Discomfort is a Learning Space

by | Nov 6, 2018 | Wellbeing

This blog is part II of a five-part series on the theme of ‘Valuing Your Difference: Your “Shortcomings” Are Your Superpowers’. It is based on the presentation of that title delivered at Nottingham UK’s #WomenInTech event in October 2018.

Read Part I: Diverse Thought Prevents Dangerous Echo Chambers


We’ve all been there. In a meeting, sales pitch or interview when we suddenly feel completely out of our depth. Or worse, completely ignorant of a topic that the others are discussing.

At face value, this is really disheartening. We curse ourselves for not being smart enough or not reading the right resources. We feel inferior and our self-confidence can take a real knock.

When we’re intimidated by people with seemingly more experience or knowledge in a particular subject, we often shrink into ourselves. Women in particular have a tendency to focus on their weaknesses, rather than their strengths.

But we mustn’t assign greater value to the knowledge of others and do ourselves a disservice. The value that you bring to a conversation is rarely shared knowledge and an agreeable position, and is instead your difference of opinion and unique experience.

Women leaders are still the minority in business. Therefore, we must find a way to become comfortable having a different opinion from those around us and often a contrasting worldview. And rather than suppress those differences, we must recognise their value.

Don’t Be Intimitated

In technical fields, specialist terminology and acronyms can be used as a power-play. I have experienced this in conversations on startup fundraising, and was relieved to hear a Seedlegals presenter once refer to pre-seed, seed, series A and series B terminology as semantics. Despite my research, I had failed to find agreeable definitions for these terms and, as a result, had felt like an amateur. The presenter’s comment finally put me at ease.

In extreme power-play examples, vocabulary and acronyms can be used to reinforce an “insiders club” and intend to keep people out. Specialist language can be used to demonstrate self-importance and expertise. It can be intimidating and feel elitist for those on the outside.

It is wise to remember that when those around you use these tactics to elevate their self-importance, it is not your issue; it is theirs. Competitive people of all genders and ages can attempt to make you feel unimportant, because status is relative; by reducing your status they elevate their own.

So how do we embrace these feelings of intense discomfort and knowledge-gap in those situations? Here are two methods to help you avoid internalising intimidation in business scenarios.

1. Ask “what do I bring to the table?”

During my career, I spent eight years working across two sectors that are specialist and technically advanced – financial services and technology. I am not an expert on financial regulation, or technical components within data centers. But I am an experienced marketing and business growth professional.

If my approach had been to hide my differences and to align with the thinking of others in those businesses, I would have failed. I would have fallen short of their knowledge and not brought anything to the table.

So instead of focusing on your “shortcomings”, consider what you’re bringing to the table. Share your insight and perspective even if you feel awkward – it may well dispell a dangerous assumption and prevent an expensive mistake.

As a founder, this is especially important. Your business is ultimately your responsibility; you must ensure that you are challenging your investors, your team and your advisors, so together you can make informed decisions. And encourage those around you to challenge your view too. Your business relies on it.

2. Accept that we learn through discomfort

Remember, what is far more important than your current knowledge, is your propensity to learn.

Other people’s knowledge and perceived expertise does not lessen yours. It is just different. So rather than assuming a competitive position, where your understanding is “less than”, see this as a learning opportunity.

Growth does not happen within our comfort zones. So if you’re comfortable in most of the professional interactions that you’re having, if they are right in your knowledge space, be careful. This is a dangerous place to reside, as you may well be creating your very own echo chamber*, reinforcing your assumptions rather than challenging them.

As the Chinese proverb says: “A person who asks is a fool for five minutes. A person who never asks is a fool for life.”


What’s your strategy to avoid internalising knowledge intimidation? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Keep an eye out for the next part in the series ‘When We’re All Different, There Is No Imposter Syndrome’.  You can sign up to our newsletter below so you don’t miss it.

*Read Part I: Diverse Thought Prevents Dangerous Echo Chambers

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