J I McFadyen Engineering

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Starting to understand comfort zones

Cave jumping

Cave jumping © wowblog

The first session I proposed at the Agile Coach Camp in Germany was on comfort zones; a topic close to my heart as I was in a foreign country, unable to speak the language, talking to a group of people I’d never met before. I may have been slightly outside of my comfort zone. Oh, and I’m not the biggest fan of talking in front of large groups, though that is more lack of practice than anything else.

Initially I wanted the conversation to flow from what comfort zones are through to how we could use this in coaching. Turns out what comfort zones are is a big area in itself.

What is a comfort zone?

The comfort zone is a behavioural state within which a person operates in an anxiety-neutral condition, using a limited set of behaviours to deliver a steady level of performance, usually without a sense of risk.

- From Comfort Zone to Performance Management by Alasdair White

Everyone knows what a comfort zone is to them, however the discussion showed that we have slightly differing understandings of the phrase. Throughout the conversation we had to revisit what we meant by comfort zone and see if it still held true. Occasionally we changed our minds slightly, but in general we agreed that it was a stress-free place, where we are normally at our happiest, for a given context.

An important point to note is that your comfort zone is your own, and while people or circumstance can strongly influence it, no one can change it but you.

One of the most interesting ideas that emerged, for me at least, was the idea that comfort zones are contextual. We accept a different level to risk, and show these differences in many ways, for the varied aspects of our lives: you may be very conservative about your work, but happy to jump out of perfectly good planes in your spare time.

Are you safe or just think you are?

While exploring our definition of the comfort zone it became clear that there is a space outside of the comfort zone where we are, while not comfortable, still within an acceptable level of discomfort: this we named our safety zone. While digging deeper into the idea of what a safety zone was yet another concept began to surface, the safe zone. This is where you are actually safe within the context of your comfort zone.

The language we were using seems difficult, and it was with the large group, but we didn’t want to stray far from our discussions to sort it out. I’m using the same language here as I haven’t as yet come across better terms.

An example may help explain the differences.

Do babies have safety zones?

When a baby is born it comes into this world defenceless and unaware of the dangers around it. Parents work hard to protect their baby from pretty much everything (at least for the first one). So, this baby learns to move about but has no concept that doing certain things can hurt them.

If you take our theoretical baby and place them on a table they are going to move about and explore. At some point they are going to get close to the edge and look over. Given no external influences or earlier experience, such as the parent jumping to grab them or having fallen off before, it won’t dawn on them that there exists the potential for them getting hurt.

Baby on table © jiva

Given they are no longer safe, are they in a state of raised anxiety? Probably not (whether you are is a different matter).

Are they safe? No.

Are they comfortable? Yes, nothing has influenced them enough to change their world view.

Comfort, safe and safety

While playing with these types of idea, it started to become clearer that while comfort, safe and safety zones are different concepts they have some commonality  between what can influence them, but differing greatly in the power those influences can exert.

  • Comfort zones are internal, encompassing areas we regularly explore, influenced by strong or frequent exposure to different experiences.
  • Safety zones are also internal, covering those areas we explore infrequently and are more easily influenced, both positive and negatively.
  • Safe zones are external spaces: the environment, be that physical, cultural or other,  where you find yourself. How much you can influence them, if at all, is dependant on the situation.

In future posts  I intend to cover how these zone interact, what factors can affect these zones, how a coach can use an understanding of this to influence a situation and some of the ethical implications of doing so.

Oh, and please don’t leave babies unattended on table tops just to prove me wrong.

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Category: agile