I am honored to host this guest post by Marcia Reynolds, author of The Discomfort Zone: Mastering the Art of Turning Difficult Conversations into Breakthroughs,
As a leader, there will be times when the people you lead or coach get stuck when dealing with difficult decisions and relationship issues. They know they have to resolve their issue but can’t see new solutions. You want to help, but these conversations can stir up emotions, and you might get flustered when a person gets angry, tears up, or feels embarrassed.
Yet it is in these moments of discomfort that a breakthrough is most likely to occur.
According to Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, we get stuck in our automatic thought-processing and resist questioning our beliefs and behaviors. Our brains protective instinct keeps us from in-depth self-exploration. We only view ourselves and our word differently when we see or hear something that surprises our brains.
People need you to help them think through difficult issues even though they don’t feel comfortable in the process.
In a conversation, when you share what you hear and sense, and then ask a question that causes a person to reflect on his thoughts and behavior, you might break through his protective wall. In that moment, the person’s brain is forced to reorder data in his long-term memory. The mental reshuffling feels awkward. Then he might feel a pinch of anger, embarrassment, or sadness when he sees the blind spot that was holding him back.
Creating a moment of discomfort is essential to generating the “aha” breakthrough in thinking.
How well you handle yourself in these moments will impact how effective you can be in the conversation. Leaders who know how to have a discomfort zone conversation are the best at developing the minds of their employees. Here are 5 ways to use discomfort to help the people you coach breakthrough to new solutions.
1. Let go of knowing. You have to enter these conversations trusting that the person will discover a solution if you ask the right questions. If you already know how you want a person to think and act, they will feel you are pushing them instead of being interested in their point of view. You must go into a conversation curious about what they think and how the conversation will unfold. And you must genuinely care about the person’s success or happiness when the issue is resolved. If they sense you are there only because you want this problem to go away, they will experience you as a threat instead of an ally.
2. Listen to their story before you question their assumptions and beliefs. The purpose for listening goes beyond ensuring that people feel heard. You need to pull out the assumptions and beliefs that are framing their story. When you rephrase their assumptions and ask if they are absolutely true, you allow people to question their thinking. They can then sort out truth from speculation on their own, instantly giving them a view of what else might be true.
3. Reflect and explore instead of offer answers. As they tell their stories, ask about the desires, disappointments, and fears you sense they are feeling. You can be wrong about what you sense. If you are wrong, they will tell you what is right, which then takes the conversation to a deeper level. What do you think they are holding onto that is keeping them from moving forward? What do you sense they want but are angry or fearful about not getting, such as respect, predictability, or appreciation? When you help them see how their emotions play into their thinking and actions, their blind spots come to light.
4. Have them articulate their “aha” insight before they commit to what is next. Many people will stop, say “wow, I had not thought about it that way before” or “Yes, I see what you mean” and then plunge forward with a solution. Ask them to articulate what they now see so the insight becomes clear and permanent. Otherwise, they could forget what they learned.
5. Be patient and comfortable with discomfort. When the conversation begins to feel risky, messy, or emotional, breathe and recall that your purpose for the conversation is to help them think for themselves. If you slip and declare what is wrong with their thinking, their brains will shut No one likes being made to feel wrong or stupid. Remember you are watching the brain of the person in front sort through and work things out. Stay alert to the magic that is occurring so you don’t get entangled in their reactions.
Effective leaders help others think more broadly for themselves. They do this by reflecting what they hear and sense, and then asking powerful questions that disrupt and expand how people think. It is in these moments of discomfort that solutions appear and radical growth occurs. Developing people includes developing their minds.
Dr. Marcia Reynolds is author of the new bestseller The Discomfort Zone: Mastering the Art of Turning Difficult Conversations into Breakthroughs. For 30 years she has worked with global corporations in executive coaching and leadership training. She is a past global president of the International Coach Federation, Training Director for the Healthcare Coaching Institute and president-elect of the Association of Coach Training Organizations and is the author of three books and a regular blogger for Psychology Today. Visit her website to see the steps for having a discomfort zone conversation laid out in a model online with other resources to help you listen more deeply. You can also assess your ability to hold a Discomfort Zone conversation on the site, and you will be given suggestions for improving your likelihood for success based on your results. You can follow her on Twitter and find her on Facebook.
Very interesting ideas. Be comfortable with discomfort sounds easy to say but difficult to practice. I’m taking many ideas to my future conversations. Thank you for sharing!
To be good listeners is always the best beginning.
Common sense but sadly, not common practice!
You are right Francisco, it takes conscious effort to breath through and allow people to be with whatever they are dealing with without our impatience, judgment and tension. Our brains often work against us! I think it starts with just feeling curious and remember that you care. It’s a great foundation to start with. Hope your next conversation is wonderfully uncomfortable!
