Learning to Unlearn


Learning to Unlearn

“It takes curiosity to learn. It takes courage to unlearn. Learning requires the humility to admit what you don’t know today. Unlearning requires the integrity to admit that you were wrong yesterday. Learning is how you evolve. Unlearning is how you keep up as the world evolves.”

— Adam Grant, organizational psychologist and author

"Unlearning” can be hard work. We are witnessing our profession evolve as we learn more and then unlearn what we used to know to be true. It can be daunting. As lawyers, we gravitate to the certainty of laws, rules, systems, and structure. That framework helps us to navigate the unpredictability of human behaviour, to provide a sense of control in the face of chaos.

What we are learning these days is how often “the rules” don’t work for groups of people, and how the rules need to change. Pick any big topic in the legal profession: access to justice, equality & inclusion, workplace management, reconciliation, law school education, self-governance of the profession, associate development, lawyer compensation, non-lawyer legal services, mental health. In a discussion of any of those, we are taking a hard look at the status quo and exploring what we didn’t really know about, in order to achieve better results and experiences.

The exploration of what we know starts with listening to other people. What is their perspective? What is their experience? What do they need? What is the problem? What is the goal? Truly listening. Exercising humility. Getting vulnerable and admitting we don’t know everything.

Oh no! Not vulnerable! Lawyers are raised up to resist anything that might lead to a perception of vulnerability. Isn’t vulner-ability in any form the exact opposite of what we and others expect of lawyers? Surely strength, confidence, control, and assertiveness are required at all times?

Well, no, they aren’t. At least not in the form we might traditionally expect. Courage, humility, integrity all reflect strength, and all those are required for unlearning.

President Jennings’ column this month explores how we can pursue learning by asking and listening to others and accepting that information. Having those one-to-one conversations, to listen and accept, is critical to un-learning in order to keep up.

The big issues in the legal profession require not only the unlearning, but building new models to create systemic change. Recently the Access to Justice BC Leadership Group heard from MIT systems scientist and author Peter Senge. He reminded us that leading systems change is not always comfortable. And that’s okay. It is how it is supposed to be.

Critical to change is to stop, look around, and consider who isn’t in the room as you have the discussion of the day. When we discuss access to justice, do we have the people needing the system present? When we build a Reconciliation Response Plan for our firm, do we have Indigenous voices sharing knowledge? When remodeling lawyer compensation systems, have we listened to all the lawyers, or just the law firm owners?

Mr. Senge shared a “systems awareness iceberg.” Above the water is an event or system which is what we see. Below the water are patterns and behaviours, underlying structures, artefacts, and mental models. Those three things continue to prop up the iceberg. When you examine those patterns and behaviours by listening to people and understanding their perspective, you can start to dismantle structures, change behaviours, and replace the artefacts and mental models with ones that will support a new or different system. Again, not easy tasks to undertake, and certainly not comfortable.

As we conclude 2021, I invite you to set for yourself the task of unlearning something over the next year. To listen to another’s perspective, especially one which does not usually have a place in your day to day. You’ll keep up as the world evolves.