23rd October 2020

Anxiety in learning: a little goes a long way

By Dr Caroline Horner

One of my passions is learning. I feel truly privileged to have found a profession in which learning is such a fundamental part. It is the motivation, the action and the outcome of the work I do and as a result, I find it hugely fulfilling.

Through my work I learn more about myself, which enables me to reflect, make good choices and find fulfilment. I support others to learn about themselves too, which enables them to lead lives they love. I also work with organisations to create environments in which groups of people, including leaders, can learn most effectively and thrive.

Over the years, as both an academic and practitioner, I have drawn on the ideas of numerous thought leaders who focus on learning practice. Gathering a multiplicity of views has supported the development of my own learning process and approach.

Over the course of the next few newsletters, I will share some of their ideas with you and my thoughts. I will explore how they can be applied and made relevant to our lives today.

As I’ve said, learning fascinates me. It makes life more interesting, our experience richer, our futures brighter. But learning offers something much more valuable that we often overlook or forget. Learning is vital to survival. I believe that in order to survive the uncertainty of now and the complexity of the future, the priority for us should not be what you learn, but how you learn.

We all need to build our capacity to be effective leaners, particularly in a pandemic, when survival really is literal, not metaphorical.

One quote that has stayed with me for years is from the American writer and futurist, Alvin Toffler, who said: ‘The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.’

I think that the most effective way to learn is to do so from a place of anxiety. I’m not talking about debilitating anxiety, because it’s impossible to take in anything when fear is at play. There is a sweet spot which creates the ideal conditions for us to learn.

The academic Edgar Schein is the key proponent of this idea. Schein is an expert in organisational design but he’s also an expert in culture and people’s learning styles.

He talks about the need for anxiety in learning, which he expands on in this interview.

I think the immediate response would be to feel that anxiety is the very last thing you need to learn effectively. Many of us have memories of forced piano lessons or crumbling at a spelling competition or forgetting everything the minute you sit down to take an exam.

When we think of the ideal learning conditions, we imagine a room flooded with light, a comfortable chair, the room at the perfect temperature to keep our minds sharp. We imagine being ‘ready’ to learn.

What Schein proposes is a paradox. Anxiety inhibits learning, he writes, but it is also necessary if learning is going to happen at all.

The anxiety that he speaks of isn’t anxiety in the traditional mental health sense that we know it, it’s the anxiety of letting go of things we have learned in order to make room for new ideas.

He makes the distinction between learning anxiety and survival anxiety. Learning anxiety comes from being afraid to try something new or fretting that it will be too difficult. Survival anxiety is, ‘the horrible realisation that in order to make it, you’re going to have to change.’

I frequently see learning anxiety and survival anxiety at play in leaders. I see it when leaders are avoidant, when they do all they can to not have a difficult conversation. Leaders need to get better at the art of having difficult conversations, embracing that feeling of discomfort because ultimately, it leads to increased trust and respect.

During this pandemic we’ve been rendered child-like. We’ve been dependent on other people: politicians, scientists, broadcasters. Our sense of having choice has been removed and our understanding of how the world worked has been dismantled.

We need to jump into this this new reality, but our anxiety holds us back. We procrastinate and resist moving forward. But with encouragement, we can push forward and coaches are trained to offer that support.

A good place to start is asking yourself what are the conditions that you need to learn? Take some time to think about what you know about your approach to learning. If you have yet to discover this, now is the time!

i-coach runs sessions on learning to learn. You will get an overview of how adults learn and you will be given the opportunity to identify your learning preferences. You will come away with practical tips on how to be a truly versatile learner; one who can establish their ideal conditions, but one who can also learn effectively in those conditions which do not play to your preferences.

Learning to learn is utterly essential for leaders. Leaders need to be continuous learners, particularly in a changing situation like a pandemic, and coaching can be that bridge piece. It can help leaders and individuals work out how to channel workplace discomfort into something useful. Something that helps build a person up rather than knock them down or cause them to freeze.

To find out how coaching can support you to have effective learning conversations, do get in touch.