Unlearning is potentially more important than learning as it allows us to sweep away concepts and preferences that are now longer relevant, clearing the way for us to learn something new which doesn’t sit well with what we previously knew. But why is unlearning so hard? It’s because we’re trained from birth to favour ideas and experiences that align with our expectations, and abhor those that clash with them. The real challenge is to manage our expectations, as we’re all expectation machines.
People – similar to ogres – are like onions as we’re built in layers. Shoes with sandals? Should you blow you nose on you sleeve or on a hanky? Is the priority the group, or the individual? Java or Ruby? Is information power, or something to be shared? We accrete expectations (preferences and prejudices) layer by layer as we find our way through life.
We are the sum of our expectations: genetic expectations, cultural expectations, social expectations, career expectations, job expectations, task expectations, and even the daily expectations we hold we start our commute to work in the morning. Starting from the time we’re born new experiences are either lain over old. Experiences that align with our expectations meld with and reinforce them. Experiences that clash with our expectations are (usually) rejected.
This is what makes unlearning so hard; we are not just discarding some random recently collected fact, we might be invalidating some expectation nestled deeply within our personal onion. Rain is annoying if the weather forecast had us expecting sun. It’s frustrating when the work of a colleague does not meet our expectations for best practice. A setback at work makes us angry as we were expecting to be given the resources or recognition for ourselves. Point out to a management team who worked their way to the top by accumulating headcount and budget that the future lies in smaller, leaner organisations with OPEX based operating models puts you in direct conflict with their career expectations. Dealing with a socially awkward foreign colleague can be intensely embarrassing when they don’t follow expected polite behaviour.
Critical thinking can help as it can provide us with the tools to measure, question and evaluate what we already know. Unlearning, however, is a cultural problem. We need to consider when we need to reevaluate our expectations, not just how to reevaluate an individual expectation.
To create a sustainable approach to unlearning then we need to shape our response when our expectations are not met. Luckily Linda Beamer has provided us with a five step process to help us unlearn old cultural norms and relearn new ones.
- Acknowledging diversity—awareness of difference.
- Organizing information according to stereotypes—asking questions to stereotypes—asking questions to increase knowledge and examine stereotypes.
- Posing questions to challenge the stereotypes-asking questions to increase knowledge and examine stereotypes.
- Analyzing communication episodes-increasing competence through analysis of communication in specific instances. Deeper understanding.
- Generating “other culture” messages –an understanding which enables the person to communicate within the culture.
Rather than applying critical thinking to every fact, attacking every idea or solution on the off-chance that it might be a sacred cow, we should focus on those times when we see dysfunctional communication – times when different stakeholders read the environment around us in different ways – as chances to unlearn. Critical thinking is important, but we need to acknowledge that unlearning, like learning, is a cultural process, and that no culture is static.
Successful unlearning is a question of finding the best tools and techniques to manage the evolution of our expectations, our culture, as we are, after all, expectation machines.
Image source: Jack-Benny
1. Unlearning is the most important thing @ PEG↑
2. Harold Jarche, Networked Unlearning↑
3. Linda Beamer, Learning Intercultural Communication Competence in The Journal of Business Communication July 1, 2011 48: 231-255↑