Why Discomfort Can Be An Ally For Deeper Employee Learning

“I won’t do this. It’s painful. And unnecessary.” Saying this, a participant in one of my creative facilitation trainings walked out. I froze. I was confused. I had asked the group to explore a challenging situation in their life, and reflect on how they had grown. It was an exercise on resilience. But, I had hit a nerve with this person.

At that moment, I didn’t understand what exactly was happening. But later, I gathered that he was having a new learning experience. He was in discomfort. Because the newness of the question disrupted the safety that his brain was used to. It had triggered his fear based ‘fight or flight’ response.

You may wonder, do we need discomfort to learn? Yes, I’d say. Think back to your school days – do you remember the chemistry curriculum you were taught? Probably not. What you may remember, is the time you were put on the spot to answer a question. In these moments, your anxiety wakes your brain up, because it feels threatened. As described by learning experts Kathleen Taylor and Catherine Marienau, the anxious brain needs to know what’s happening, and will avoid the potential threat as far as possible.

In trainings or meetings this manifests in different ways – disengaged or ‘checked out’ participants, challenging the methodology or facilitator, and experiencing a range of emotions. If such resistance doesn’t occur, you may want to step up your content. Heard of the phrase ‘no pain, no gain’? We want to invoke some pain. Because the amount of discomfort you’re in, is directly proportional to how deeply you’ll learn. Psychologists call this ‘desirable difficulty’.

For example, at LATE NITE ART, our experience involves different ways of connecting with ourselves and others – using our bodies to create sculptures, depicting our intentions visually, sharing personal stories. This may feel unusual. But, it opens up new ways of learning, waking up our brain.

Are you willing to invoke some discomfort in your next meeting or training?

Here are some ideas:

Name the resistance

We often ask our participants for their intention, their goals, their hopes. But what about their fears or skepticism? Ask your participants to name a concern they have.

Ask for metaphors

These are the most accessible form of imagery. Be it annual goals, addressing staff issues, building management trust or even personal success – metaphors help approach the topic with fresh eyes, and invoke relevant emotions.

Remember, a successful training does not always mean 5-star ratings from your participants. Only lasting learning makes it meaningful. And that may not always look happy or easy. Just challenge your participants. Sometimes they’ll resist. Or experience strong emotions. And that’s okay.