June 2022

Discomfort in Learning

We have been working with a client recently to deliver some workshops. The pilot session was run in March and we did an experiential activity on privilege. We asked the participants to do a privilege walk and take a step forward or a step back in response to questions about aspects of their lives. A number of participants found this activity rather confronting and uncomfortable. In the follow up discussion the client requested that we not do the Privilege walk and instead do something else that was less challenging.

While I understood the client’s perspective, it raised for me a key issue when delivering impactful learning. Often when delivering programs that touch on sensitive topics of ageism, racism or sexism; people are cognitively aware and able to understand the concepts. Naturally this is quite comfortable and does not usually involve being vulnerable. However, when we use experiential exercises that draw on a somatic experience, which now involve senses, perspectives and mind body reactions, it is a lot more challenging and uncomfortable. The result of working in a more somatic way is a more profound experience and therefore greater engagement with the learning for most people. While this can mean that people can become uncomfortable, what they take away from the program is likely to have a more resounding impact on their learning, awareness and ultimately behaviours.

A key to managing this type of activity successfully, is to create psychological safety. By letting people know at the beginning of an activity that it may create feelings of discomfort and that they should lean into that as a way to discover more about themselves, the learning can then be integrated more effectively. I talked this through with the client and we found another way to incorporate the Privilege activity. Interestingly, even the ‘softer’ version that involved a less direct approach caused some discomfort which was unexpected but led to a rich group discussion. My intention in utilising activities like this, is that participants can use their experience to reflect on their own thinking and broaden their worldview.

‘The purpose of learning is growth, and our minds, unlike our bodies, can continue growing as long as we live’.

Mortimer Adler.


Book Recommendation:



Think Again: The Power of Knowing What you Don't know, Adam Grant

Intelligence is usually seen as the ability to think and learn, but in a rapidly changing world, the most crucial skill may be the ability to rethink and unlearn. Recent global and political changes have forced many of us to re-evaluate our opinions and decisions. Yet we often still favour the comfort of conviction over the discomfort of doubt, and prefer opinions that make us feel good, instead of ideas that make us think hard. Intelligence is no cure, and can even be a curse. The brighter we are, the blinder we can become to our own limitations.

Adam Grant - Wharton's top-rated professor and bestselling author - offers bold ideas and rigorous evidence to show how we can embrace the joy of being wrong, encourage others to rethink topics as wide-ranging as abortion and climate change, and build schools, workplaces, and communities of lifelong learners. Think Again is an invitation to let go of stale opinions and prize mental flexibility, humility, and curiosity over foolish consistency. If knowledge is power, knowing what you don't know is wisdom.