sensitizing (dis)comfort

There’s a really great device that Michael Quinn Patton offers for use in developmental evaluation called ‘sensitizing concepts’. He’s borrowed it from qualitative research methods as a way of providing guidance to inquiry in complexity. Here’s a definition he gives in his qualitative methods book that came out a few years ago:

“Sensitizing concepts are terms, phrases, labels, and constructs that invite inquiry into what they mean to people in the setting(s) being studied. ... Qualitative inquiry using sensitizing concepts leaves terms purposefully undefined to find out what they mean to people in a setting. Sensitizing concepts are windows into a group’s worldview.”

Elsewhere he elaborates:

“The observer moves between the sensitizing concept and the real world of social experience, giving shape and substance to the concept and elaborating the conceptual framework with varied manifestations of the concept. Such an approach recognizes that although the specific manifestations of social phenomena vary by time, space, and circumstance, the sensitizing concept is a container for capturing, holding, and examining these manifestations to better understand patterns and implications.” (from “Process Use as a Usefulism”, in New Directions for Evaluation, issue 116, 2007)

So if I was studying evaluation or evaluators with this technique in mind, some of the sensitizing concepts I might unearth could be “use”, “accountability”, “learning”, and “stakeholders”. These are all terms and concepts that evaluators use a lot in shaping and describing our work, but we don’t always define them or agree on definitions of them and the act of exploring our definitions and what they mean to us in a given context can be very enlightening as to our underlying assumptions and values. The point of a sensitizing concept is not to nail down exactly what it means but to use it as a jumping-off point for inquiry, a flexible container to give some shape and direction to our learning process. A sensitizing concepts points to something and says, “Whoa, hey, there’s something going on here. This is important to the people involved in this. Watch this space.”

This discomfiting sculpture (which is hiding behind the Education Building at the University of Saskatchewan in an unmarked sculpture garden) is another thing I can’t stop thinking about.

This discomfiting sculpture (which is hiding behind the Education Building at the University of Saskatchewan in an unmarked sculpture garden) is another thing I can’t stop thinking about.

(Another similar device I’ve come across is Arnold Mindell’s “quantum flirts”, or signals and insights thrown at us by the universe as something we should pay attention to, described here by Kate Sutherland. I gravitate a little more toward the sensitizing concepts framing, but it’s useful to have different ways of engaging with and thinking about this idea.)

True to form, I can’t resist applying sensitizing concepts in my own life. I’ve been noticing all those words, terms, ideas, and concepts that keep popping up in my conversations and my field of awareness, like the non-musical equivalent of an earworm. Lately I’ve taken to putting them on post-its as I notice them so that I can spend more time in active reflection with them. Some of the ones on my wall right now are “gifts”, “boundaries”, “habits”, “abundance”, and “comfort/discomfort”.

That last one has been on my mind a lot lately. I started noticing it well over a year ago, coming out of an evaluation I was working on where some curiously-contrasting findings were emerging. One set of findings was about how much the participants (English-language learning older adults) valued how the program was relaxing and low stress to be in. The other set of findings was about how some of the actual outcomes of the program (social connections, language learning) were occurring really strongly around one of the most stressful and un-relaxing parts of the program (public performances). These findings weren’t in conflict though. There wasn’t a split among the participants themselves and it wasn’t a case of participants wanting one thing and the program implementation pushing something else. Rather the facilitators were creating classroom experiences that were comfortable, low stress, and welcoming while also providing opportunities for participants to take on different levels of challenge at their own pace. The participants, while enjoying the relaxed atmosphere where nobody had to be an expert, would then often set their own standards for achievement, asking for more practices and rehearsals and setting challenges for themselves like memorizing their scripts. The performances were still stressful, but rehearsing and overcoming the difficulty together helped the participants bond and gain confidence in their ability to speak without being perfect. The comfortable and uncomfortable aspects of the program worked together.

