Medium 9781626560659

The Discomfort Zone

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You want people to stretch their limits, but your conversations meant to help them often fall flat or backfire, creating more resistance than growth. Top leadership coach Marcia Reynolds offers a model for using the Discomfort Zone—the moment when the mind is most open to learning—to prompt people to think through problems, see situations more strategically, and transcend their limitations.

Drawing on recent discoveries in the neuroscience of learning, Reynolds shows how to ask the kinds of questions that short-circuit the brain’s defense mechanisms and habitual thought patterns. Then, instead of being told, people see for themselves the insightful and often profound solutions to what is stopping their progress. The exercises and case studies will help you use discomfort in your conversations to create lasting changes and an enlivened workforce.

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Introduction: What Is Good about Discomfort?

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The Discomfort Zone is the moment of uncertainty when people are most open to learning.On the day I resigned from my last corporate position, one of the vice presidents came into my office and said, “You can’t go. Who will I talk to?” I recalled our first heated encounter five years earlier when he was the head of quality and I was the touchy-feely new girl hired to make the employees feel better about the changes that were happening in the organization. We were aliens from two different worlds. Yet together, we created a program that seeded the cultural transformation that helped the organization become the top performing IPO (initial public offering) in the United States in 1993.There were many conversations in which I challenged his beliefs about what motivates people, questioned his views on leadership, dug into the source of his emotions when he no longer wanted to put up with me, and helped him see that letting go of some of his habits and perspectives would help him achieve what he knew was possible for the company. At times, he didn’t like me, but he came to trust me, even when I was wrong. I learned a lot, too, about the business and what it takes to transform both one leader and an organization. We both became surprisingly comfortable with uncomfortable conversations.

 

One: Criteria for Choosing a Discomfort Zone Conversation

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“The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.”

Ralph Nader, from Crashing the Party

I was sharing my latest complaints about my peers with my boss when he suddenly sighed so loudly I stopped mid-sentence. When he had my attention, he said, “I know you work hard. I know you want the best for the company, but everybody seems to let you down. Is anyone ever good enough for you?”

I sat paralyzed for a dreadfully long time. When I finally exhaled, the tension rolled down my shoulders resting heavily in my legs. I felt both embarrassed and amazed. My coach had once made a similar observation after my rant about my dating fiascos. Here was my wall of protection showing up again at work. All I could say was, “Of course. You’re right.” I knew I would never see my work relationships the same again.

The question my boss asked me led me to recognize a pattern of behavior that kept me from fully engaging with my team members to resolve problems. I am a high achiever. I did good work on my own and felt snubbed the moment I wasn’t recognized for my accomplishments or grand ideas. To ease the pain, I found reasons to complain about how others were not living up to their promises or expectations. Instead of learning how I could influence more effectively or realize even grander results with others, I focused on highlighting their flaws.

 

Two: What Comes First

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“You can’t fake caring.”

Len Roberts, Former Chairman and CEO of Radio Shack

I had been listening to my client, the CEO of a chemical company, complain for at least five minutes. His employees didn’t care, his administrator was incompetent, the economy was a disaster, his customers were idiots, and the traffic was out of control. When I felt I had an opening, I said, “Wah, wah wah.”

He said, “Oh my God. I sound like that?”

“Ed, name one thing in our life right now that you are excited about. What is one thing that makes you smile? Better yet, what is one thing that makes you laugh out loud?”

“I’m being an ass, aren’t I?” he said.

“I think you aren’t aware of who you are being at all, at work or in your life. What are you so angry about?”

After the long pause I’m used to getting from my clients, he declared, “I have no life.”

We had never talked about his private life before. I didn’t know until that day he had gone through a divorce the year before. When he shared with me what his typical day looked like, he made the revelation that he was putting all of his attention into work to avoid his lonely life. This led to him putting undue pressure on his employees, especially his committed administrator, as he saw them through his lens of negativity. In the end, he agreed it was time to take a vacation. He even promised me he would go dancing, something he had loved doing all of his life before the divorce.

 

Three: The Map and the Milestones for Your Conversation

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“The truth is obtained like gold, not by letting it grow bigger, but by washing off from it everything that isn’t gold.”

