When we face uncomfortable situations or experiences, our impulse is to escape or overcome the discomfort. Whenever we can, we do not deliberately choose discomfort.
Yes, there are powerful theories and beliefs that uncomfortable experiences are useful. Teachers, preachers, motivational speakers, and parents—or people who don’t have to show what they mean by example—are the biggest advocates of such theories. “Get out of your comfort zone,” many dads will say, “In the end it is good for you”!
However, regardless of the theories (and lectures), the same fact remains: we rarely “experience” discomfort as a good or pleasant thing in the process itself.
Now, is it practically possible to embrace discomfort as a positive experience? Are there ways to use discomfort as a teaching or learning tool that is not only “eventually” beneficial but also likable (if not pleasant) in the process itself?
My answer is yes. Let me share some thoughts and experiences.
Drawing on Lev Vygotsky’s notion of “zone of proximal development”—or the “difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can do with help” (Wikipedia)—I have used in my classroom a concept that I call the “zone of productive discomfort.”* Primarily, I use this phrase in order to warn and prepare my students that we are about to enter an intellectually, culturally, or emotionally difficult territory. I have found that when both my students and I start by first of all recognizing the complexity of an issue, when are conscious and ready to address the complexity honestly, and when we have an explicit and deliberate purpose for facing a discomfort-inducing idea, that discomfort seems to become much more acceptable and meaningful–if not desirable.
Let me step back for a moment and insert a little background here. When I first started teaching in the US, I didn’t want to bring in ideas and perspectives from different cultures into class discussions; in fact, I selected readings that I thought were about mainstream issues, I tried to “blend in” and learn from students about those issues, and I kind of tried to suppress anything “foreign” from getting into the mix. After about two years, in a Business Communication class, after watching a video that showed a breakdown of communication between two businessmen, one from New York and the other from Tokyo, I happened to somehow un-prohibit myself from bringing in “foreign stuff” into the discussion and tell the class a few stories of communicative breakdowns that I have encountered or heard about in real life. I had been thinking about this concept for a while, so I started by prefacing my stories with describing my concept and highlighting what we can gain by consciously entering uncomfortable discursive spaces. One of my stories was about saying something stupid in relation to a friend’s racial identity and then realizing that I was now in a society that has a difficult history (I grew up in societies that have other, hugely problematic social histories, but they were race-blind; thus, this anecdote involved my learning process that most teachers would not use as an example of cross-cultural communicative failure with students).
That day, I noticed something very intriguing in the class. First, while listening to my anecdotes, my students seemed totally mesmerized. Then, when I asked them to share any experience of communicative failures that they may have experienced, they opened up like anything and shared so many stories that I had to ask them to save the rest for the following class; some of the experiences that they shared would have been very embarrassing if I had not first created the right environment by establishing the value of discomfort as a learning tool, especially by making myself vulnerable. That day, the level of comfort with discomfort significantly changed for the rest of the semester!
From the above experience, I learned a few important things:
1. Even students who might be assumed to not know much about the larger world and other cultures outside the US generally know a lot about those issues;
2. Students are more willing to learn more and engage in or about cross-cultural dialog than it is assumed;
3. Students appreciate the teacher’s contribution to their process of or desire for thinking outside the box; and
4. If the teacher happens to be from outside, they not only accept but also highly appreciate the teacher challenging them to think outside the box, to explore and learn more about cultures and perspectives beyond what they currently inhabit or know about.
So, when I taught this course the next time, I increased the amount of reading, discussion, and writing about cultural awareness in business communication. When I had a relevant personal/social experience, I also shared it with more confidence, prompting students to also do the same.
