A Coaching Power Tool Created by Maaike Christie-Beekman
(Presentation, Presence & Performance Coach, Career & Artrepreneur Coach, NEW ZEALAND)
People who are trying to improve their presentation, interaction style and/or communication skills, often have a very clear idea of what they want to improve and/or who they want to become; can describe the behaviour that would make them successful. They also can identify a performer, presenter or leader they admire and who in their opinion embodies all the skills and behaviours they would like to have.
Yet, when it comes to making the change themselves, they get stuck and struggle with making the actual changes. What is holding somebody back to improve a skill, change a behaviour or habit, while they are very clear on what they need to improve/change and why? What challenge is getting in the way?
The challenge they are facing is two-fold:
- They don’t have the techniques or tools to improve their presentation and communication style
- They are being held back by their own emotions: fear, judgement, insecurity, lack of self-confidence, and the list goes on.
The second point can be so overpowering that it can even have a negative impact on the practice of new techniques and testing out of new tools.
I have encountered this struggle many times myself:
When I was studying singing to become a performing artist, I was asked to ‘be myself’ on stage, show my inner world to others, walk on stage with a great physical presence and draw attention to myself, perfect my technical craft and artistry and then perform in a natural way.
I knew very well that this was important to become a charismatic and skilled performer, I even could do all this if I was alone without anybody present, but putting this in action on stage with others present felt like an impossible task.
Although it sometimes just required a subtle change such as “bring more stillness into your performance” or “keep your eyes focused on the other”, it felt like a world away from what I thought I could do. I didn’t even know what was holding me back, I just knew that I couldn’t do it.
One of my teachers compared this once with learning how to swim. He said: “This is the same as trusting that you can stay afloat without holding onto the side of the pool. It is easier said than done and feels like something too big a step, but the moment you do it and you are successful, it feels like the smallest step ever!”
I had to step out of my comfort zone, step into the unknown – a place that I hadn’t explored before, where I lacked control of my surroundings and myself.
So what was holding me back? What made me be able for instance to do something when I was alone, but the moment I was surrounded by others I didn’t dare to take that step? What was holding me back?
- Fear of failure; I was afraid if I would try I might fail or make a fool of myself in front of others, and this would have a negative impact on how people would perceive me.
- Lack of self-confidence; no belief in myself that I would be able to make a positive change and that I was good enough in the first place.
- A lack of self-awareness;
- Not understanding what my current strengths were and what I did well
- Not knowing what I needed to change or do as the first step towards change
- Feeling as if making a change was too much of a leap.
- Lacking awareness of what my comfort zone actually was; what elements in performance felt safe, comfortable, confident and relaxed.
A big breakthrough happened when I attended a workshop on acting. The angle that the teacher took was different:
- She introduced the element of play in the training which made me forget about the pressure of the end goal and the judgment of success and failure
- The training was designed to allow us to take small steps towards growth;
- every exercise was slightly out of the comfort zone, but with enough elements there to still feel like you can do it
- there was enough time with every exercise to become comfortable in it before moving on to the next step
- She created a safe space for everybody to experiment in relative privacy before showing it to the group; this allowed for each individual to ‘play’ with their boundary of comfort and discomfort
- She gave clear tools and techniques to use in the exercises and allow for enough time to experiment with these.
Although this was just a one-off workshop, it built the path for me to start experimenting and feeling comfortable to work on the fringe of my comfort zone – I learnt how to constantly shift between comfort and discomfort and use both to my advantage. I felt more confident, in control, less fearful, enjoyed the experimenting, got in the flow of learning new skills.
Over the years I have been in similar situations; being pushed outside my comfort zone by teachers, trainers, directors, conductors, colleagues and peers. There have always been moments that I found it a crippling experience, but because of my earlier experience, and with it the ability to shift between comfort and discomfort and play on the fringe, I learned to:
- Understand where I currently am and having clear goals of what I need to change to improve
- Understand what my comfort zone is and what lies outside of this
- Take small steps
- Allow the element of play
- Create tools and find techniques that help me to take the steps
- Enjoy the experimentation without judging it with the end result in mind and use curiosity
The challenge I was facing and many of my current clients with me, is when having to learn new skills, habits or behaviours, you have to step out of your comfort zone into a state of relative anxiety – a space where our stress levels are slightly higher than normal. Let’s call it ‘Optimal Tension, and it’s just outside of our comfort zone.
Being too much in our comfort zone means that we are in a behavioural space where our activities and behaviours fit a routine and pattern that minimises stress and risk but can also lead to unproductivity, boredom and stagnation. Too much anxiety and we’re too stressed to be productive and our performance drops off sharply. If we push ourselves too hard out of our comfort zone, it can have a negative result and can reinforce the feeling that challenging ourselves is a bad idea. It’s our natural tendency to get back to an anxiety-neutral, comfortable state.
Although there has been a lot of research done on working on the fringe of your comfort zone and the positive impact it has (it can help people grow and develop themselves further, be more productive and increase confidence), I still feel I could have done with some tools to deal with how to play on the fringe of my comfort zone as a performing artist. How can I support others who feel stuck knowing they have to make a change, but don’t know where to start and lack trust that they will be successful.
I would like to look at how to change the perspective of how we perceive our comfort zone and discomfort, and how this change in perspective creates freedom and confidence to bridge the gap and allows us to play on the fringe of our comfort zone.