Leo Tolstoy, from Tolstoy’s Diaries

One of the coaching questions I often ask is: “How do you know that to be true?” The answer is always based on personal perception and not absolute laws of the universe, if there are any. Individuals build their own models of reality from whatever bits and bytes are stored in their minds. Even “true facts” relating to the physical world have been up for hot debate in the past century.

Although hundreds of models and theories from philosophy, biology, and psychology seek to explain how humans know things, they all support the fact that social reality is subjective. Plato had it right 2,400 years ago when, in his dialogue Theaetetus, he defined knowledge as “justified true beliefs.” In other words, we make up what we believe to be true based on our education, past experiences, and our hopes for what will transpire in the future.

 

Four: How to Listen for What to Say

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“It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.”

Sherlock Holmes in A Case of Identity

Because intuition is often perceived as unexplainable magic or unreliable hooey, it is left out of the list of essential leadership skills. I’ve seen explanations for intuitive insights ranging from messages from spirits, to a sixth sense available to psychics and wizards, or an evolutionary advantage women have over men. I don’t know of any research that confirms these characterizations, including the existence of a woman’s intuition though evidence suggests women have learned to heed their inner voice more than men for socially acceptable reasons.

On the other hand, Daniel Kahneman’s international bestseller, Thinking Fast and Slow, provides a great deal of proof that everyone, even the most concrete thinkers, relies on intuition to navigate daily life.1 Kahneman demonstrates repeatedly that we make few decisions without a dose of intuition injected into the mix no matter how logical and evidence-based you think you are. Some of our greatest minds, including Albert Einstein, praised intuition as a significant element of good decision making provided it is balanced with data. Intuition is the hallmark quality of the legendary demystifier Sherlock Holmes.

 

Five: New Perspective—Using Discomfort Zone Conversations to Break Through Barriers

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“Nothing limits achievement like small thinking; nothing expands possibilities like unleashed imagination.”

William Arthur Ward

In the winter of 2009, I attended the first European School of Management and Technology (ESMT) coaching colloquium in Berlin.1 The theme of the colloquium was “Tricky Coaching: Difficult Cases in Leadership Coaching.” In each case, the goals the client laid out at the start of the coaching engagement blurred over time. Resistance to change showed up in many ways. External circumstances had varying effects. There were numerous approaches the coach could have taken. There were no pat answers to any dilemma.

Each accepted case was sent to one or two other case authors to read and write an opinion on the coach’s approach. When we came together in Berlin, we reviewed the cases and opinions, which inspired rich dialogue about the scenarios. Many of the cases have since been written into a wonderful book called Tricky Coaching.2

 

Six: Transformation—Using Discomfort Zone Conversations to Embrace What’s Next

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“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.”

Lao Tzu

When I announced to my friends I wanted to be a public speaker, one woman suggested I take improvisational acting classes to improve my spontaneity and presence on the stage. I attended a workshop. Although my “I’m no actor” brain hated many of the exercises, the moments I felt free to talk and behave without care were exhilarating.

For the following two years, I flew to Los Angeles for a weekend workshop every three months. We were rarely instructed to be funny when given scenarios to play out, but many of my classmates were delightfully hilarious. I preferred to be dramatic.

One weekend, the instructor pulled me aside and requested I lighten up for the day. When I asked for clarification, she suggested I refrain from saying anything intelligent or profound. I should just be ordinary, even boring.

“Boring?” I asked. “I work so hard at being interesting and motivational.”

 

Seven: Strategizing Your Development Plan

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“There’s only one real sin, and that is to persuade oneself that the second-best is anything but the second-best.”

Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook

The last exercise in my leadership classes starts with the question “What will stop you from implementing what you have experienced?” The excuses start with the usual lack of time, pressure to get results, and how they expect their old habits will return. The next layer of excuses includes worrying they will look stupid when trying to coach people so they will fail. Someone will admit to doubting the results. Someone else claims people expect answers from him or her, not questions.

Eventually, someone says that even if she sets goals to practice and courageously move forward, she would be hindered in her development because the culture doesn’t support this change. Taking time to develop minds is not recognized as a significant leadership skill. It is trumped by skills such as decisiveness, clear one-way communication, and a more transactional, formulaic, and a consequence-based “whistle around the neck” form of coaching focused on improving performance and winning. Even if she wanted to buck the system, she doesn’t feel supported trying to use a skill that takes time to master.

 

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