Research Paper By Susan Chen
(Change & Career Coach, SINGAPORE)
The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who have not learned to learn, unlearn, and relearn. – Alvin Toffler
The Paradox of Unlearning
Unlearning can be defined as throwing away concepts learnt in the past to give space for possible new learning (Pighin & Marzona, 2011). Furthermore, in a more philosophical sense, unlearning is the process of removing barriers that blind us to our authentic selves. It is a process that questions our classical conditioning, allowing us to deconstruct and re-order our identities in order to discard negative values, and repeatedly focus on awareness of one’s state of being (Steve D’Amico, 2008).
However, the concept of unlearning is a paradox, as some researchers have argued that one cannot truly unlearn something, and only new associative learning can be inhibitory or preferred over old learning (Alvaroda, Jara, Vila & Roasa, 2006; Bouton, 2004). Despite the paradox and challenges in a unified definition, the consensus amongst the researchers and practitioners is that unlearning is a process, rather than a discrete event, and that the process of unlearning is always associated with relearning (Windeknechy & Delahaye, 2004). For the purpose of this research paper and for application to coaching, we take the pragmatic definition that unlearning is a process to discover the answers that individuals have within themselves, and the process of coaching provides a path to unlearning and relearning.
Neuroscience of Unlearning: as a concept and research discipline
Our brain develops as we learn and, the more we learn, the more our brain develops. It is generally accepted that the brain hemispheres have somewhat different functions with the left handling logic, analysis and accuracy, whilst the right focuses on visual perceptions, imageries and emotion (Hughes, 2015). However, what is often misconstrued in simplicity is that an individual uses one dominant side of the brain only. Such oversimplification discounts the brain as a ‘whole brain’ and overlooks that dominance depends upon the task at hand and not the person (Hughes, 2015). Therefore, it is more accurate to think of the brain as a series of networks rather than as two distinct hemispheres. This concept is important to consider, as the process of unlearning can only be effective if it considers the brain as a whole, rather than distinctive hemispheres.
The concept of the ‘whole brain’ had critical implications for unlearning, as one may find consolation in the idea that the dominant brain is their reason of being and cannot be changed. For example, a leader that is being coached for being too intolerant and not accepting creative ideas may respond: “Oh, I am a logical left-brain person, therefore, I cannot tolerate people that are unorganized with their ideas”. This is the paradigm shift that is required by activating the acknowledgement and the use of the whole brain.
The concept of unlearning was introduced in early 1980s, and is widely accepted by the academic community with various applications (Pighin & Marzona, 2011). The concept of unlearning has been widely used in area of treating and managing post-traumatic stress disorders and physical pain management. Practical methods often focus on the idea that memories cannot be erased, but new memories can be created in association with the situation (Gershman, Jones, Noman, Monfilss & Niv, 2013). Exposure Therapy involves repeated exposure to trauma-related situations in a safe environment, while Extinction Learning focuses on repeatedly exposing the subject to a conditional stimulus in the absence of an unconditional stimulus until the conditional stimulus no longer causes an automatic response. The concept has been applied in discrimination and conditioned biases research (Rudman, 2001), as well as in educational curriculum design (Hughes, 2015).
Unlearning and relearning also have been widely researched in the management literature. Not surprisingly, such research often has been conducted in organisational change settings, as well as highlighted in contexts where organisations are in search of innovation. Various adaptations of organisational unlearning surfaced. Klein (1989) proposed an unlearning model where learnt knowledge is not thrown away, but it is temporarily put aside, parenthesized, and remains parts of individual and organisational patrimony; therefore, individuals learn new ways to deal with certain situations, rather than unlearn a particular response entirely. In addition, Schein (1993), describe unlearning as a process of ‘unfreezing – cogitative change – refreezing’, where the unfreezed environment allows for the learning of new knowledge that deeply modifies cognitive structures, while refreezing embodies the new knowledge schema.
It is worth mentioning is that within all the unlearning management research, there is the inherent positivity and hope that unlearning will lead, ultimately, to greater individual or organisational success.
Coaching application: Paradigm shift & the discovery of the authentic self
With the assumptions that individual unlearning is largely personal and often involves one-on-one coaching, the coaching application in discussion here focuses on the ability to shift paradigms in the discovery of an authentic self. With the application in mind, unlearning requires a mindset and paradigm change. This change means that one will not jump to automatic responses that were engaged in the past without first aligning a response with one’s authentic self. For example, someone who smokes when stressed needs to relearn the relationship between self, stress and smoking in order to break the habit rather than focus on smoking as a habit.