In a course that I taught some time after, an Advanced Writing course for undergraduate honors, I took my students’ appreciation and desire for learning more about other cultures and different perspectives one clear step forward. I started this course by assigning reading, blogging, and class discussion activities on topics of cultural diversity in the US; but parallel to these initial readings, I introduced the idea of what I call the “discussion argument,” disallowing students to adopt the conventional approach of stating one position, finding evidence to support it, and trying to persuade the audience about the superiority of one unified argument or one point of view. In the “discussion argument” assignment, students had to study, discuss, and present at least three points of view.
At one point while students were writing the “discussion argument” papers, I asked them to NOT include their own favored point of view into the draft—but withhold it for including later on. That was when some real discomfort first surfaced. One student said something along the line of this: “This doesn’t make sense. If I’m not supposed to support ‘my’ argument, how is this an argument essay?” Another student said, “I’m a salesman and if I adopt this kind of approach, I’m gonna lose my job right away.” I said, “[Josh], This approach would be a real bad fit for marketing, so I don’t recommend it for rhetorical purposes like that; what we’re doing here is to use this strategy for learning things.”
Then I realized that I should have started by better explaining and justifying the strategy, and I did the rest of the semester. So the rest of the semester, I regularly reminded students that by rejecting the conventional model that essentially says “here is my point and here are the different reasons why my argument/perspective is right” I was asking them to enter the “zone of productive discomfort.” And I asked them to enter that zone with full awareness and purpose. And they did. This assignment went well.
After a few weeks, I shifted the focus of reading, writing, and discussion to issues of cultural, political and intellectual debates at the international level: the clash of civilizations, changing dynamic of geopolitical power, the pros and cons of globalization, environment and global poverty, and the complexity of culture and identity. Again, there was disinterest, confusion, resistance, and in one case criticism of the topics. One student initially called the readings “foreign,” implying that they were irrelevant, and another student found more than one readings on a given topic “repetitive” because he was not seeing that the readings actually adopted polemically different perspectives on the topic.
It was harder to get the point across this time, but eventually students were motivated to “go beyond” what one student humorously described as “more of the same [s*], instead of new ideas and perspectives.” That was the same student who found the readings “repetitive” at first. The assignment this time asked students to deliberately and purposefully engage in intellectually uncomfortable topics, perspectives, and/or cultural value systems. Not all groups found the most shocking subjects to work on, but they appreciated the idea of the “productive discomfort zone” and they went well beyond received perspectives on the topics of their choice.
For example, one group of students did a multimodal project on how beauty was defined and enacted in different cultures around the world. When they presented their project in class at the end of the semester, the images of “beautiful women” from around the world shocked other members of the class, who were not ready to go as far as women with huge metal plates pushing their lower lips out, with metal rings stretching their necks to scary extents, extraordinarily thin or fat, and so on. The presentations prompted great class discussions about how taking one set of cultural and social/political values, intellectual perspectives, and material realities for granted makes us limited in understanding, sensitivity, and even in the willingness to learn more. Looking at the pictures of some of the “beautiful women”—the class agreed—was not only uncomfortable but almost painful. But the use/purpose of the discomfort was clear: to understand different perspectives and learn better.
To put it somewhat theoretically, there are practical benefits of deliberately adopting discomfort as a means or environment for learning. Yes, we need to ask: What kind of and how much discomfort is productive in learning what and in what context? How can we make discomfort more productive? When and what amount is not worth it? But if we can convince ourselves or our students about the practical value of deliberately entering the zone of discomfort, then that can be very productive.
When was the last time you deliberately entered the “zone of productive discomfort”?
* A lot has been said and written about the benefits of “getting out of your comfort zone”; in fact, the phrase “productive discomfort” has been used in the fields of psychology and psychotherapy, physical therapy, spirituality, business, and even education. There is an interesting book by Daniel Pink, titled Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, in which he discusses the issue of “productive discomfort” in one of his chapters: “If you’re too comfortable, you’re not productive. And if you’re too uncomfortable, you’re not productive” (…). And what Pink says in that straightforward sentence is the essence of the plethora of things that scholars and researchers have found out and said about the value of discomfort.