Unconscious Incompetence

In the conscious competence ladder within psychology the bottom rung that we all begin at is unconscious incompetence, or unconsciously unskilled. It is a skill or knowledge that we are unaware of and therefore do not know that we need to work on it. You progress up the ladder by becoming consciously incompetent – learning of the skill but not how to do it- before becoming consciously skilled and finally unconsciously skilled whereby a task becomes so easy you do not need to think about it. For example doing things on “autopilot”. This idea of unconscious and conscious awareness has been something that I’ve been reflecting upon lately.

I am constantly telling Finn to speak up if he doesn’t understand something but that doesn’t solve the problem of misunderstanding something. These are two problems that arise on a daily basis for us and although they appear similar, they feel worlds apart.

When Finn doesn’t understand something it is usually because the sentence structure is complex, the language used is complex or the speaker is simply talking too quickly or with an accent. It’s easy to spot when you’re looking for it as his expression turns a bit blank or he looks as though he’s tuned out. In that case it is easy to try and rectify the situation by either bringing him back into the conversation and slowing things down or trying the make the subject of the conversation more accessible for him. Its something that those of us close to him should be doing consistently anyway but its easy to forget.

Misunderstanding though is an entirely different beast. You don’t know that it has happened at the time. It usually comes to light through his subsequent actions. For example a task that doesn’t get done, an action being taken that wasn’t required or appropriate,  or something being done incorrectly. This is the one that causes problems, frustrations, arguments and tears.

On a family holiday recently as we sat there telling Finn that it was safe to be vulnerable with us. That there was no judgement if he didn’t understand us, if he needed us to slow down or repeat something it dawned on me (yes after 4 years) that if he doesn’t realise he hasn’t understood us then he can’t ask us to help him remedy it.

So what then is the solution? Back in the early days when it was more likely that he didn’t understand us than he did, we would use repetition, writing and pictures to help. These things all fazed out naturally as Finn improved but there are obstacles were we to try and use these techniques again. I feel the best approach is to use repetition and to ask Finn to reiterate what was asked of him to check his understanding. However time is a factor here. With the best will in the world sometimes there isn’t the time to draw out the conversation in this way, especially with a baby around demanding your constant attention!

I also think that pride stands in our way. Finn is a proud man. As he should be. He is intelligent, compassionate and successful (the list goes on but let’s not stroke his ego too much!). His stroke does not change those things but for him he feels his aphasia is a sign of weakness. He doesn’t want to appear stupid and doesn’t want to be judged for this disability. I can sugar coat it and say that wouldn’t happen but that would be disingenuous. I can hand on heart say that I would never think such a thing. I can pretty safely say that his friends and colleagues would never think it either. I cant say that any other person he encounters wouldn’t judge him based on his aphasia. They don’t know the man behind the stroke. Many people are unaware that aphasia does not affect intelligence only language. So they may judge him but it says more about their ignorance than his intelligence and strength. I believe that in most situations stranger’s tend to think he is foreign and using English as a second language rather than having aphasia anyway.

This insecurity reared its head while we were away and I used the following analogy. If a man with an extremely high IQ, who spoke only French, lived in a community where everybody else only spoke Chinese does that make him any less intelligent? You are still you, and you know what you know, you just don’t speak our language. In fact it speaks to your intelligence and strength that you are learning to communicate with us.

I told him that if he doesn’t understand something it isn’t his fault. It has happened because we have failed to make our conversation accessible to him. I dont expect to be perfect but I do know I need to try harder to ensure that our lines of communication are as good as they can be. I need to check in more and ask him to tell me what he has inferred from my speech. I need to talk more slowly. I need to be more patient. On the other hand Finn needs to allow me to do these things. To not let pride get in the way and not become defensive. If we are to truly understand each other we need to work together.

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