Disorienting Dilemmas


Jack Mezirow, in his 1991 book Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning, introduced the idea of transformational learning to the world. Back then, Jack told us that transformational learning was a process that renews our frames of reference. "Frames of reference" was the term Jack used to describe "the assumptions through which we, as individuals, understand our personal experiences." Essentially, they're what define and shape our individual perceptions, thoughts, and feelings. They're what determine what we think, feel, and do.

In Transformative Dimensions, Mezirow suggested that, if we were conscious enough, we could use our every day experiences as platforms to leverage our life experiences into expansive learning processes. If we were attentive to the disappointments and missteps in our lives, tough enough to see these “failures” as the “distant, early-warning signals, they were, and tough enough to turn into them in order to examine their reasons, then we could use the knowledge, tools, and skillsets we had to launch the kinds of conscious learning processes that could decisively transform us. Following this path, he said, would help us foster the new frames of reference we needed to learn if we were going to lead healthier, more effective, fulfilling lives.

There was just one catch. No matter what, Mezirow said, the transformational learning processes he was describing could begin only after we first experienced what he called "disorienting dilemmas." In Transformative Dimensions, Mezirow told us a disorienting dilemma was an "unexpected incident" that unavoidably showed the person involved that they weren't perceiving and understanding reality in accurate or useful enough ways.

In the years since Mezirow published his original book, our understanding of transformational learning has expanded substantially. Currently, Amazon.com advertises more than 200 books on Transformative Learning. Google lists more than three dozen pages referencing this subject. Yet today, we at TLO can find only one book (i.e., The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations Into Breakthroughs, by Marcia Reynolds) that actually defines a disorienting dilemma, describes what it feels like for the person caught in the midst of the experience, and provides concrete exercises, interventions, and/or case studies that show how to support and encourage people who are just beginning to realize they're trapped in the middle of a disorienting dilemma.

This past year, we've searched the Internet for every bit of information we can find on disorienting dilemmas -- anything more exhaustive and instructive than the preliminary ideas Marcia Reynolds is offering. For example, we've researched related concepts like "disconfirming experiences," "cognitive dissonance," and "socio-emotional traumas" for what the research in these areas might reveal. But, in terms of useful descriptions, prescriptions, directions, recipes, and/or advice on how to initiate, support, and encourage a person to move into and through any of these destabilizing personal experiences, we've come up with a big, fat zero.

My own transformational learning experiences convince me that disorienting dilemmas, in fact, are the vital catalyst that Mezirow said they were. But, we're still short on the how part of this equation. If you’re interested in learning more about how to initiate, encourage, and support your own exploration of a disorienting dilemma, disconfirming experience, or socio-emotional trauma that’s been plaguing you, schedule an exploratory conversation with us.