On an individual level, it has been suggested that the individual mental model plays a pivotal role in unlearning. The critical challenge with individuals is how one can apply these mental models explicitly for change. Therefore, echoing Klein’s (1989) suggestion, the coach and coachee must recognise that in order for one to improve, develop and grow, it is essential to learn a new method for selecting responses in the first instance. Simply replacing one action with another is insufficient and not sustainable. Reverting to the earlier example of smoking while stressed, the simple act of replacing smoking with another action (i.e., smoking electronic cigarettes, chewing gum or using nicotine patches) does not respond to the underlying need to de-stress. A solution requires a paradigm change in how the individual perceives the relationship between stress and his or her own well-being, rather than simply addressing smoking as a habit to be changed.
On a more philosophical level, the coaching application of unlearning assumes that the brain needs time to unlearn, and the heart and soul needs time to heal. The underlying assumption is that sustainable change requires time, and the connection of the head and the heart allows for the space and access to one’s authentic self. Unlearning required the understanding of how one’s authentic self has impact on self and others in order to pursuit sustainable change.
The authentic self is an important concept in unlearning, as unlearning and relearning is a journey of self-acceptance. “Authentic self” refers to the underlying essence of a person, beyond the explicit roles that an individual plays in society. This identity is real, true, and is the genuine substance of which people are at their absolute core. It is the part that is not defined by an individual’s job or by other people. It is the composite of all that is in the head, heart and soul.
As an advocate of authentic self-leadership, I further advocate that such authenticity is neutral concerning the judgment of good and bad in isolation, and the judgment of such authenticity is only reflected in the way that one responds to situations and the relationship cultivated with others. A practical example may be that one’s authentic self is free spirited and doesn’t comply with authority – which is judgment neutral without a context. However, if this individual chooses to work in corporate jobs and decided to come into work late everyday, the choice colors the authentic character in this specific context. Therefore, authenticity cannot be understood and fully exercised without the context.
Practical application to Coaching: Life & Executive coaching
While we don’t have to neuroscientists to be effective as a coach, by understand how the brain learns, and having the potential to unlearn and relearn, opens up the opportunities for the coach to hold a space for the client to tap into their own brain capacity to relearn and to be in touch with their authentic self. For the purpose of this research paper, the application will be focused on individual unlearning, with applications on two types of coaching: Life Coaching and Executive Coaching. Life Coaching focuses on the achievement of personal objectives such as choosing or changing careers, improving relationships, setting goals, and determining priorities, whilst Executive Coaching focuses on maximizing organizational performance through the development of executive-level skills, developmental and growth needs which impact the entire organization.
Rather than using forceful methods such as Exposure Therapy and Extinction Learning, coaches use powerful questions to tap into the potential of the coachee, and allow for the coachee to identify the methods and actions that she or he will take to ‘extinct’ undesirable habits and behaviors.
In the context of life coaching, the application could be to mend broken relationships, or undertake self-improvements such as losing weight or quitting smoking. It requires an examination of the habits that may be self-harming or harming others. Being our authentic selves is based on the choices we make everyday, and understanding how the choices may impact self and others.
In contacts of executive coaching, unlearning can be connected to organisational agility, where individuals need to adapt to the constant changes in organisations. For example, new CEOs joining a company may bring different cultural and strategic expectations. Existing executives are therefore required to unlearn the old expectations and cultural norms in order to perform and execute new strategies in a new leadership environment. In such executive coaching contexts, the authentic self often manifests itself in choices that may be aligned to a person’s own values and organisational goals, but that not be perceived as ‘likable’ choices in the new environment. It takes courage to value being authentic and making choices for the greater good over being liked.
Unlearning can also be useful when an executive is re-examining their leadership style and impact on the team. This requires the executive to consider their authentic self, and understand the impact on the team. For instance, an executive may require coaching as the team is feeling de-motivated by an unclear strategy and are unable to understand how they can contribute to the strategy. The coach needs to work with the executive to firstly discover who they are and what kind of leader they want to be. With such clarity in mind, it is then possible to devise a plan of action to support the team as they learn about the strategy and how they can contribute to it. The communication of such a strategic impact must be aligned with the essence of the executive, so that it will not be perceived unauthentic and out of place.
To conclude, there are various applications of unlearning in coaching, which has been demonstrated in the discussions of various examples of life and executive coaching. Unlearning is not just a mindset shift; it is also a process supported by neuroscience and the concept of the ‘whole brain’. Therefore, my final remark champions the thought that coaches and coachees should embrace the notion of unlearning through the discovery of the authentic self, as unlearning is not a destination, but a continuous journey – a journey that connects the head with the heart.
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