Brené Brown, the Messy Middle & Intercultural Learning

Sep 15, 2020

September. The start of a new academic year. I usually love this time of year. It’s a time for planning. Possibilities. Newness. (Not to mention the fact my kids go back to school.)

But this year is different.

I’m feeling a mix of emotions:  Anxiety that dropping temperatures in Minnesota will soon mean much less time spent outdoors. Disappointment at cancelled plans. Sadness that my spouse is unable to visit his father in Spain. Frustration at how health and safety measures have become so politicized. But also a deep sense of gratitude—for my health, safety, financial security, and that of my loved ones. Excitement about new projects I have underway. Mixed with the occasional guilt—for feeling anything but gratitude given my privilege, as well as a sense that I should be doing more for those who are less fortunate right now.

So many conflicting emotions!

And you know what? That’s okay. It’s important to recognize the messy, complex, and even contradictory feelings we’re experiencing right now are completely normal.

As Brené Brown would say, we’re deep into Day 2 right now.

I love Brené and see so, so many connections between her work on shame and vulnerability, and intercultural learning. Recently, her podcast episode, “Brené on Day 2,” helped me better understand some of the connections I see between intercultural learning and our current circumstances.

Basically, “Day 2” is Brené’s term for the messy middle of any experience. It’s the part where things get rocky, where we hit the wall. Another way to think about it is it’s “when we’re in the dark, the doors close behind us, we’re too far in to turn around and not close enough to the end to see the light.”

But here’s the thing:  As Brené says, “The middle is messy, but it’s also where all the magic happens, all the tension that creates goodness and learning.” She references research that I often call upon in my intercultural trainings as well, which says that “if learning is not uncomfortable, you’re not really learning.”

We are smack dab in the middle of Day 2 right now—with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the racial justice movement, at least in the U.S.—and it feels incredibly messy for many of us. Uncomfortable. I don’t know about you, but I most definitely feel like the doors have shut behind me and I cannot yet see the light at the end of the tunnel.

But this is necessary. We can’t have a Day 3 without Day 2. We can’t have transformational learning and growth without discomfort. And it’s important for us to recognize this. In situations like this, when we find ourselves knee-deep in the messy middle, Brené says we need to “name it, normalize it, put it in perspective, and reality check expectations around it.”

Here’s what really hit home for me when listening to the podcast:  Brené talks about working with leaders and creatives at Pixar, the animated film company. She shares that the folks at Pixar who she was working with likened Day 2 to the second act in a three-act story. Darla Anderson, a producer at Pixar, explained to Brené the typical story arc of a three-act story. Act Two, she says, is “where the protagonist looks for every comfortable way to solve the problem. Every easy way to solve the problem. Every way to solve the problem that does not require the hero’s vulnerability.” Until finally they come to understand they can’t.

That really struck a chord for me. I’ve been involved in intercultural teaching and learning for a long time, and have found this same thing to be true there. First of all, developing interculturally requires discomfort. But most of us want it to be easy. We want personal growth and development, but don’t want to get uncomfortable—to get truly vulnerable—to get there.

But that’s not possible. We can’t develop interculturally without engaging the messy middle—sitting with discomfort and uncertainty, and being vulnerable.

For example, I run a twelve-week train-the-trainer program called Facilitating Intercultural Learning. In it, educators learn how to facilitate intercultural learning, while also developing their own intercultural competence.

At the beginning of the twelve weeks, I introduce participants to a four-phase developmental framework for intercultural learning. The final developmental phase involves bridging cultural differences. I emphasize that developing in the first three phases is critical to be able to achieve the fourth phase. Inevitably, I always get questions early on in the program that are basically, “Yes, but how do we bridge cultural differences that are seemingly at odds?”

They want the transformational learning and growth without the messy middle. But no matter what I tell them—no matter how articulate I could be in my response to their questions—that would not result in their intercultural development.

Because developing our intercultural competence is a personal journey—almost always a messy one. A good intercultural facilitator can guide you on that journey, but it’s your journey. You must be the one who actually climbs the mountain. You must engage in the physical, emotional, and mental work. That is where the learning and growth happens.

I’m not talking about engaging the messy middle just once, and then you are interculturally competent and can easily interact effectively and appropriately across differences whenever and wherever you like. No. Each time you find yourself in a challenging situation where you are engaging across difference, you must be willing to experience the messy middle. To sit with uncertainty and be vulnerable. To take uncomfortable actions that will move you forward, toward the light, even if you can’t see it. Even if you don’t always know which way is forward.

Inevitably, most educators—those who show up, do the work, and engage in the messiness—come to understand this by the end of our twelve weeks working together in a way they never could have at the beginning.

As Brené says, “we’re going to have to strip it all down and get really deeply, messy, human.” For example, around the racial justice movement, she says, “the most vulnerable thing we could do collectively right now is own the truth of our history.”

We have to accept that the messy middle is “a non-negotiable part of the process,” and we are deep in it right now. But it’s also a critical part of learning and growth. Which means it’s a step toward a better future, even if a very uncomfortable step.

So if you, like me, are feeling all the feels right now, I want you to know you are not alone. This is normal. It is necessary for learning and growth to occur, for progress. As Brené says, “This is a part of the process. Stay the course. Stay the course.” 


Brown, B. (Host). (2020, September 2). Brené on Day 2. [Audio podcast episode]. In Unlocking Us with Brené Brown. Cadence13.

Join the Conversation!

Enjoying the blog? You’re invited to join me and an amazing group of higher education professionals committed to fostering intercultural learning at the next Intercultural Leadership Forum! You'll have a chance to connect with others doing this work and gain new insights as you move toward your intercultural goals.