Empathy and Active Listening

Skills and Supercompetence

Howell’s Staircase. Steps towards fluidity

Copyright by Dr. Daniele Trevisani. Article extracted with author’s permission from the book “Ascolto attivo ed Empatia. I segreti di una comunicazione efficace” (translated title: “Active Listening and Empathy: The Secretes of Effective Communication”. The book’s rights are on sale in any language. Please contact Dr. Daniele Trevisani for information at the website

If you were born with wings, I don’t see why you should crawl

if you were born with wings, I don’t see why you shouldn’t try to use them

if you are not born with wings, but you really want them, they will grow

until you don’t even notice you’re using them.

and you will fly high in the sky, free.

As highlighted in “Il Coraggio delle Emozioni”[1], Howell’s studies[2] summarise the human being’s climb towards higher level skills and competences, well exposed in Howell’s Staircase model.

This climb also applies to emotional and empathic listening skills. The different statuses can be extended to the field of training, Coaching or counselling. Let’s see their nature:

Picture 3 – Schematic visualisation of the Staircase of Competences

Howell staircase of competences model

  1. unconscious incompetence: what I don’t know, elements or gaps that escape my consciousness, my self-awareness;
  2. conscious incompetence: skill gaps of which I have become aware; becoming aware of a previously unknown lack of skills can be emotionally painful but it’s a necessary stage for learning;
  3. conscious competences: what I know I know; execution is possible, but a conscious attention must still be paid to the mechanisms, to the process at hand;
  4. unconscious competences: what I do without having to think about it. The execution takes place without having to think consciously, it uses psycho-motor and/or linguistic patterns already acquired, and this is why it requires a small or limited effort. It is based on a strong mastery of the mechanisms in action. It highlights the presence of mastery in skills, an internalised, definitively acquired ability;
  5. super-competences: the level of maximum mastery combined with an extreme technique training and personal skills that are out of the ordinary, which differentiates a key-performer, a star performer, from others, although they are good. It also includes intuition, bodily intelligence, multiple intelligences that converge to form the world’s best pilots, the world’s best musicians, the world’s best surgeons, the world’s best dancers, and any other kind of person who excels beyond the norm in his or her field.

Howell’s model was originally designed to study a ranking of states of intercultural empathy. Howell intended to study the different levels of a person’s ability to adapt them to a different cultural context (overcoming the difficulties that come with settling in a non-native country): when can I move well and smoothly within a culture, having incorporated and understood it completely?

This question was the starting point, but the model was then taken up by many as a general scheme of learning degrees in every field, sport, management, education.

William Howell and Stella Ting-Toomey also subsequently introduced a fifth category, Unconscious Super-Competence, to highlight those who, in a process of adaptation, manage to develop skills that are clearly above average, exceptional, above the limit.

The validity of this scale is wide; it concerns all kinds of learning in life. It helps us to ask where we are, or where we have stopped, and, above all, invites us to reflect on the fact that there is room for improvement everywhere and at all times. Also in learning to manage our emotions and develop empathy.

[1] “Il coraggio delle emozioni. Energie per la vita, la comunicazione e la crescita personale“, di Daniele Trevisani, Franco Angeli editore, 2015

[2] Howell, William S. (1982). The empathic communicator. University of Minnesota: Wadsworth Publishing Company.


© Article translated from the book “Ascolto attivo ed empatia. I segreti di una comunicazione efficace“. copyright Dr. Daniele Trevisani Intercultural Negotiation Training and Coaching, published with the author’s permission. The Book’s rights are on sale and are available. If you are interested in publishing the book in any language, or seek Intercultural Negotiation Training, Coaching, Mentoring and Consulting, please feel free to contact Dr. Daniele Trevisani.

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Four stages of competence

In psychology, the four stages of competence, or the “conscious competence” learning model, relates to the psychological states involved in the process of progressing from incompetence to competence in a skill.


Management trainer Martin M. Broadwell described the model as “the four levels of teaching” in February 1969.[1] Paul R. Curtiss and Phillip W. Warren mentioned the model in their 1973 book The Dynamics of Life Skills Coaching.[2] The model was used at Gordon Training International by its employee Noel Burch in the 1970s; there it was called the “four stages for learning any new skill”.[3] Later the model was frequently attributed to Abraham Maslow, incorrectly since the model does not appear in his major works.[4]


The four stages suggest that individuals are initially unaware of how little they know, or unconscious of their incompetence. As they recognize their incompetence, they consciously acquire a skill, then consciously use it. Eventually, the skill can be utilized without it being consciously thought through: the individual is said to have then acquired unconscious competence.[5]

Several elements, including helping someone “know what they don’t know” or recognize a blind spot, can be compared to some elements of a Johari window, although Johari deals with self-awareness, while the four stages of competence deals with learning stages.


howell competence hierarchy 4 levels

The four stages are:

  1. Unconscious incompetence
    The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognize their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.[5]
  2. Conscious incompetence
    Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, they recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.
  3. Conscious competence
    The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.[5]
  4. Unconscious competence
    The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become “second nature” and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.

See also


  1. ^ Broadwell, Martin M. (20 February 1969). “Teaching for learning (XVI)” The Gospel Guardian. Retrieved 11 May 2018.
  2. ^ Curtiss, Paul R.; Warren, Phillip W. (1973). The dynamics of life skills coaching. Life skills series. Prince Albert, Saskatchewan: Training Research and Development Station, Dept. of Manpower and Immigration. p. 89. OCLC 4489629.
  3. ^ Adams, Linda. “Learning a new skill is easier said than done” Gordon Training International. Retrieved 21 May 2011.
  4. ^ Hansen, Alice (2012). “Trainees and teachers as reflective learners”. In Hansen, Alice; et al. (eds.). Reflective learning and teaching in primary schools. London; Thousand Oaks, CA: Learning Matters; Sage Publications. pp. 32–48 (34). doi:10.4135/9781526401977.n3ISBN 9780857257697OCLC 756592765.
  5. Jump up to:a b c Flower, Joe (January 1999). “In the mush”Physician Executive25 (1): 64–66. PMID 10387273.[dead link]

Further reading

A few examples among many peer-reviewed articles that mention the four stages: