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The Discomfort Zone

By Marcia Reynolds

(Berrett-Koehler, 164 pages, $22.95)

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Most of us prefer comfort to discomfort in conversations. So the thought of purposefully heading into what consultant Marcia Reynolds calls The Discomfort Zone is unnerving. Who needs it?

Well, actually, the person you are conversing with might desperately need it. To help people think differently, you have to disturb their automatic processing of ideas and activities. That means challenging their beliefs and bringing to the surface the fears, needs and desires that hold those beliefs in place. That requires plunging into the discomfort zone.

"People need to be aroused by surprising statements about their behaviour and by questions that make them stop and think about what they are saying. If you break through their mental frames, they will stare at you for a moment as their brains look for ways to make sense of what they are considering. Then a burst of adrenalin could cause an emotional reaction, anything from nervous laughter to anger before an insight emerges. If you act on this moment by helping to solidify the new awareness, their minds will change. If you do not facilitate this process, a strong ego may work backwards to justify the previous behaviour," she writes in her book The Discomfort Zone.

This is not a book about difficult or confrontational conversations. There are other books that can help you through contentious conversations, where you may be under attack or have to deliver a highly unpleasant message. Those books, she notes, focus on the speaker and how to deliver a message that will achieve your preferred outcome.

This book shifts the spotlight to the person you are speaking with. You don't have a message to deliver. You don't tell him what you want. Instead, you provide an initial jolt, with a question, and then help him to discover and create a new reality on his own.

The discomfort zone is obviously emotional – and also involves uncertainty. It's those two elements that can lead to success, along with your own gentle questioning to lead the other individual into reassessing the situation. The discomfort is primarily experienced by the recipient of your intervention. You may also experience discomfort or may not, depending on your outlook, skills, and the situation.

The other person's negative emotions should be viewed as a good sign. That indicates learning is probably occurring.

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"You have broken through a protective barrier in the brain. The person is finally confronting her rationalizations or seeing her blind spots. Because of this, a clearer and broader understanding of the situation can emerge," she writes.

Ms. Reynolds gave the example of Dawn, who joined her husband's retail business a few years ago after being laid off from a large scientific research company where she held various leadership positions. But it wasn't going well. She believed her husband never fully backed her ideas and would not help her overcome resistance from other managers.

She sought help from a leadership coach in overcoming that resistance – but instead was asked questions that led her to realize that what she wanted was not possible in her current job.

The coach asked Dawn why she thought no one wanted to implement her ideas – was it because no one liked them or because her husband would not support her authority to implement them?

The question forced Dawn to admit that she had very little support from either her team or her husband, and that if the company were a board game, she would not even be on the board. "I'm out of the game," she said.

It spurred a conversation that led Dawn to confess that she didn't enjoy her job. That she didn't even enjoy getting out of bed every day and, in fact, she felt trapped.

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The breakthrough moment came when the coach asked: "So Dawn, who is trapping you?" The process helped her to understand that, in fact, there were other possibilities.

She began to free herself from the job by working with her husband to hire a general manager who could assume some of her responsibilities. With more time on her hands, she is now doing volunteer work, improving her skills, and seeking work with a larger corporation.

Discomfort for her. But, as a result, a breakthrough she pursued.

Such conversations involve building trust beforehand. You must also settle into the flow of the discussion, set and maintain your emotional-based intent, hold the highest regard for the other person and yourself, and trust the process.

The book offers a number of helpful tips to probe in a tender way and maintain equilibrium in the discomfort zone. The value of such conversations is obvious, and if you want to try helping others through the discomfort zone, the book may be a good place to start.


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Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton, authors of The Carrot Principle and other books on rewards and recognition, look at putting your passions to work in What Motivates Me (The Culture Works, 243 pages, $30.50), which includes a passcode for a motivational assessment.

Consultant Steven Overman illuminates a cultural shift toward an economy rooted in the common good in The Conscience Economy (Bibliomotion, 190 pages, $29.50).

Canadian consultant David Hurst's The New Ecology of Leadership (Columbia Business School, 346 pages, $19.95), a thoughtful, eclectic look at organizations, has been released in soft cover.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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