Using discomfort to prompt learning in collaborative teams

By Rebecca Freeth and Guido Caniglia

Image of Rebecca Freeth
Rebecca Freeth (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?

Image of Guido Caniglia
Guido Caniglia (biography)

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.