Practice Internal Double-Loop Learning (Hint #12)

Double-loop learning is something you can practice every day. Your purpose is to discover why you do what you keep doing. You may be surprised to read this: 90% or more of what we do is semi-automatic or habitual. We do them with little thought.

Before we proceed further, please read the previous blog post (“Practice internal watchfulness -hint #11) and D17 (“Single-loop learning versus double-loop learning”).

A common example of automatic behavior is defensive reaction when you are criticized (or you perceive that you are criticized). The defensive reaction immediately kicks in, leaving you zero opportunity to listen and perhaps learn from the person who is criticizing (or seems to be criticizing) you. It does not matter if the other person did or did not intend to criticize. Maybe the other person is wrong, but what if he is right? Then your automaticity closes the door to your truly listening and possibly learning.

I use the word “right” and “wrong” in the KM sense, that is, whether or not something “works” or “works better.”

Every time you catch yourself in (afterwards or better during) the act of defending yourself, ask: why did I do it? What was the mental model or assumption behind my defensive reaction? Is it because I believe I am always right? Is it because I do not want to appear “stupid”? Or I do not want to admit my mistake? Is it because I want to always present the appearance of “being knowledgeable”? What is the (hidden) mental model behind my action?


Knowing the mental model allows you to examine it dispassionately and to see whether it is still valid or it is serving your best interests. If the answer is “no” then you can consciously revise your mental model. You won’t be able to do this if your mental model remains hidden from you; which is what happens when you just react defensively as a matter of automatic habit.

One of the many things I like in President Obama is his willingness to listen. Bonnie Harris of Ledger-Transcript in Peterborough, NH wrote recently:

    President Obama sent his special Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, to Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, France and Britain. His instructions to Mr. Mitchell: “Start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating.” What a concept! …Can we learn from the power of Obama’s willingness to listen — even to our enemies. Some think it will make us look weak. I believe it is the only direction to world peace.

President Obama is the most powerful man on Planet Earth, yet he is willing to listen. He is even willing to admit that he made a mistake.

Katie Couric of CBS Evening News recently interviewed President Obama about the withdrawal of Sen. Tom Daschle’s nomination as Health and Human Services secretary. Said the President,

    “I was very eager to make sure that we can deliver on a commitment that I have to deliver healthcare for the American people. I think I messed up. I screwed up in not recognizing the perception that even though this is an honest mistake, I believe, on Tom’s part, that, you know, ordinary people are out there paying taxes every day and whether it’s an intentional mistake or not, it was sending the wrong signal. So again, this was something that was my fault. I continue to consider Tom Daschle an outstanding public servant, uh, and what we’re going to do now is make sure we get somebody confirmed and start moving forward.”

A person who keeps defending himself and is unable to listen is a person who cannot learn, improve and grow as a person. He does not have the advantage of self-feedback that double-loop learning provides.

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