So what do comfort and discomfort mean?
Comfort is the space where we experience freedom from pain and discomfort, it is an alleviation from distress, fear and grief. It is the state in which we can fully relax
- It means that we are in a behavioural space where our activities and behaviours fit a routine and pattern that minimises stress and risk; it provides a state of mental security.
- You benefit in obvious ways: regular happiness, low anxiety and reduced stress.
- Relative comfort creates a steady level of performance.
- This is a great space to be in, this is where we would like to be as a performer. Comfortable on stage, relaxed and at ease, ready to deal with anything that is coming our way.
- Comfort can get us bored and lacks challenge. It can:
- stagnate growth and development
- make us unproductive and holds us back
- holds you back
- Doesn’t challenge limiting beliefs
- get us stuck in routine and habits and stop awareness of self, behaviour and belief
Discomfort is the state where we don’t feel at ease, where we experience uneasiness, fear, anxiousness, embarrassment
- This state gets us on edge, heightens stress levels and this state being pushed too far is something we want to avoid.
- Being in a constant state of heightened anxiety has a negative impact on our mental and physical wellbeing.
- Being constantly in discomfort with a constant negative experience makes us lose confidence and heightens our fear of failure.
- Too much discomfort stagnates growth, makes us freeze, withdraw and/or obstruct.
- Yet this is the stage where we explore new things. To learn a new skill we need to go beyond what we know. We need to experience success and failure to improve, develop and grow.
There is merit in both states and both need to be explored and embraced to get to the new improved you. But not before we have a brief look at the feelings, responses and reactions that make us feel stuck and not able to step out of our comfort zone:
- Fear of failure
- A fixed mindset - negative self-talk and expectations that change should be easy
- Not knowing what it is that needs improvement / to change / what the obstacle is to overcome in order to make the next step
- Not trusting that you have it to make the change
- Lack of vision of the new improved you
- Sense of safety in the current state that gives confidence
Too much anxiety and we’re too stressed to be productive and our performance drops off sharply. If we push ourselves too hard out of our comfort zone, it can have a negative result and can reinforce the feeling that challenging ourselves is a bad idea. It’s our natural tendency to get back to our comfortable state.
Our comfort zone and how far it stretches is different for every individual and can change over time. What you might find exciting and inspiring, might be paralysing to the other. Optimal tension can bring out your best, and it is your job to find out what your optimal tension level is.
So let’s reconsider how we can reframe comfort and discomfort so that you can make space for truly embracing learning and growth and start understanding what your optimal tension level is:
Reframing Comfort and Discomfort
Being in our comfort zone can help you to:
- Switch on your awareness of what situations you feel comfortable and what it is you do at that point to help you identify what your strengths and skills are. Analysing this helps you to use a strength-based approach when developing yourself;
- Identify your values, what and who you find important in life;
- Think clearly, be relaxed and slow down your brain to observe what is.
- This can help you to look at the world with curiosity, analyse other people’s behaviours and skills and the impact it has;
- This helps you to identify what you actually need to improve and change.
- It helps identify the gap you have and the steps you need to take to bridge the gap.
- Please note: this means that you are embracing where you currently are in your development and valuing your current level of skills, strengths and achievements!
- When we feel comfortable, we feel confident and ‘in control’ which is vital for our mental wellbeing. It makes us more able to deal with the stressors of working out of our comfort zone.
- Relax and recover from a stressful situation
Being in discomfort / out of our comfort zone can help you to:
- Explore new skills and use trial and error to develop and improve them. This asks for a growth mindset and embracing failure as part of growth;
- Learn something new what you otherwise wouldn’t have learnt, thought of doing;
- Bring new perspectives and expose you to new approaches, visions and beliefs;
- Increase your focus, creativity, pace and drive. It helps you to respond to stress when unexpected things happen;
- be more productive - with the sense of unease that comes from having deadlines and expectations, we push ourselves to do more things, extend our personal boundaries and find smarter ways to work;
- Become more comfortable with pushing your boundaries in future, deal with the challenges life throws at us, and become accustomed to the state of ‘productive discomfort’;
- Find it easier to brainstorm and harness your creativity. Trying new things can make us reflect on our old ideas and where they clash with our new knowledge and inspire us to learn more and challenge old ideas.
Play on the Fringe
Today’s society, in my opinion, has put a negative connotation to being in our comfort zone. We celebrate the people who are constantly pushing themselves to greater things, bigger developments etc.
And although stepping out of our comfort zone is the way we grow, improve, learn and deal with what life throws at us, we only are able to truly make this happen when we are doing the subtle dance of stepping in and out of our comfort zone.
We have to embrace our comfort zone; embrace who we are, our current level of skills and strengths. Create self-awareness and observing the obstacles – what is holding us back mentally and technically. This is a place that helps us to ‘regroup’, analyse and prepare for our next learning.
With this awareness, we feel ready and empowered to ‘dive in’ and embrace the creativity and excitement of being out of our comfort zone. Either because we have created a ‘controlled’ experiment or just because we have embraced the unknown and welcome the challenge without any judgment of what the outcome will be.
This new perspective helps us to be more targeted in were to step out of our comfort zone and makes us more flexible to move between comfort and discomfort so that we truly can play on the fringe of our comfort zone and slowly but steadily more towards where the magic happens.