I’m a Slow Learner and So Are You.


I’m a bit of a podcast junkie: WorkLife, Invisibilia, and 10% Happier pique my interest as-of-late. On a recent road trip, I gave my husband the coveted chance to eschew Bill Simmons for a show prompting meaningful self-reflection. He unwillingly obliged.

His insight when Dan Harris closed out the show? “Don’t you know all this stuff already?”

Defensiveness and feelings of inadequacy didn’t reveal themselves outright; it’s not as though I read articles, attend workshops, and coach people daily on the topics covered in the podcast. I just countered with some non-judgmental statement like, “So you think you just need to learn something once and you’re done?”

The conversation came to an abrupt halt. We switched to the radio.

A wiser version of myself might have said: “Aren’t we all slow learners, needing to learn and re-learn the same things over and over-again to become who we most want to be?”

The challenge I notice with myself and my clients is the danger of thinking “Shouldn’t I know or know how to do this already?That paralyzes us. The fear beneath it is: I must not be smart if I can’t catch on quickly.

The reality is that becoming who we most want to be – more patient, compassionate, courageous, accepting, confident, or generous - is hard. Our penchant for learning slowly reveals not that we’re dummies but that as humans we are negotiating with beliefs and assumptions and navigating competing values as we grow. This is time consuming: it makes us learn slowly. 

Let me explain.

Negotiating with Beliefs & Assumptions:

Lucy* is one of my leadership coaching clients; she’s a team lead at a medium-sized organization. Lucy believes in being open, available, and spontaneous. The idea of being rigidly tied to a schedule feels confining and lacking in creativity. The prospect of closing her door to increase focus and decrease distractions feels heartless: what if a teammate needs her?

Lucy’s received feedback, though, that she’s too available. She welcomes interruptions and over-commits to others – ‘Sure I can engage in an impromptu 30 min conversation with you in my already packed schedule where I have no time to pee or grab lunch’ - to show up for others. It means she’s perpetually running late and is under-prepared for whatever meeting she’s running into.

In my work with Lucy, we explore the validity of the assumptions underneath her deeply held beliefs. We wrestle with questions like:

  • Is it true that protecting your time means you’re cold or rigid? How might you be wrong?
  • Is it possible that saying, “Not now, but later” to a colleague won’t damage the relationship? What evidence supports this?
  • What are the limitations in your assumption that ‘showing up for people’ means always being available?

Then, Lucy runs experiments in-between our coaching sessions to challenge the complete validity of her assumptions. She says, “Not now, but later” to a colleague in need and records what actually happens instead of what she’s convinced will happen. Turns out the relationship doesn’t blow up and she has mental space to prepare for a 1pm meeting.

Lucy, and all of us, have troves of evidence to support the truth of our beliefs. From her vantage point, she has an abundance of rich relationships because of her flexible and empathetic nature. She has been successful because she’s kept her door open to discussion and opportunity. The counter evidence she collects in our engagement, which reveals that she can protect her time and show up for people, gives her power and permission to show up differently as a leader.**

But, just because the limitations of her original beliefs and assumptions are illuminated doesn’t mean she transforms overnight into ‘accessible colleague who ruthlessly honors her own boundaries’.  She, like all of us, is a slow learner. When a fellow Leadership Team member off-handedly jokes that Lucy, ‘Must be sick of us because her door’s closed all the time!’ Lucy feverishly explains herself and spends the afternoon working from the communal area, welcoming all distractions, afternoon deadline be damned.

As she’s shifting the way she leads, her new behaviors incite suspicion from her more familiar, entrenched beliefs and assumptions: ‘Closing your door wasn’t received negatively that once, but see how it’s destroying relationships when you continue?!?’ it says. It’s two steps forward, one step back as she reminds and reassures herself that it’s safe to believe in something new.

Navigating Competing Values:

Or, take my client, Samir. Samir is the Executive Director of a non-profit who values order, pressure-tested strategies, and a plan. Unpredictable emotions or questions that blindside him trigger frustration and withdrawal; he believes they distract the team from progress. Interestingly, he also deeply values human connection. He knows that being in community with others who are invested in the same vision is how you accelerate social change. But building community is a reliably messy endeavor.  As a result, I’ve worked with Samir on de-escalating his threat response when there’s perceived uncertainty. After months of coaching, his threat response is lessened, but still present, amid seeming chaos; he comes to our calls often apologizing, “I can’t believe I’m still wrestling with this. What’s wrong with me?”

Samir, like the rest of us, is a slow-learner when he fears that changing his behavior means compromising his values. Our focus together is around expanding the space between, what Viktor Frankl calls ‘stimulus and response’ so that he can make room for the values of ‘order’ and ‘inclusivity’ to co-exist in his leadership. For Samir, the stimulus is feeling out of control and his response is paralysis or defensiveness. In our work, he’s developed the capacity to label his emotions in the moment. Instead of feeling an overwhelming deluge, he identifies with clarity whether fear or insecurity, anger or doubt is at play. This precision is grounding and honors his need for control. And, he’s honing his listening skills. Instead of defaulting to ‘resolving it’ by just giving an answer to an impossible curve ball question, he channels an investigative reporter. He presumes he has much to learn before knowing the path forward. He invites patience into the process to include many diverse voices.

Samir knows how he aspires to lead – by exercising his values fully - and his confidence and connections are amplified when he delivers on that vision. But for Samir, employing these newfound skills and orientations consistently, real-time isn’t easy. He falls off the wagon. We all do. Our coaching sessions celebrate his progress in maintaining order while not sidelining community voices.  They also remind him of his on-going commitments and build additional skill to expand that space between stimulus and response. He’s shifting from asking the question, “Why can’t I catch on to this?” to owning the statement, “I’m increasingly honoring order and inclusivity.” He’s embracing that he’s a slow learner; it lets him continue to learn and not be shackled by shame.

I understand and personally wrestle with the mild obsession to prove how quickly I learn and act on new insights. We live in a culture that praises speed and celebrates agility. I want to listen to 10% Happier once, digest the proven benefits of meditation, and then meditate daily! But there are indicators all around us that we’re inherently slow learners. Exhibit A: I struggle to meditate twice a week. And, every yoga class I go to they have to remind me to breathe, for God’s sake. Religious institutions convene congregations weekly because we require regular rituals to remind us of our moral code. Just because we’re told something once, twice, or dozens of times, doesn’t mean we actually ‘get it.’ Instead of judging ourselves for not being better faster, what if we disabuse ourselves of the myth that learning quickly is a marker of brilliance, and all learn slowly (maybe a little faster)? What relief might we feel if that were the case?

- Chantal Laurie Below

*Client names are changed to protect confidentiality.

**For more on how we get out from under our big assumptions, check out Kegan and Lahey’s amazing research in Immunity to Change or a quicker read: The Real Reason People Won’t Change.

Photo by Giulia Porrini on Unsplash