Thank you Marcia, you have a new follower on Twitter, from Perú. 🙂
Wonderful Francisco! I have taught in 35 countries and visited a few more but never Peru though it has long been on my list. Hope we meet in the real world sometime!
Brilliant! You make an excellent case for how allowing someone to live with their discomfort is one of the biggest gifts you can give. It’s a paradox. The only way to feel better is to feel worse. One area where I’m a little confused. I’d like to better what you mean by “story” when you say pull out the assumptions and beliefs that are framing their story.” Thanks for a thought-provoking post!
What I mean by story is what the person is claiming as truth right now. Recollection is based on our memories and interpretations, but our perceptions are always filtered through our emotions so our fears, desires, disappointments, and past frustrations/losses (as well as past successes) frame what we call reality. This is your story of the situation. As soon as you start to discuss your story with someone, or even if you lay out everything you think you know and believe, you open the door to exploring what else could be true and possible. Perceptions, even what we call reality, are all stories we use to live our lives by. Thankfully, our stories change as we learn and grow (and get wiser with age). I don’t mean to discount someone’s story, but just help them have a broader perspective so they aren’t stuck anymore.
Hi Marcia. What a great guest blog! “Creating that moment of comfort” I’ve also heard called a time to “test for truth” – those instances when coaches share their instincts to help move their clients forward with succinct, penetrating questions. I look forward to reading your book.
Fay, you are right, the techniques in the book are steeped in coaching. I have been teaching coaching skills to leaders and coaches for years including an advanced coach for leaders called, Courageous Coaching. I believe that when leaders hold these types of conversations as you say, ‘testing for truth’ with instinctual reflections and questions to help move people forward they truly help to develop people. The memorable leaders I have had did this for me. I would love to see these powerful conversations happen more often in the workplace.
On the Dot. Lest not forget that the edible (enjoyably) Fruits are accessible only after the hard Nut(obstacles)are breached.Thanks for sharing.
Great quote Sampathkumar! Taking the easy route never gets us to where we want to go.
Hey Marcia. very interesting blog. “let go of knowing” easier said than done- interestingly its a discomfort zone for the leaders or the supervisor and am sure the appreciation of taking someone else through the same exercise will be higher. Look forward to your book
Ruby you are right – it is always hard not having the answers for someone, especially if you were promoted for having the answers or your success is due to how smart or resourceful you are. It’s always a discipline for me to relax into listening instead of knowing. And yet when I do, the results are always more powerful than if I just gave someone one of my brilliant ideas! I have come to realize that my clients what to be heard and understood more than they want to be fixed. We move from there.
Great matter Marcia. My adittional comment, if I can, would be to perform questions and more questions taking care to be not agressive.
Carlos, setting the safe place up front is important to keeping questions out of the “interrogation” realm I like using reflection too, paraphrasing, summarizing and sharing what I sense the person is feeling and why before asking them to comment on what is true for them when they put their “story” out for review. It breaks up the questioning and helps the person think about their thinking more fully.
“Help them think for themselves” is a critical skill set. As a subordinate, the approach described here is helpful. The great thing is that this also applies in non-work situations too.
What I’ve found is that this approach also helps because people finally slow down and think, instead of always reacting.
And isn’t it a gift David when others help us slow down and think more fully for ourselves?
Wonderful description of the process the process leaders can use to help others grow and reach their own insights of issues and behaviors. As you say these are usually the greatest opportunities for growth in people! I find that the leaders themselves who are best at this are more comfortable with themselves as humans.
Your insight is right on Emily, as I would guess! There is so much to be said about leaders who relax into caring instead of pushing to fix things and people. Honestly, what a burden is released when leaders don’t have to be perfect and have all the answers and know what trusting really feels like!
Great post. Yes, asking and listening – showing we are listening so they will listen to us- are powerful tools to help people come up with their own solutions and thereby begin to move forward. We just have to be patient with ourselves because, as you say, we must be comfortable with our own discomfort. Slow down to speed things up.
Right, that patience thing! As I always say, they want you to be present more than they need you to be perfect, so relaxing into listening with patience is key. I have to remind myself daily. Thanks!
Thanks for the valuable idea, it is true in all aspects of life.
Creating a “safely uncomfortable space” helps with you team as well as clients Looking forward to reading this book Marcia
Joann I have used these techniques when coaching teams and as you say, the safely uncomfortable place helps them to work through their blocks and conflicts Hope you like the book!
Really enjoyed the article. The decision making process for leading to a breakthrough reminds me of an interesting book, Decisive. In it the authors unpack a process for developing better choices when faced with tough decisions.
