“The Discomfort Zone” by Marcia Reynolds

AUTHOR: Marcia Reynolds

AUTHOR: Marcia Reynolds

Diplomats are respected and sought-after interlocutors, negotiators, translators and bridge buildings for their country. As an official representative of broad business and investment relationship, it is the job of a diplomat to grease the clogs and keep two countries in good stead with one another. But diplomats are often put in positions of difficulty when there are disagreements and conflict of interest. How do you better handle discomfort when avoidance is not an option? How do you keep the conversation going when the subject is clearly embarrassing or painful? How do you create safe zones when the person you are speaking with clearly does not trust you or value your leadership position? 

As part of your emotional intelligence training, we recommend the book The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations into Breakthroughs” by Marcia Reynolds to support Chapter 3 - “Enhancing Emotional Intelligence” as part of the Diplomatic Planner. The Discomfort Comfort Zone outlines methods for dealing with tough and uncomfortable conversations that can be useful takeaways in your professional development. She explains: “In order to define who we are and make sense of the world around us, our brains develop [or embrace] constructs and rules we strongly protect without much thought… What to do? To help people think differently, you have to disturb the automatic processing. This is best done by challenging the beliefs that caused the frames and surfacing the underlying fears, needs, and desires that are keeping the constructs in place.” The key to navigating them is to truly listen to what other people are saying by using your head, your gut and your heart.  

Reynold’s work is based on the feeling of experiencing awe. It is that same look you see when a baby stares into open space with a sense of wonder. Adults experience the same feeling too and the discomfort zone just that - a leadership technique that is designed to encourage people to adopt a new perspective by triggering negative emotions. It might seem counterintuitive that negative emotions can produce positive results, but negative emotions helps us to confront reality and break down whatever biases exist in our thinking.

Sometimes, to truly listen to someone can be pretty hard work. Listening isn’t just about using your ears and brain. It also requires intuition. When you listen to a story, you tend to trust your head brain, which is the logic that analyses what is being said. But we also need to pay attention to what the author refers to as the heart brain and the gut brain. The heart brain gives you a deeper sense of what the other person is feeling, allowing you to read between the lines, which is a key skill of diplomats. The gut brain is understanding how an emotion is being evoked. It is your gut intuition that tells you that your colleague or friend is scared or afraid of something without them having to explicitly say it.  

Once you have gathered information from your three brains, the discomfort zone conversation can come into play. You understand what the other person is saying, why they are saying it, and how they are feeling about it. This will then open you up to making suggestions and comments that can help the other person move from a negative space to a solution. But before you can offer up a solution to a difficult conversation, you need to create an atmosphere of trust. Naturally, people won’t open up if they distrust you. Reynold refers to this as the “safety bubble”. To create a safety bubble, you need to free yourself from worries, prejudices or thoughts that can distract you from the present moment. In this relaxed and open environment, you can focus your attention fully to the conversation and establish yourself as a trustworthy listener.

To break down the discomfort zone techniques, Reynold refers to the acronym DREAM which stands for determine, reflect, explore, acknowledge, and make sure.

First, determine the goal of the conversation by asking specific questions to get the other person to think about what they need to solve their problem. Next, reflect on why their problem hasn’t already been resolved to understand their perspective on relevant past events. This will allow them to summarise the events and bring about a natural conversation. The third step is to explore the blind spots of the story and reasoning. Try to determine what assumptions are guiding their thinking and draw out biases that prevents them from finding a solution to their problem. This will allow you to direct them, moving on the fourth step of helping them acknowledge what you have discussed. Sometimes, you can fall into a situation where the other person stops listening, responding half-heartedly with “uh huh,” “sure” etc. Continue the dialogue by asking them what they think of what you have proposed so far. This leads on to the final step of committing to a follow-up plan so that you are not all talk and no action. 

Remind yourself what your original goal was and follow up on it. This doesn’t necessarily mean coming up with an intricate full-scale action plan on the spot. Simply agree to some kind of commitment, even if that means having a follow-up conversation at a later stage. Keeping the conversation going is important in maintaining a relationship. The biggest job of a diplomat is to keep relationships established and be the interlocutor to key problems. Remember the DREAM acronym and test it out for yourself.

“The Discomfort Zone” is recommended for the purposes of the Diplomatic Planner. The Diplomatic Planner is a 12-month career development toolkit for diplomacy and internationals for professionals looking to explore or grow their expertise in the field. Both books are available for purchase via Amazon. For further recommendations, insights, case studies and practicable worksheets, please join the Grassroot Diplomat Online Academy via: www.grassrootdiplomat.org/register