As facilitators there are often lots of conversations about participants being in or out of their comfort zones. Certain ice breakers for example (this is not a post about ice breakers) can leave people feeling distinctly outside their comfort zones. Some people react quiet strongly to being asked to take part in an ice breaker and it can create all kinds of tension and even anxiety. Some people just don’t like being in a workshop in the first place or even if they do the “creeping death” (as a facilitator friend of mine calls it) of the round robin of introductions at the start can make some people just want to go home.

It is not the role of the facilitator to make people feel uncomfortable. Facilitators do not make an effort to make people feel ill at ease. The plan is certainly not to encourage participants to want to leave the room or to make them squirm in their seats. The aim is to create an inclusive and inviting environment. You need to be comfortable enough. But not too comfortable!

There is definitely an argument for helping participants push beyond their cosy happy state. To poke and prod a bit and to ask you to do things you really don’t want to do so you can get something better from it. Invariably there will be some sort of comfort zone to break through whether it is speaking up in a group or having to share space with others. Or potentially something you might not have thought of before.

So what is comfort anyway?

My dictionary describes comfort as “a state of ease or contentment”. It’s not hard to imagine, most people know what makes them comfortable and what doesn’t. Take a moment and see if you can envisage your happy self feeling content. Maybe you are on a beach, perhaps you are skiing down a mountain. Imagine whatever makes you cosy and content. Nice isn’t it?

comfort zone facilitation

But what about actively putting yourself into a position of intentional discomfort? Intentionally away from your comfort zone.

Have you ever tried swimming in the freezing cold water?

I have recently started doing cold water swimming again. If you are ever in Clevedon in North Somerset I highly recommend getting in touch with Row from Swimmable. It is I grant you a slightly ludicrous activity. It involves going swimming outdoors in just a swimming costume and embracing the experience of being utterly and totally cold. Like your skin is burning kind of cold. The sort of cold where you can’t feel your extremities. I understand it is not the kind of thing you might want to put yourself through, that’s okay. It is outside most people’s comfort zones.

The experience whilst in the water is both challenging and exhilarating. It is like nothing else I have ever experienced. It is all the things that you think you don’t want to do. But once you have bashed through the fear of getting in, the trepidation of the (very real) cold and got over the sheer madness of what you are doing, the feeling is unreal. The physiological and psychological benefits are well documented. They are immense. The feeling most sublime and totally incredible. I would highly recommend it to anyone.

Most people don’t go out of their way to break through their comfort zone in such an extreme way (I am one of several people willing to do an hour’s round trip for a few minutes in the freezing water!). Although the more I do this the more I question whether it is extreme or not……It’s all relative though – I am not climbing Everest.

Don’t do… will upset people

As a facilitator sometimes I get asked to do things this way or that way. I have been asked more than once not to do any “Kumbaya” facilitation. That is to say, nothing too touchy-feely. Probably no talking stick (I have never actually used a talking stick). I understand where the sentiment comes from, group hugs won’t be appreciated.

I have also been asked for there to be no drawing. Drawing was the thing (in one particular group) that was likely to make some participants feel uncomfortable. I generally like to encourage a bit of doodling.

Then there are participants who get agitated when post it notes aren’t straight. Yes that is a thing! Randomly misaligned post it notes can make people feel uncomfortable I have discovered.

And I have had countless conversations with people about warm ups and ice breakers, about introverts and extroverts. I have had lots of discussions about how to make people feel safe and happy in a workshop space. But far fewer conversations about how to nudge people from their comfortable space away from their comfort zone.

I am sure this is because of the perceived consequences of it going wrong. But of course we should all beware of assumptions and prepare to be surprised. Often assumptions are wrong. And even of they are right, it doesn’t mean that the person who doesn’t think there is any point in the pipe cleaners or playdough on the table won’t reach for them at some point. And discover something, even though they frowned at them initially. Sometimes even the most corporate of environments a bit of being silly goes down quite well.

Sometimes you just don’t know until you try something outside your comfort zone. But it’s the trying that’s important.

How much is okay?

So then there is the question of just how much feeling uncomfortable should there be. Just how much of what you might feel is inherently not a good idea can be part of a facilitated session?

I think in truth this will vary between facilitators and between styles that different facilitators use. It also varies, depending on circumstance, participants, context and facilitator.

And it very much depends on exactly what you want to achieve by coming together in the first place. This is key.

The aim is not to induce extreme anxiety, it is to do a bit of nudging. There will likely be a few things that make you feel unsure and perhaps a bit “icky”. Some of these things may be designed a little by the facilitator, to make you stretch yourself. Some will just happen because everyone is different and what might suit some people will be distinctly un-fun for others.

The thing is to know that it is okay. Trust that the facilitator has got your back. If you can do that, hopefully you will feel better about doing something that (let’s be honest), you probably don’t want to do. You will know that the doing of it (whatever “it” is) will have been designed into the process, or at least carefully though through by the facilitator. And that the facilitator is keeping her beady eyes on you, so you are safe.

What are the benefits?

Doing a few things that you don’t really want to can be a risk. You don’t actually know what new positive things will come out of it. But that’s a bit like change. You are never quite sure what will happen but if you are open to the idea in the first place you are prepared for things to be different. And being open to change is definitely a good thing in this fast paced world we are a part of these days.

You might find something out that you didn’t know. Another thing I did recently for the first time was to interview someone for a podcast. And I was rather scared. It turns out I actually rather enjoyed it, and now I want to do it again. I learnt something new about myself, but I had to make myself give it a go to find that out.

It opens you up to new possibilities. You just don’t know what is possible until you give it a try. And even if you have done whatever it is before, you might not have done it in this or that particular way.

The more you step outside your comfort zone the easier it becomes to do again. You won’t get a bravery award but you might feel a bit more confident inside.

If you really hate what the facilitator asked you to do, at the very least you will have something to discuss! And as you probably know, part of the work of a facilitator is to prompt discussion. You’ll probably get over the discomfort, but the results of that discussion might just be gold.

So the next time you are in a facilitated session and you are asked to draw something or make something out of Lego. Or talk to the very person you don’t want to talk to, or talk about that issue you have been avoiding. Or sit in a circle or go and work outside. Or put your post its at a jaunty angle. Don’t fret. Trust the facilitator. Have a go. You might be pleasantly surprised.

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