Not an earth-shattering conclusion, actually! It seems obvious in retrospect and in keeping with theory around group cohesion and principles of adult learning. It’s also a good example of emergent program design, since we never set out to make performances part of the program nor would we have likely induced the same people to participate by advertising it that way. And a great reminder of the power of moving from questions like, “How do we create X outcome?” to ones like, “What conditions tend to support the emergence of X outcome and why?”, since an answer such as, “Have people do public performances to enhance social bonds and language learning”, speaks to what you’re trying to do but, “Create environments where people feel comfortable and safe and then give them opportunities to step into discomfort and challenge on their own terms”, tells you how to get there (since what mattered was not the performances themselves so much as how they were experienced).

It also speaks to the flexibility and utility of a principle over a rule, which Michael Quinn Patton distinguishes between in his Principles-Focused Evaluation, where a rule tells you exactly what to do in a specific situation while a principle gives you less specific but still guiding advice that can be adapted across many different contexts and situations. It’s this quality of a principle that I’ve found with the comfort/discomfort concept and the way it keeps popping up to guide my practice and self-learning. I’ve started seeing it everywhere, this use of comfort/discomfort as a managed experience for learning and change, either by creating a space that has proportional elements of both or an iterative process of moving between comfort and discomfort cyclically as part of the learning process. I see it in any theory that talks about “optimal zones” for learning/performing, like the inverted-U of the Yerkes-Dodson theory or Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development. I see it in eco-cycle planning and the chaordic path. There was a conversation on the Art of Hosting listserv about cognitive load theory in instructional design and it came up there as well in reference to comfort zones and balancing cognitive load. I noticed it in my own guiding principles of “be kind” and “be curious” (where kindness tells me to get comfortable and curiosity tells me to get uncomfortable by leaving the known in order to open up to the unknown). It turns up in a somewhat different way in activist spheres through ideas like, “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable” (which can be attributed to activist and poet Cesar A. Cruz and not Banksy, though Cruz was also possibly riffing off the original satirical version about newspapers).

Having tuned into comfort/discomfort as a generative conceptual space for me with regard to learning and change, I can use it intentionally as a way to explore that deeper. I can ask myself questions around it, both in planning (“how can I use this concept in the design of learning experiences for myself and others?”) and in reflection (“what am I learning about this concept through interacting with it?”).

When it comes to my own learning process, I can ask myself:

Am I comfortable or uncomfortable? What am I comfortable with? What am I uncomfortable with? What does “comfort” look like for me? And “discomfort”? What’s the relative balance of these two experiences in my life? Do I need more comfort? What would help me feel more comfortable? What opportunities can I give myself to be uncomfortable? In what ways am I moving between states of comfort and discomfort? What is shaping and directing this movement? How is this impacting the quality of my learning experiences?

And when am I working with others, I can think about:

Who is comfortable? Who is uncomfortable? Why? What are they comfortable (or uncomfortable) with? What might lend itself to more comfort? What opportunities are available for them to be uncomfortable? What opportunities can I offer for people to engage with discomfort? How can I create spaces where people can manage their own comfort levels? In what ways are people moving between comfort and discomfort, and to what ends? How is that interacting with the learning experience?

As I spend more time playing with this idea, my understanding of it will get deeper and more sophisticated (at least, that’s the hope) and it gives me a way of organizing a lot of incoming data I’m receiving, a way to focus in on “How are these things connecting or not connecting with this sensitizing concept? What are the patterns and themes? What doesn’t hang on this concept entirely or at all and needs something else?” Or I may move beyond it entirely (stop being “sensitized” by it) as I encounter more useful and engaging concepts that take my learning to another level.

(And if you’re wondering, “But, Carolyn, how do you avoid getting so caught up in these ideas that you force them onto situations where they don’t fit or see patterns and connections that aren’t really there? How do you know it’s not just all in your head?”, then I applaud your critical questioning and offer that this is why working in collaborative, interdependent ways is so important because by doing things like bringing these ideas up in conversation, like putting them in a blog post where other people can interact with them, ask questions, and offer their own insights, they can be tested and built on and strengthened and discarded through discussion. So in a more formal evaluative process, these concepts would be identified and explored within the group of people engaged in the evaluation, not by one person alone.)