Using discomfort to prompt learning in collaborative teams

By Rebecca Freeth and Guido Caniglia

1. Rebecca Freeth (biography)
2. Guido Caniglia (biography)

We know that reflecting can make a marked difference to the quality of our collective endeavour. However, in the daily busyness of inter- and trans- disciplinary research collaborations, time for reflection slides away from us as more immediate tasks jostle for attention. What would help us put into regular practice what we know in theory about prioritising time to reflect and learn?

Discomfort sometimes provides the necessary nudge in the ribs that reminds us to keep reflecting and learning. The discomfort of listening to the presentation of a colleague you like and respect, but having very little idea what they’re talking about. Or, worse, failing to see how their research will make a worthy contribution to the collective project. The discomfort when an intellectual debate with a colleague turns personal. The discomfort of watching project milestones loom, knowing you’re seriously behind schedule because others haven’t done what they said.

We draw on the work of German pedagogue Tom Senninger (2000) to explore varying degrees of discomfort as prompts for on-the-job learning to collaborate in research teams. Too much discomfort and our stress levels can block learning. But with zero discomfort, there may be little stimulus to challenge one’s own assumptions. As shown in the figure below, somewhere in-between is a sweet spot that Senninger calls the ‘learning zone’, where there is enough discomfort to prompt inquiry and learning.

The learning zone between comfort and discomfort, as adapted from Senninger (2000)
The spectrum from extreme comfort to extreme discomfort. The learning zone lies in between. In any shared experience, different members of a research team (identified as stars) may experience different degrees of dis/comfort. Adapted from Senninger (2000).

One of the complications in a team is that different individuals have different degrees of tolerance to discomfort and are triggered into discomfort by different things. We suggest actively and intentionally addressing discomfort in research teams, calling reflexive attention to it, even if not everyone is equally affected by it. In this way, both individual researchers and the whole team can enter the learning zone. The intention is to learn about oneself and each other, to capitalize on differences and find complementarities instead of getting stuck in controversies. In this way, discomfort has potential to prompt efforts to enhance communication, mutual understanding and integration for more robust research outputs.

This suggests that alongside regular ring-fenced times for team reflection, there is also value in using moments of discomfort to slow down and inquire: What’s happening now? What is causing discomfort? Such inquiry can lead to individual contemplation that opens back into a group conversation about different experiences and what these indicate for future learning needs as a team.

This then leads to questions about how to stay engaged through discomfort, to keep learning to collaborate together. Previous blog posts by Rebecca Freeth and Liz Clarke provide clues for skilful conversations for integration as well as a rationale for embracing tension for energy and creativity in interdisciplinary research.

What have you discovered about working with your own discomfort in collaborations? How have you made visible moments of collective discomfort in a team for the purpose of strengthening collaborative capacity?

To find out more:
Freeth, R. and Caniglia, G. (2019). Learning to collaborate while collaborating: Advancing interdisciplinary sustainability research. Sustainability Science. (Online) (DOI):

Senninger, T. (2000). Abenteuer Leiten – in Abenteuern lernen: Methodenset zur Planung und Leitung kooperativer Lerngemeinschaften für Training und Teamentwicklung in Schule, Jugendarbeit und Betrieb. Oekotopia Verlag: Aachen, Germany.

Biography: Rebecca Freeth is a senior fellow at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) in Potsdam, Germany. As a practitioner, teacher and researcher, she has an abiding interest in how to strengthen collaboration, especially in situations where competition, conflict or controversy are the more familiar ways of engaging. She accompanies interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary teams in support of realizing more meaningful collaboration and more satisfying project outcomes.

Biography: Guido Caniglia PhD has research interests which revolve around three main areas: (1) epistemology of inter- and trans- disciplinary sustainability science, with a focus on forms of real-world experimentation; (2) higher education for sustainable development, especially internationalization of the curriculum; (3) evolutionary biology, with a focus on the evolution of complex bio-social systems, from cities to insect societies. He is the Scientific Director of the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research in Klosterneuburg, Austria and previously held a Marie-Curie post-doctoral fellowship at Leuphana University in Lueneburg, Germany.

7 thoughts on “Using discomfort to prompt learning in collaborative teams”

  1. Hi Rebecca and Guido, thank you for an interesting article.

    The creation of a moderate degree of discomfort is a way of explaining one of the reasons for the effectiveness of agile methods (

    Agile methods are reliant on the incremental and iterative completion of goals. By breaking down an overall process into smaller iterative cycles, agile methods mean that teams are focused on reaching immediate and much more readily achievable goals or milestones. These smaller cycles create a desirable level of discomfort that keeps teams engaged in the learning, collaboration, and task completion necessary for the achievement of the goals of the current cycle. At the same time, the smaller cycles mean that teams are not overwhelmed and highly stressed by everything that must be achieved in the overall project / program, which avoids the “too much discomfort” situation you alert to. The iterative cyclic approach also means that problems and risks are identified and addressed at the earliest possible opportunity, which is another important reason for the success of agile methods.

    I wonder has there been consideration of the potential of using agile methods as part of the research process? While agile is well-known for its application in IT projects, it is now being applied more broadly. For example, I’ve successfully applied it in program management (

    Discomfort could also be considered a similar factor in other cyclic decision-making approaches such as the OODA loop (observe – orient – design – act) and Deming wheel (, and these may also have application to the research process.

