason is that, afterwards, they nearly always tell us that the exercise has been extremely useful to them. Yesterday, a participant put it this way: “This is the type of feedback I usually never get and it is very helpful!”

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