How Unlearning Gets Change Stuck

Unlearning is a specific process with stages and obstacles between stages. Knowing how to guide people to overcome these obstacles and completing the process leads to lasting change acquisition….This is important because if the people we train and support do not know how to go through the Unlearning process themselves, they will need support if they are to acquire new needed skills.

To intuitively understand Unlearning, we should start with what Unlearning is not. Try to think of a time you learned a brand new skill. It can be anything from learning how to swim to learning how to respond to conflict. Which steps did you take in order to learn something brand new? For deliberately acquired skills like swimming, most people say they learn by observing, collecting information, and through trial and error. For skills we acquire less deliberately like how we respond to conflict, most people say they learn from observing others around them and from the meaning they assigned to specific experiences in the past.

In this way, when we learn, we adopt and reinforce a new skill, response, or way of doing things. Now try to imagine a skill or response you’ve been reinforcing for a long time. If at some point, you decide to significantly change the way you apply a skill or respond, how do you think the Unlearning involved will be different from learning?

In what way will learning to change the way you swim (after swimming the previous way for a long time) different than learning it for the first time? How is unlearning to respond to conflict like you’ve responded to conflict in the past and adopting new responses to conflict situations different from learning how to respond to conflict for the first time? The key difference is that with unlearning you must work towards achieving something new against pre-existing patterns which, unless managed correctly, will interfere with the acquisition of the new. Most people recognize Unlearning is more difficult than learning and that because of preexisting patterns, it requires much greater awareness and attention. But to most, unlearning seems like a vague process.

A good dose of motivation does not hurt when it comes to change acquisition, but for Unlearning, motivation is far from enough. For most, when using motivation to try to Unlearn a previous response and re-learn a new one, people often feel the strong “forces” making the acquisition of the new hard. This is important because if the people we train and support do not know how to go through the Unlearning process themselves, they will need support if they are to acquire new needed skills.

Until recently, the challenges of Unlearning were invisible to us so we had very little choice but to depend on motivation alone. Now, thanks to developments in neuroscience, we have access to identifying other critical obstacles in the Unlearning-relearning process. Knowing what those obstacles are, allows us to guide people through the acquisition of new skills much more effectively, quickly, and consistently.

When people need to acquire new behaviors and skills they often simultaneously need to unlearn previously “reinforced” behaviors, responses, and skills to “make room” for new ones. Traditionally, we used to only focus on training people to use new skills and behaviors without managing the process of letting go of preexisting ones. For example, we may provide leadership development programs that focus on what ideal leadership practices should be acquired, without managing the letting go of previous leadership practices which were in practice to that point. We may try to facilitate a culture change and train people to adopt new values, skills, and behaviors without managing the letting go of previous values, skills, and behaviors.

Unlearning is not a random process. It has stages and there are obstacles between stages blocking us from completing it. Unless the unlearning of certain previous behaviors, thinking habits, and responses is managed correctly, resistance and other obstacles will prevent the new learning from being adopted in a lasting way.

Consider discussing or exploring the following:

  • What are individuals and teams you are working with trying to achieve?
  • Will they need to unlearn anything (are there previous ways of responding, behaving, thinking, or otherwise doing things that will need to change)?
  • Make a list of the aspects that will require your Unlearning management attention.

The KCI Change Acquisition Method is a step-by-step process to manage the acquisition of the new by simultaneously managing the Unlearning, the letting go of previous ways of doing things. If that’s relevant in your specific situation, we invite you to check out KCI services, or just reach out if you have a specific question we can answer.

With appreciation,



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