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.

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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.

Morris: What are the best circumstances in which to have a discomfort zone conversation?

Reynolds: Picture yourself sitting in a conversation with a person you know is smart and committed to their work but they are complaining about a situation and feel stuck with no solution or they are resisting the recommendations others have told them to make. Maybe you are wondering why they can’t see what’s best for them. You want them to quit focusing on the problem. You want them try something new. You want them to move on. You’ve given them feedback. They discount your view. You’ve suggested solutions. The conversation just circles back to what is not working. This is a perfect time for a Discomfort Zone conversation!

Therefore, the perfect time for a discomfort zone conversation is when a smart person is stuck in one perspective and is resisting advice.

You can also use these skills to engage your top talent. The people want to be listened to, they want you to trust them to figure things out, and they want to be developed, which includes developing their minds as well as their skills. A survey published in Harvard Business Review found that although young high-achievers were given high-visibility jobs and increasing responsibilities, they were dissatisfied with the lack of mentoring and coaching they received. There seems to be a gap in what management thinks and what employees want, indicating that leaders aren’t listening.

Clearly, leaders need to spend more time with their top talent, helping them think through problems, see situations more strategically, and grow beyond their limitations. The Discomfort Zone will give you these skills.

Morris: How best to prepare for one?

Reynolds: Besides the emotional preparation I mentioned earlier, the most important part of these conversations are about discovering something that is important to the person you are speaking to. What’s in it for them? Do they want to be seen as a leader, earn more respect from their peers, or be less stressed at work? So even before you initiate the conversation, you have to have this intention going into the conversation. Maybe you know a goal that is important to them right now that would inspire them to explore their behavior with you. Or you need to discover what this is together. You need to let the person you’re coaching know that you’re there to help her achieve something that’s important to her. So you prepare by thinking what this could be before the conversation, but be open to what the person shares with you while you are talking.

When you combine putting your focus on their goal with setting an emotional intention and holding the person in high regard, you create a safety bubble that will invite the person into the conversation. Yes, people are often uncomfortable having conversations with their supervisors from the start. In my experience, if you listen with care, curiosity, and high regard, and show that you are there to help the person achieve a personal goal, the trust will build and the fear will subside.

Morris: What are the keys to effective listening?

Reynolds: Even though it is uncomfortable, a coaching approach based on being 100% present with an open mind, open heart, and open gut is such an important way of listening and connecting at a deeper level–at a level where we see a deeper humanity in the person who we’re with. In return, they feel seen, heard, and understood at a much deeper level. I think this is critical right now, especially with the younger generation coming in. That’s what they really want–they want to be seen, they want to be heard, they want to be recognized for what they’re bringing to the table. It is not just being mentored and directed and told what to do. I think this approach creates more meaningful conversations and stronger relationships.

Morris: Of all the great leaders throughout history, with which one would you most want to share an evening of conversation if it were possible? Why?

Reynolds: I visited Ghandi’s home in Mumbai and was struck by his love and compassion in the midst of ignorance and hate. His letters to world leaders were posted around the wall. He was definitely one of the first feminists, declaring the value of women in leadership positions. He even wrote a letter to Hitler asking him for a conversation. That would have been an interesting Discomfort Zone conversation! I know must have been a great listener as well as orator. He lived by his passion and beliefs. One evening with him would feed my mind, heat and soul for a lifetime.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read The Discomfort Zone and is now determined to establish or strengthen a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive. Where to begin?

Reynolds: Whether your organization is small or large, if you believe in the value of The Discomfort Zone, you might consider prompting a movement in There are many resources available outlining what it takes to create a coaching culture in your organization. Here are a few tips to help you get started.

Incorporate Discomfort Zone skills training into your current leadership programs. Start by seeing if there is a possibility to add Discomfort Zone skills training into the current leadership and talent development programs whether these programs already include coaching skills training or not. Because these skills taught in this book offer a specific coach-approach to your conversations not commonly taught or practiced by leaders, you will want to share how these skills differ from what you have been taught before. Find and begin conversations with the stakeholders of these programs in your organization. If there is a passion for developing others and creating leaps in learning and development, you will likely create curiosity if not excitement.

As soon as you can, engage all the top leaders. You can organize special executive sessions where they attend with their peers to learn the skills. You might provide an overview of the book and then review specific case studies as examples of what is possible. Hopefully, they will be curious to learn more. Senior leaders who seek to develop their leadership skills become visible role models and advocates for coaching.

Link the skill development to business strategies. Keep in mind that proposing changes to what your organization defines as desired leadership behaviors requires both data and support.

Prepare your pitch with both numbers and stories that represent the results you have achieved so far. Share your vision of expanding these scenarios to the entire organization. Explain how the shift in leadership style will reinforce succession planning and the retention of engaged workers. Hopefully, you can demonstrate how the skills will help the organization achieve their priority business goals. You have a greater chance for success when your initiative to create a coaching culture is viewed as a business initiative rather than as just learning and development initiative. Be clear that your intention is to accelerate both productivity and innovation.

Advocating for this change takes persistence and courage. As demonstrated in the examples and cases in this book, the rewards are well worth the investment. Leading in the Discomfort Zone is where the magic happens.

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To read Part 1, 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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