Thank you for the information, especially using questions to seek “aha” moments.
David, great connection. Whatever we can use to stop and explore our thought processes is useful. I give an exercise in The Discomfort Zone showing how to use the listening techniques to make better decisions for ourselves as well as how to use this with others. Unpacking is a great way to describe the process!
thank you! And also for the key words “breathe through” in your response to Francisco. I’ll be using this today.
“4. Have them articulate their “aha” insight before they commit to what is next.” I can see this as being a key point. You gained the insight, but it could be quickly/easily lost if you don’t really connect with it. Great post. I look forward to reading deeper into these principles/steps. Thank you!
Connie, it took me some years to understand the power of having people clearly articulate their insight. I used to let them get away with saying, “Oh yeah, I got it now.” it’s not enough. What did they get? We both need to “see” the realization for it to have a long lasting impact.
Thank you, Marcia. I know this process works because I can remember times when I was the uncomfortable employee and a wise leader helped guide me to my ‘aha’ moment and then to a solution. I appreciated the validation that came from being listened to, and I felt good about the solution because it was something I’d discovered myself.
Larry, I didn’t even like the leader who used to do this for me, but I respected him and I am grateful for what he helped me achieve.
Good posts and 5 good ideas for dealing with uncomfortable conversations. I would add that we must not do into the conversations with our own assumptions about how the other person sees things, feels, etc. Being in LISTENING mode and giving respectful consideration to other person helps.
I’d love to read the book.
Hi Dan, I posted a comment in response to yours but not as a reply so I am reposting it so you see it. Sorry for the delay! You make a good point about checking and setting your assumptions aside before you go into the conversation. In The Discomfort Zone, I talk about setting both an intention for the conversation based on being present to hear what they want and need (not what you want and need them to do) which requires you to be open and curious without assumptions. I also suggest setting an emotional intention of how you want to feel throughout the conversation so you have an anchor to hold onto. Good emotion words to choose as your anchor are ‘Compassion” “Patience” “Curious” and “Hopeful” so you stay in listening mode, respecting the human in front of you and caring about their development. What you bring in both mentally and emotionally is key to your success in difficult conversations. Thank you for bringing this point to the conversation here.
Great article! I especially appreciated the following comments: “If you slip and declare what is wrong with their thinking, their brains will shut. No one likes being made to feel wrong or stupid.” which leads to my second favorite tip “If you already know how you want a person to think and act, they will feel you are pushing them instead of being interested in their point of view.” No one likes to feel manipulated. These conversations put people in a very vulnerable place, one that can lead to great discovery, or to great pain. Your suggestions and tips are terrific! Thank you!
Glad to help Wendy! As always, we should consider the impact of our words and emotions in conversation, especially if the person feels pressured or threatened before you even open your mouth! Just because someone is right doesn’t mean they will be heard if the words aren’t delivered in a respectful, hopeful way.
Thank you for this. I am an excellent listener and because of that I have an inordinate number of opportunities to practice. I’m not one to advise except to try to show empathy and encouragement. Your article here is helpful.
Thank you Jane for modeling the behavior and showing how it works with not as much effort as many leaders seem to think it takes.
In situation like that, open questions as “What exactly do you mean””so, what did you do””how or what did you feel” helps to keep the conversation going, or, on the contrary, makes people become more defensive?
Sergio, you are right that “What exactly do you mean” could trigger defensiveness. Instead, I would say, “Let me see if I hear you correctly,” and then paraphrase what I heard and share what I think the person meant, giving them the chance to tell me if I am right or wrong. In the process, they clarify the situation for themselves as well. I do like your question asking them how the situation made them feel, then i would explore what they think the person or people did that left them to feel that way. It helps the person explore their assumptions and reactions on their own. At best, we are their thinking partners. Self-discovery is the best form of learning and leading to long term behavioral change.
When your in an uncomfortable conversation and the person your speaking to automatically defends there posture and says,I don’t know, if you calmly state yes you do know, and pause and patiently wait for them to respond you will eventually get them to open about what they really do know,but have kept it on lock down for so long no one cared to unveil the truth, or implored them to get it out in the open, and just easier to say they don’t know. After raising two children now adults, and in in my personal relationships it’s amazing how robotic humans are to respond to difficult and probing situations with the I don’t know, yes we all do truly know. If someone takes the time to listen you have unlocked other wise uncomfortable and discomforting feelings to a deep sigh of relif and self-awareness.
A nice example and approach Crystal. Giving in to someone’s “I don’t know, would you tell me?” limits them and keeps them depending on you for answers. Turning it back to them shows you trust their intelligence and wisdom, helping them grow.
