Marcia Reynolds: Part 2 of a second interview by Bob Morris

ReynoldsMarcia Reynolds, president of Covisioning LLC, works with clients around the world who seek to develop effective leaders. She understands organizational cultures, what blocks communication and innovation, and what is needed to bring people together for better results. She has coached leaders, delivered leadership, coaching and emotional intelligence programs, and spoken at conferences for clients in 34 countries. She has also presented at many universities including Harvard Kennedy School and Cornell University,

Prior to starting her own business, Marcia’s greatest success came as a result of designing the employee development program for a semiconductor manufacturing company facing bankruptcy. Within three years, the company turned around and became the #1 stock market success in the United States when they went public in 1993.

Excerpts from her books Outsmart Your Brain, Wander Woman, and her latest, The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations into Breakthroughs have appeared in many places including Harvard Management Review,,, Psychology Today and The Wall Street Journal and she has appeared on ABC World News.

Marcia’s doctoral degree is in organizational psychology with a research emphasis on the challenges and needs of high-achievers. She also holds two masters degrees in education and communications.

Here is an excerpt from Part 2 of my second interview of Marcia.

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Morris: When and why did you decide to write the Discomfort Zone?

Reynolds: Originally, I thought of writing a book for coaches looking to learn more advanced skills beyond the basics. As a long-time assessor for the International Coach Federation and a number of coaching schools, I found that coaches stopped short of taking risks in their conversations, keeping them from facilitating the breakthroughs in thinking needed to be assessed at a Mastery level. When I mentioned my desire to codify and teach what Master Coaches do in a book to my editor, he said, “Write the book for leaders, the coaches will buy it.” Of course! I have been teaching leadership classes for over 30 years. If I could teach these skills to leaders, and demonstrate in case studies the amazing results they would get if they committed to using the skills, then I had the opportunity to change the nature of conversations in the workplace. This has become my purpose. The Discomfort Zone is my vehicle for the large-scale change I would love to be a part of.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Reynolds: The chapter where I teach how to listen from your heart and gut as well as your head was born out of my research while writing the book. I had discovered the science behind intuition some years ago. But creating the actual exercises that teach this skill seemed to be the magic I needed to bring the idea of intuition out of being “fluff” to an actual and measurable leadership competency.

Since I wrote this chapter, I have been leading people through the exercise in workshops around the world. In each session, the majority of people have head-snapping revelations too. There is no better payoff for someone who has been teaching leaders for decades, to find a skill that can actually create a “wow” factor in the classroom, enough that the students will absolutely take what they learn with them out into the workplace. This is very fulfilling for me.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Reynolds: I originally had more neuroscience up front, explaining why these conversations based on insight formation are far more effective that telling people what to do or scaring them into doing something else. My editor reminded me that I had to get into the “how to” much more quickly. If they buy the book, they already know that what I’m trying to say is important. And, the average reader wants to get to the good stuff quickly. So as usual, I had to cut pages from the beginning of the book. After that, the book flowed as planned.

Morris: What advice do you have for supervisors who are very uncomfortable when struggling to prepare for what is almost certain to be a complicated (perhaps contentious) conversation with a direct report?

Reynolds: A good practice is to choose an emotion you want to feel before the conversation. Select one word to use as an emotional anchor you can go back to when your impatience, anger, or fear arises. Consider what you want the other person to feel—inspired, hopeful, or courageous? Then occasionally remind yourself to feel this emotion too. Or maybe you know you need to feel calm, caring, or bold. Choose one emotion word that you can breathe into your body to help you stay focused on the result you want.

Remember that if you are angry or disappointed with the person, they won’t be open to having a conversation with you. They will likely be defensive in return. You need to set and maintain a positive emotional tone.

Also, consider the regard you are holding for the person right now. You have to believe in the person’s potential even if they had disappointed or angered you. They have to feel you respect them to stay open to being with you in the conversation. Consider what the person has done well in the past and what is possible in the future. Hold the person in high regard even before you enter the conversation. They will sense your hope for them even if the conversation feels difficult.

Morris: Let’s say that such a conversation occurs and goes well. Then what? Follow-up by the supervisor? By the direct report?

Reynolds: If you follow the DREAM model in the book, the acronym DREAM stands for these activities:

D = determine what the person wants as a desired outcome of the conversation

R = reflect on assumptions, beliefs, and reactions as the person tells his or her view of the situation (hold up a mental mirror by affirming what the person thinks and feels)

E = explore what needs, desires, disappointments, and fears could be interfering or blocking a different perception

A = acknowledge the emerging awareness

M = make sure there is a plan or commitment for what is next

The M ensures there will be some sort of follow-up, but you will determine these together. You will ask them to clearly state their next step, even if it is to give the conversation more thought before getting back to you. Then together you will determine if and when the next conversation will be.

Morris: My own opinion is that much of the counsel you provide could also be helpful to parents as well as to teachers and coaches who enter a discomfort zone when addressing behavior issues with young people. What do you think?

Reynolds: Whenever I teach these skills to leaders, they always ask the same question, “Can I use this as a parent?” I believe anytime you have the opportunity to help people think more broadly for themselves and discover solutions on their own, you can use The Discomfort Zone skills. The book is useful for coaches, parents, consultants, teachers, and friends as well as leaders.

Morris: Back to basics. What is a discomfort zone?

Reynolds: In order to define who we are and make sense of the world around us, our brains develop constructs and rules that we strongly protect without much thought. When someone asks you why you did something, you immediately come up with an ad hoc answer that fits the situation even if the response doesn’t make complete sense. These quick interpretations actually constrain the brain, making human beings narrow-minded by nature.

To help someone think differently about a situation, you have to disturb this automatic processing. This is best done by challenging the beliefs that created the frames and surfacing the underlying fears, needs, and desires that are keeping the constructs in place. Through reflective statements and questions, you can help someone actively explore, examine and change their beliefs and behavior. This is what I call having a Discomfort Zone conversation.
Then, when you make people stop and think about what they are saying, their brain will frantically try to make sense of what they are now seeing, causing a moment of discomfort for everyone involved. Then a burst of adrenaline could cause an emotional reaction, anything from nervous laughter to anger before an insight emerges. If you act on this moment, you have a chance to solidify the new awareness. If not, a strong ego may work backward to justify the previous behavior.

The Discomfort Zone is the moment of uncertainty where people are most open to learning. Leaders who use these skills provide a chance for the person to develop a new perspective, see a different solution to their problem, and potentially grow as a person.

* * *

To read all of Part 2, please click here.

To read Part 1, please click here.

To read the first interview, please click here.

Marcia cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Her website

To go directly to download resources and read about The Discomfort Zone, please click here.

You can rate your ability to deal with discomfort by clicking here.

Tips for trainers and mentor coaches on how to teach the techniques in The Discomfort Zone: Please click here.

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