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Emma Sue Prince



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Strictly out of your comfort zone


The new series of "Strictly Come Dancing" show, where celebrities pair up with professional dancers to compete in a ballroom dancing competition started last weekend. Watching the likes of business dragon Deborah Meaden and celebrity chef Dave Myers performing their first dances gave interesting and immediate insight into what it means to try things out that are outside of your comfort zone. Perfectly at ease in front of TV cameras weeding out potentially lucrative business ventures or creating amazing dishes from a handful of ingredients, these two were shown sweating, crying and laughing incredibly hard to perform a 2-minute dance on Saturday night and be judged on their performance by a panel of experts who did not pull any punches when it came to giving feedback and performance points.

During the coming weeks, all competition participants will be able to hone their technique and improve, but as with all reality shows, each week someone will be nominated to leave the show.

As trainers we need to give maximum opportunity to learners and workshop participants to experience going out of their comfort zones. As we also need to regularly step out of our own. Why? Because we will naturally resist anything and everything that demands us to step out of it and when we do step out of it, we too will sweat, cry and laugh our way through the experience until that comfort zone gets bigger. The bigger it gets, the more adaptable we become, the more open to change, the more likely to fulfil our potential and discover strengths we did not know were there. The same is just as true for us as trainers as it is for those we seek to train and develop.

The comfort zone is a behavioural space where activities and behaviours fit a routine and pattern that minimises stress and risk. It provides a state of mental security. We benefit in obvious ways: regular happiness, low anxiety and reduced stress. 

The idea of a comfort zone goes back to a classic experiment in psychology. Back in 1908, psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson explained that a state of relative comfort created a steady level of performance. In order to maximise performance, however, we need a state of relative anxiety - a space where our stress levels are slightly higher than normal. This space is called "optimal anxiety", and just outside our comfort zone. Too much anxiety and we're too stressed to be productive and our performance drops off sharply. This was certainly evident with some of the Strictly performers at the weekend.

The idea of optimal anxiety isn't anything new. Anyone who's ever pushed themselves to get to the next level or accomplish something new, knows that when you  really challenge yourself, you can turn up some amazing results. More than a few studies support this point. Pushing too hard though, can actually cause a negative result, and reinforce the idea that challenging yourself is not a good thing to do. It will always be our natural tendency to return to an anxiety neutral, comfortable state.

Going outside our comfort zones create some very positive effects though:

1. More productivity. Comfort kills productivity because without the sense of unease that comes from having deadlines and expectations, we will always tend to do the minimum required to get by. We lose the drive and ambition to do more and learn new things. We also fall into the "work trap", where we feign "busy" as a way to stay in our comfort zones and avoid doing new things. Pushing your personal boundaries can help you hit your stride sooner, get more done and find smarter ways to work.

2. Ability to deal with new and unexpected changes. In this article in the NY times, Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, explains that one of the worst things we can do is pretend that fear and uncertainty don't exist. By encouraging learners to take risks in a controlled fashion and challenging them to things they perhaps normally wouldn't, and reflect on this too, they will experience some of this uncertainty in a controlled, manageable environment. Learning to live outside your comfort zone when you choose to, prepares you for life changes that will force you out of it. And they will, sooner or later!

3. Easier to push your boundaries in the future. Once you start stepping out of your comfort zone, it gets easier over time. The same NYT article explains as you step out of your comfort zone, you get accustomed to that state of optimal anxiety. "Productive discomfort", as they call it, becomes normal to you, and you're willing to push further before your performance falls off. This idea is well illustrated in this infographic at Future Science Leaders. At the bottom you'll see that as you challenge yourself, your comfort zone adjusts so what was difficult and anxiety-inducing becomes easier the more you repeat it.

4. Easier to brainstorm and harness creativity. It's fairly common knowledge that seeking new experiences, learning new skills, and opening the door to new ideas inspire and educate us in a way that little else does. Trying new things can make us reflect on our old idea, and where they clash with our new knowledge and inspire us to learn more and challenge our confirmation bias, our tendency to only seek out information we already agree with. Even in the short-term, a positively uncomfortable experience can help us brainstorm, see old problems in a new light and tackle the challenges we face with new energy.

So this week, what will you do to take yourself out of your comfort zone?

And what sort of things can you do in training to encourage others to do so?

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Emma Sue Prince


Read more from Emma Sue Prince

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