  2. Just an observation; you might consider an icon other than what appears to be a target or bullseye. Discomfort aside, with the gun killings going on in America, this icon may distract and disturb more than discomfort and take away from your real message.

  3. For me, the ability to use discomfort to prompt learning is an outcome, specifically an interim outcome, of effective collaborative relationships between partners. These relationships have identifiable characteristics that collaborations can encourage and develop. I describe these characteristics here: and am exploring how they may be developed here:

    As hinted at in the above comments, it is not uncommon for people to attempt to avoid discomfort by offering seemingly logical alternative approaches that feel comfortable and non-threatening. If time and effort has been invested in developing the previously mentioned effective collaborative relationships, people will trust each other enough to share, explore and learn from each other’s areas of discomfort. Also, third party facilitators and the tools they use to help people stay with and learn from uncomfortable feelings and issues will gain best results when applied to fertile ground: a collaborative group consisting of individuals who have willingly invested time and effort in methodically developing good and effective collaborative relationships with each other.

    • Dear Charles

      Yes, I completely agree. To this I would add two thoughts. Firstly, even where effective relationships have been cultivated, many of us – myself included – also have to expand our capacity to tolerate discomfort. For long enough to grasp what there is to be learned from the situation.

      Secondly, that discomfort isn’t always a good thing. For me, it can be an effective means to an end, a flashing light that wakes me up, reminding me that we could be doing better in our collaboration. The ‘end’ is, in my mind, effective (and enjoyable!) collaboration with strong outcomes. I’m wary of somewhat cavalier approaches to discomfort. This is why I have a cautious response to the Ritual Dissent method mentioned in a previous post.

      I’m aware that I’m treading a thin line here, between a too-cosy degree of comfort and a too-cavalier degree of discomfort. In my own work, I think of this as as creating safe-enough, not always comfortable spaces for collaboration. I’m curious: how do others tread this thin line?


      • Hmm, yes…

        I have to admit that two very tried and tested methods almost always worked well for me when I was a facilitator helping to enhance the collaborative effectiveness of teams: “Here and Now and There and Then” and “Thinking Feeling Doing”.

        These methods draw attention to the choices each of us have from moment to moment re. how we perceive and experience.

        “Here and Now” and “Feeling” often cause most discomfort because they are immediate and personal. They are about what is happening now “in the moment” between me and others (and whatever else is present at the time) and how I and others are reacting to it.

        “There and Then” draws perception away from the immediate towards what happened in the past or could happen in the future. This diminishes the discomfort of immediacy.

        “Doing” diverts attention away from the immediate discomfort of feelings towards what someone wants to (physically) do now or next.

        Awareness of these different perceptual and behavioural choices enabled me to help individuals manage and stay with productive discomfort and, when personal tolerances had been reached, purposefully step into different and less discomforting (but still helpful) ways of perceiving and reacting. Also, once aware of these different ways of perceiving and reacting, individuals could manage their tolerances for discomfort for themselves. Doing this, however, takes practice.

        Lastly, as I emphasised within my previous comment, a pre-existing level of good and effective personal relationships within the team increases the effectiveness of the process. The process can still be effective without these pre-existing relationships, but in such circumstances it tends to generate significant “blood, sweat and tears” (outcomes to be avoided unless absolutely necessary).

        My best,


  4. Dave Snowden / Cognitive Edge developed a workshop exercise called ‘Ritual dissent’ to catalyse movement into ‘dis’comfort / learning zones

    [moderator note; added this replacement URL: – Original and now (October 2021) no longer working URL was: cognitive-edge[dot]com… methods… ritual-dissent]

    I’ve tried it in South Africa. Movement into learning / discomfort zones did work OK.

    However, quite a few people were very uncomfortable with the exercise. Many people (especially academics) seemed to believe that consensus and ‘participation’ would generate a better (or more comfortable?) result. I’m not sure why this belief in what i call ‘naive participation’ persists. Personally, i remember far more when i feel uncomfortable about my initial response to the implications of a bad decision that i have made.

    • Dear Christopher

      Thanks for this thought-provoking response. I wasn’t aware of the Ritual Dissent approach and I’m grateful to you for drawing it to our collective attention. In my experience, far less provocation than this is needed to create discomfort in most collaborations. There are so many sources of discomfort from which to learn, as we go about our daily interactions, that it is unnecessary to stage a ritualised practice such as this one. The practice I am more interested in is how to address discomfort when it arises. Here I am interested in cultivating the inner resourceful to recognise one’s own discomfort and find out what has prompted it, and in developing skills to talk productively about discomfort with colleagues in a collaborative endeavour.

      As a side note, I am somewhat wary of any approach that “attacks” ideas. While strong critical feedback can be very constructive at times, I’m with Lakoff & Johnson (Metaphors We Live By, 1980) when they point out how much of our language appears to be founded in a paradigm of war. Particularly when collaborating, I think it is worth being conscious of the language we use, and the potential for it to have a (sometimes unintentionally) combative edge. When we unconsciously use such language with our closest colleagues, we might trigger their discomfort and then fail to understand their reaction. I’m not suggesting we tiptoe around each other. Quite the opposite, I am suggesting we hone our awareness as much as possible, and be willing to listen to how our language and behaviour create discomfort so that we can have robust conversations in which we all learn more about how to collaborate while collaborating.

      Christopher, I agree whole heartedly about “naive participation” and I’m not a big believer in consensus approaches, which tend to be based on shallow democracy as opposed to deep democracy. But that’s probably for another post!

      Any thoughts on this are most welcome.



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