Next Level Leadership Blog


Disorienting Dilemmas Pull Us To New Levels of Understanding


“The path ahead is clear despite the chaos. It is always clear. The path is to do what we can to control our focus, responses and actions, so that we honor our values and serve as a positive light for others. In uncertainty you find grounding by living an intentional and kind life.” -Brendon Burchard

Terror and death in Charlottesville and confusing presidential leadership are in the forefront of our minds in recent weeks.  On social media many thoughtful and not so thoughtful people engage in varied discourse.  I’m reading as many posts as I can.  What I see mostly is every person giving his/her own perspective and like-minded people supporting each other.  What I’m experiencing very little of is conversation focused on gaining more understanding.

I read small great things by Jodi Piccoult.  This novel is about a labor and delivery nurse who is African American and charged in the death of a baby born to parents who are White Supremacists.  It’s one of the best and most difficult novels I’ve read in years.  I can’t put it down and at the same time I have to stop reading at times to take a break to absorb the impact of the writing that is so painful it’s disorienting.
A colleague asks me how can I stay positive in this chaos and we have a long discussion.  We conclude that it is important to be angry – angry with our president, the systems that fail us, and people who have hate in their hearts and who chose to make it visible in heinous ways.  Then we settle on the notion that what matters most for leaders is what we do with our anger.
I was reminded about how I felt on November 9th, 2017, the day after the Presidential election.  I woke up to learn my candidate lost, and I had to push myself through a fog to take a train and a bus to Los Angeles airport for a business trip.  In that fog I read a Facebook post from coach/mentor Bruce Schneider of iPEC Coaching about being the light in a dark time.  It expanded my energy and reminded me why I do what I do, why any nonprofit organization leader does what you do.  We want the world to be better, and no matter the challenge, we’ll find a way.  Often to do that we have to start with being better ourselves.
That’s why today I’m exploring “disorienting dilemmas” that feel like a tangled nest of wires we’ll never sort out and what makes them an essential element of taking nonprofit leadership to the next level.  According to Professor Jack Mezirow, Columbia University (1991), a disorienting dilemma is “an experience within which a current understanding is found to be insufficient or incorrect and the learner struggles with the resulting conflict of views. Such experiences often are those to which learners point as the beginning of the process of questioning their understanding and views and entering the transformative learning process.  It is sometimes descriptively referred to as creating a state of ’disequilibrium’ for the learner.”  (
Disorienting dilemmas take time to emerge from and solve.  They require reading, questioning, many conversations, and much reflection. They require love and empathy and the safety of people we trust where we can share confused thoughts.  Judith E. Glaser, in her book Conversational Intelligence, How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results, explains that these dilemmas require understanding, the kind that comes from “standing under the same world view with others. This deeper understanding happens when we take the time to be in another’s shoes to see what they see from their perspective and not our perspective of their perspective.   Judith explains, “Listening to how another person “holds their reality” – and doing it without judgment – is priceless”.
Disorienting dilemmas come in all shapes and sizes and the time it takes to resolve every one is different.  Here is a recent personal example. My sister-in-law is Mexican American. She teaches English in the New York City public school system and most of her students are immigrants.  She has a deep personal and professional context for understanding bias, exclusion, racism, bigotry and hatred that is much deeper than my own.  I commented in one conversation that I was looking for people of color to help me understand what I don’t know about racism.  She pushed back hard saying that’s not a fair expectation and that what I need to do is the work to figure it out.  It was disorienting because I didn’t really know what she meant or quite how to do it.  I have a better idea now.  This is what Judith is talking about when she says “stand under the same world view.” It means to step into the reality of another person and when you are completely open to their perspective from their point of view the space for a deeper level of understanding begins to take shape.  The way to this level of understanding is to be curious about life experience and to shift uncomfortable conversations into powerful learning opportunities.
Here is another disorienting dilemma example involving nonprofit leaders.  A significant drama unfolded for a client about the way the organization prepares regulatory reviews.  There was a lot of “he said/she said” conversation that took up precious organizational work time.  For one leader, it was all about what everyone else didn’t do, and for other leaders it was all about what one leader didn’t do.  When we pulled back some of the layers, we discovered that the leadership team has not mapped out together the process they want to implement together to be prepared for success with this type of review process. Their experience reflects the saying, “if you don’t know where you are going, any road will do.”  They didn’t yet share a vision for the process, or share expectations for how they’ll work together to be successful, or share ideas about how their respective roles could support the process together.  This kind of understanding also comes from curiosity about organizational culture and practices.

In her framework of Conversational Intelligence®, Judith explains that our “limbic brain” contributes to creating understanding by storing our memories of our interactions. These memories are important in helping us assess whether we fit in and belong.  Our feelings of belonging are critical to our mental health. So when we focus on building understanding by seeing the world from another person’s perspective, it calms the limbic brain, enhances bonding and creates the feeling that “we’re all in this together.”  Judith concludes that “by learning to see the world from another person’s perspective, we can attain the highest level of trust.”  And this is the first step toward candor with caring, where we unpack our anger about essential things we still need to do better in the world.  The choice is ours to make.
Leaders can be resigned to our dilemmas, tolerating them or minimizing their importance.    Leaders can implement work arounds denying what’s wrong and settling.  Or leaders can keep looking for a different way, by embracing our discomfort and asking what can we do differently today – even if it’s a small step – to make our world better.
We have two recommendations for any nonprofit organization leader experiencing a disorienting dilemma.  First, commit yourself to a learning mode like a sponge.  Learn and learn more before you declare clarity.  Second, practice staying objective in conversations where your values are not in sync.  You can do this by listening for the experiences that shape points of view that are different from your own and being curious about them.  This is the place where we continue to work through our national disorienting dilemmas.  This is the place where new ideas that calm the chaos emerge.  This is a place where we can feel anger and simultaneously work to repair the chaos in the world. This is the positive influence that nonprofit sector leaders must have at times when we know we need something better and yet what that is remains unclear.
Managance Consulting & Coaching is on a mission to ignite passion and energize opportunity in nonprofit work places.  Denice Hinden, PhD, PCC, President and her team inspire leaders and teams to their next level of leadership and develop more trusting “we-centered” organizational cultures with transformational leadership development and engaging strategic thinking.  Denice is Certified in Conversational Intelligence®.  Judith E. Glaser is the founder and CEO of Benchmark Communications, Inc., and the Chairman of The Creating We Institute.   We are honored to partner with Judith to bring you our 2017-2018 Leveling Up Leadership Blog. 
Copyright © 2017 by Managance Consulting & Coaching and Judith E. Glaser

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