“When people feel stuck or are resistant to change, work suffers. Good people leave. There is no innovation,” says Marcia Reynolds.

The key to getting unstuck is to change the conversations leaders have at work, she argues.

Reynolds has been coaching and developing leaders for more than 30 years and is the author of The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations into Breakthroughs.

According to Reynolds, the Discomfort Zone is the moment of uncertainty where people are most open to learning. But most of us avoid conversations that make us uncomfortable — or that make other people uncomfortable.

“You must be willing to challenge people’s beliefs, interrupt their patterns and short-circuit their conviction to their logic even when it feels uncomfortable,” writes Reynolds. When you are able to have such a conversation — with a colleague who is always complaining, a direct report who consistently behaves in problematic ways, a peer who gives lip service to change, but isn’t committed — you help someone break out of their “stuck” mode. It shakes them out of their automatic thinking, patterned or habitual responses.

The key is for leaders to focus on what they should ask rather than on what they should say. Just telling people what they need to do — Buy in to the change! Fuel innovation! Improve how you work with team members! — doesn’t often motivate people. More likely, they will resent and resist you.

But when you ask the right questions, the other person is more likely to have an a-ha moment, gain self-awareness, find his or her own solutions and begin to change in a way that is more likely to last.

Reynolds uses the acronym DREAM to help leaders hold Discomfort Zone conversions:

D – Determine what the person wants as a desired outcome of the conversation.
R – Reflect on the experiences, beliefs and emotions expressed as the person tells his story.
E – Explore possible sources of blind spots and resistance.
A – Acknowledge the emerging awareness.
M – Make sure there is a plan or commitment for what is next.

Not every difficult or important conversation is a Discomfort Zone conversation. It is best used with someone who is stuck in one perspective and resistant to suggestions, but it is also useful for engaging and retaining talent. In all cases, you want to establish a relationship and a foundation of trust before pushing into the more challenging territory of the Discomfort Zone.

5 Excuses that Prevent Learning & Change

Leaders who avoid conversations that could be difficult are missing the best opportunities to help others grow, according to Marcia Reynolds, author of The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations into Breakthroughs.

They rationalize their reluctance with these five excuses:

Excuse #1. My employees don’t want me to ask questions. They just want me to give them answers so they can get back to work.
Excuse #2. If people need something from me or don’t understand something, they will ask.
Excuse #3. No one is complaining, so everything is fine.
Excuse #4. If a good person does something bad, it won’t happen again. Trust them to self-correct.
Excuse #5. The best employees want to be left alone to do their work.

If you face up to these excuses, you open the door to important conversations with peers and direct reports that can improve their performance, boost engagement and help your organization succeed.

Read more about the five excuses in a Marcia Reynolds column at this link: 5 Reasons Leaders Give for Avoiding Important Conversations.

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