Did that title jarr you a bit, perhaps even offend you just a little? Or, conversely, did I endear myself to you ever so slightly by identifying our collective inclination to skim headlines on articles we’ll never read?

Regardless, you’re probably a bit more “aware” of yourself and your relation to this article; you may even make it a point of pride to finish it.

For those of us who aim to teach, preach, and advocate effectively, the use of dissonance is a helpful tool. To understand why, let’s explore what’s going on behind this slight, ever-brief “awakening” experience you may have had.

Thinking from the audience perspective

When we present material, be it in a classroom or boardroom, we do so most likely without examining our assumptions about the audience, so we’re often creating presentations and curricula that are not as engaging as they could be.

To explain, let me return to the title of this blog. My good friend, Nic Voge, and I often use some form of “why wouldn’t you _____?” as a way to engage folks in our workshops, especially when the audience is filled with reluctant participants.

When we present material, we do so most likely without examining our assumptions about the audience.

While this may seem just a clever little trick to wake people up and goad them into paying attention, it’s actually based on years of experience and research. When we first began working together, we’d agonize over how best to present our material; we’d make sure our PowerPoint was spot-on with all the content packed in there; and we’d carefully coordinate who would present when during our workshop.

What we left out, because we were really so focused on ourselves, was a true sensitivity to the audience. The very act of immediately focusing on constructing a cohesive presentation was actually based on unexamined assumptions about the individuals who would be at the presentation—that they were just as excited about our presentation as we were; that they were “clean slates” ready to embrace all that we had to say; and, most importantly, that they were readily open to implementing our recommendations into their own lives.

“Spotlight consciousness”

Nic and I have focused our research on the existential issues that frame teaching, and let me say here that I’m tempted to dump a lot of existential theory on you right now. I assure you, it’s all engaging and actually relevant, but I don’t want to test your resolve to read this entire blog post. So, let me summarize as succinctly as possible.

Each and every individual who reads our work or attends our workshops comes with their own set of beliefs and issues and a framework, or perspective of the world and themselves in the world, that gives meaning and purpose to those beliefs and issues. Everything—and I mean everything—that we experience is processed and filtered through that perspective, to the point where we actually disregard that which doesn’t affirm that perspective. Alison Gopnik, in her book The Philosophical Baby, calls this the “spotlight consciousness.” While children are much more open to new experiences and the unexpected, adults are much more focused and goal-oriented. As such we don’t want an unpredictable world; we want a predictive world that conforms to and validates our to-do lists.

While it would be easy to lament this evolution from a child’s mentality to the adult, spotlight consciousness does allow us to gain efficiency and focus so that we can quite literally go about the business of our lives.

we’ve got to disrupt the filtering process inside each person by introducing the unexpected

Nevertheless, it can stifle growth and openness to new experiences. So, it’s important for us to appreciate that many of those who read our work or attend our workshops have this spotlight consciousness that makes them disinclined to appropriate our work fully as we would want.

Now, this is not meant to be a cause of despair for teachers and presenters. To the contrary: it is possible to work through these filters, and this gets us back to how I started this blog post.

Creating dissonance

Somehow, we’ve got to disrupt that filtering process inside each person by introducing the unexpected, and creating dissonance is a great way to do so. I knew you had expectations of your own, and by catching you unawares, I opened up a gap that you couldn’t quite “process” away initially. You were momentarily stuck and had to wrestle with an unexpected moment.

While Nic and I have used this technique before, it’s simply one way to create dissonance. Each lecture, each format or presentation requires its own manner of introducing dissonance. For example, during one workshop in which we present specific methods to improve habits, we ask the attendees to write out how they can adopt these principles for themselves. In the next column we ask them to write out why they won’t do what they just say they were going to do. Simple, but that little exercise creates the most energy during the session; it creates a moment, a breach, for individuals to have a more honest discussion with themselves in self-reflection.

That doesn’t mean that they are necessarily going to implement what we say, but if we can get them to pause a moment and think a bit more honestly with themselves, they will at least be more inclined to do so.

…So, did you make it to the end of this article? More importantly, are you more inclined to hit pause in your future teaching and presentations, so you can think a bit more about what assumptions you are making about your students or audience in general? If so, how are you going to use dissonance? And…why wouldn’t you use dissonance?