5 Tips for Using the Discomfort Zone in Performance Conversations

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Once when I was complaining about my peers not working hard enough, my boss said to me, “It seems that everyone disappoints you. Can anyone ever be good enough for you?” His question stopped me in my tracks.

He was right; I tended to focus on people’s flaws instead of what is working. With one question, he made me see why my peers didn’t like me and how I was making myself frustrated and angry all the time.

His observation and question made me feel uncomfortable but prompted me to change my negative behavior. The painful truth led me to be more effective and successful.

The most memorable leaders aren't afraid of giving feedback and asking questions that create discomfort. In the moment you question yourself, learning can happen.

You are able to see yourself and the world around you in new ways. Leaders who know how to work inside the discomfort zone can help others make lasting behavioral changes.

What Is the Discomfort Zone?

In order to define who you are and make sense of the world around you, your brain develops constructs and rules that you strongly protect without much thought. Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga says people get stuck in an automatic thought-processing and fool themselves into thinking their opinions and actions are right out of survival.

Even if a person sets aside time for self-reflection, it is not likely much will change. For the same reason people can’t tickle themselves, they can’t fully explore their own thoughts.

Your brain blocks and desensitizes your attempts at self-imposed exploration.

As a leader, then, it is important that you know how to disturb this automatic processing to help people change their minds and actions. You need to see and share the holes in a person’s logic and ask questions that reveal the fears, needs and desires keeping the constructs in place.

NeuroBusiness Group founder Srinivasan S. Pillay, M.D., writes that

When you have these conversations around someone’s performance, the reaction to bringing these things to light will register somewhere between slight discomfort and an emotional outpouring in the people you are coaching.

Momentary confusion and abrupt realizations trigger emotional reactions. The truth can hurt - or at least surprise - people - before it sets them free.

When Do You Use the Discomfort Zone?

Picture yourself sitting in a conversation with an employee you know is smart and committed to her work, but she is complaining about a situation, feels stuck with no solution and is resisting the changes others have told her to make.

Maybe you are wondering why she can’t see what’s best for her. You want her to quit focusing on the problem and try something new. You want her to move on. You’ve given her feedback, but she discounts your view. You’ve suggested solutions but the conversation just circles back to what is not working.

This is a perfect time for a Discomfort Zone conversation!

You can also use these skills to engage and retain your top talent. A good way of retaining achievers is to listen to them, trust that they can figure things out, and provide development opportunities, which include expanding their minds as well as their skills.

However, a survey published in Harvard Business Review found that although young high achievers were given high-visibility jobs and increasing responsibilities, they were dissatisfied with the lack of mentoring and coaching they received.

Clearly as a leader, you need to spend time developing your top talent, helping them think through problems, see situations more strategically, and grow beyond their limitations. Holding conversation in the discomfort zone will help you reach both their goals and your own.

How Do You Use the Discomfort Zone?

Here are five tips for using the discomfort zone in performance conversations to help people see themselves and their situations in new and useful ways.

  1. Let go of preconceived notions about what you think the person will say and what they should do. If you already know how you want a person to think and act, they will feel you are pushing them instead of being sincerely interested in their point of view.

    Trust the person can discover the answers on their own if you share what you hear them say and ask them questions to help them think through their situation. You are the facilitator of this process.
  2. Listen to their story so you can hear the assumptions and judgments getting in their way. Ask questions and let them tell you what they think happened and what they are assuming to be true.

    Try to discover what they expected to happen and how they felt when it did not. These beliefs frame how they see the situation. Before you can help people see outside the box, you need to first help them see the box they are holding around their stories.
  3. Clarify, reflect and explore instead of offering answers. As they tell their stories, summarize what you hear them saying and ask questions about the source of the emotions they are expressing.

    What is making them feel angry, frustrated, or sad? What do they want that they aren’t getting? When you help them “see” the desires and fears affecting their decisions, their blind spots can come to light. Excuses crumble. Their awareness broadens. A new reality appears.
  4. Allow the process to unfold. Don’t be impatient with getting them to resolve the situation or find a solution. Sometimes people need time to process what they are discovering. Have the conversation and then let them think about what was discussed for a few days. Then check in to determine if they see anything differently.
  5. Be 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 down.

    No one likes being made to feel wrong or stupid. Remember you are watching the person sort through and work things out. Stay alert to the magic that is occurring so you don’t get entangled in their reactions. Hold a safe space for them to feel. They will work through it and, hopefully, gain a new awareness in the process.

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