Great post Marcia. The mind is the master illusionist and if one is not careful, we can easily go off track because of an incorrect basis of “what is”. I always break into laughter when my wife “disarms” me with the question “Is that true?” (She is an Executive Coach). I have even started prompting the question to myself when working through something and looking to figure out what to do next.
I am particularly in agreement with your point on the leading other people aspect. “your purpose for the conversation is to help them think for themselves”. Too often people confuse being the leader with being the one that has all the answers. SILENT and LISTEN are verbs that have exactly the same letters…
Thabo you are lucky to have a questioning wife!
On your point about leaders thinking their role is to have the answers…I met a woman last night after my presentation on The Discomfort Zone who is a young new leader. She was so excited to learn that she could quit trying to know everything. She thought she had to prove herself by demonstrating her knowledge to her team and staying one step ahead was killing her. She now has a new purpose and skills.
Thanks for the SILENT/LISTEN reminder. I had heard it before but now I can put it in this context. Smart!
Great post Jesse & Marcia! Helping leaders break through those times, and to stave off complacency, it a critical and lesser-known trait.
Check out a post I wrote recently that addresses this as well:
Appreciate your knowledge ladies! Thanks!
#3. Too many of us think we have answers, when all the person needs is someone to listen. With enough listening the answer will come. Sounds like a good book.
Thanks Dan. I know for myself that when I go through difficult times or try to make complex decisions, I want someone to listen to me, not tell me what to do or give me advice. Helping and fixing, although with good intentions, can have negative effects. I hope the book helps people have more engaging conversations based on conscious listening at work.
What I so appreciated in your article is the insight of learning to leverage discomfort for breakthroughs is as much part of the experience of the leader or coach as it is for the person your are supporting. It seems like the true progress is through the partnership of that experience. A great reminder for me to be willing to take myself to discomfort with those I coach.
Denise, I love that we teach what we most need to learn. Even though I have been coaching and teaching coaching skills for nearly two decades, I still catch myself feeling uncomfortable when there are long silences or when my client reacts strongly to my questions. But if I just keep breathing, trusting the process, it always turns out for the best even if they don’t have a breakthrough until after the session is over! I love watching my own brain react as much as sensing what is going on in their brain. I wish you great success with your coaching!
The biggest reminder here, is for us to remember to avoid “solutionism” . Only through asking the tough questions and giving space for the individual to think and reflect, do we start to work as a catalyst for the individual to own and find the best solution for themselves..
Marcia, This is a lovely post.
I had this problem of wanting to provide solutions all the time until I realized that I was “buying people fish and not teaching them how to fish”. One of the other traits which did not come very easily to me was Active Listening. As people spoke, my mind was getting ahead of me to figure out what my answer would be. In essence, I wasn’t even hearing the speaker out adequately and trying to understand. A session with Marshall Goldsmith in Chennai exposed it all. Now I try to practice these skills when people come to me with their challenges and am training to be an executive coach.
Funnily enough, such situations that cause discomfort are easier to deal with when they happen to someone else rather than oneself. I have always found it tough to solve my own problems, especially as emotion gets in the way and clouds my thinking. What is your take on this?
Sudhir, you just described why coaching is so powerful and needed. Did you know you can’t tickle yourself? Your brain blocks you from from doing this to yourself. It is the same when it comes to self-exploration. Your brain protects how you see yourself and the world so it doesn’t allow for full self-examination. This is best done in conversation where someone reflects back to you key points in your “story” and asks you questions to help you think for yourself. As you do, you might break down the wall of protection so you can see your blind spots and resistance. The best person to do this with is a trained coach, so i congratulate you on your journey!
I always love reading your approach/insights to various situations Marcia. Looking forward to reading your book.
Mel, New Zealand 🙂
Thank you Mel. Glad to see you over here!
Great approach to helping someone. This will be a new approach for me.
I wish you great success Greg. Many of the students in the classes I teach say that even taking the moment to listen more deeply out of their heads makes a big difference. Hope it does for you.
Thank you Marcia for this article. So often, I believe that leaders forget to be human and display their “humanness” before the with whom they follow. This is especially true when one their employees is experiencing challenges in their lives. This article presents a leader with the means to engage, listen to hear, and how to respond to their employees. It comes down to understanding that it is important to see employees with a Holistic mindset!
I agree Victoria, and in addition to allowing themselves to show some vulnerability so it shows they are human, it would be good for leaders to name what they are afraid of when they avoid being with people and whatever “humanness” they express. When we name our fears, they have less power over us. Often I ask my coaching clients, “What are you afraid might happen?” “How likely will that happen?” and then “What else could happen?” so they can talk through their fears. In the end, they most likely see for themselves what is the best action to take.