Executive Coach and Leadership Consultant

Phoenix, Arizona

Marcia Reynolds is president of Covisioning, which offers workplace communications training, coaching, and mentoring programs to senior leaders. She also is the author of Outsmart Your Brain, Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction, and The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations Into Breakthroughs.

Your most recent book, The Discomfort Zone, is not as much about initiating an awkward conversation as it is a coaching approach. Can you explain?

So many of the conversation books are focused on how you get your message across, and that's what is different about this book. This is about helping people to see their blind spots and break through their resistance.

It's about helping them achieve their goals through what could be an uncomfortable conversation, because it's difficult to actually face those blind spots and resistance. It's a shift in the perspective from trying to fix a problem to helping people see themselves and their situations in a much broader, more useful way, which shifts what the conversation is about.

How do you know if someone will be receptive to this type of conversation?

It's about discovering something that is important to the person you are speaking to. What's in it for them? So even before you initiate the conversation, you have to have that intention. You need to let the person you're coaching know that you're there to help her achieve something that's important to her.

I was working with a client, and while she could manage up and down, her peers thought she was arrogant and condescending. She wanted to move up in leadership and she wanted to be seen as a leader, so helping her see that developing her peer relationships—that they needed to see her as a leader as well—was critical.

We focused on what it would take for other people to judge her as a strong leader. Once she felt that the conversation was for her greater good, and not just because her manager wasn't happy, there was a shift in her desire to change her behavior.

So there are three things a leader must consider before holding a "discomfort zone" conversation. First is the intention for the conversation to be on something the person wants to achieve. The second is to set an emotional intention. You need to choose how you're going to feel before you go into the conversation. If the person feels that you're angry or disappointed in them, they're going to shut down.

Consider how you want the person to feel and then choose that emotion for yourself. Do you want the person to feel encouraged, hopeful, or confident about the future? Then you must feel this way throughout the conversation. If during the conversation things get awkward and you get impatient or upset with the person, repeat your emotional keyword to yourself to come back to what you want to feel instead. Don't get thrown off balance.

So there's the goal for the conversation, then there's the emotional intention, and the third consideration is how you regard the person. People need to feel as if you believe in them. You have to look at people as capable and resourceful and that they can achieve their goals. Yes, they are stuck right now. We all get there. You have to have a sense not of their needing to be fixed but rather, that you're there to help unblock whatever is getting in their way to achieving their potential.

This process can be uncomfortable for both the coach and the coachee, correct?

Absolutely. The reason why it's uncomfortable is that the other person is stuck. Not all coaching occurs when somebody is stuck. This approach works best when people are trapped, seeing things in a certain way or resisting looking at their situation differently. At some point the conversation will be uncomfortable, maybe not at the beginning but in the middle when the person finally realizes how he is sabotaging his own success.

As humans, when we say something that makes someone else feel uncomfortable, we often get uncomfortable as well. That's why so many people avoid these conversations—we don't know what to do with ourselves when the conversation feels awkward or unnerving. So there will be discomfort on both sides. But if you just breathe and let people process their emotions and thoughts, the discomfort will pass.

What's the most important thing you learned in writing the Discomfort Zone?

Even though it is uncomfortable, this coaching approach 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.

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What are you most intrigued about in the area of the brain, neuroscience, and learning?

I received my second master's degree in adult learning back in the 1980s. At that time we focused teaching on the question, "How do we show someone what to do?" You tell them, you show them, and you get them to practice. So it's a cognitive process, which is fine for skills.

But I don't recall really learning how to change somebody's behavior—especially if they were stuck or resistant. We taught leaders to give feedback and explain consequences, but that didn't inspire change.

So what fascinates me is that we are learning that behavioral change relates to ego—how people see themselves and the world around them. When we ask questions and use reflection to get them to look at themselves, their views of themselves and the world can change and grow, which automatically shifts their behavior.

So now I'm looking at how we listen instead of how we present information. What's the question that's going to change someone's mind? There isn't a list of questions I can give you. This is an organic process that starts with being fully present and listening for the clues to what is holding the person back.

I have been teaching coaching skills for years, and we're just scratching the surface of how powerful coaching can be and how to codify such topics as how to access your intuition. Going deeper into how we listen, connect, and grow, that's what fascinates me.

What mental shifts are needed to ensure that change is sustained and that training lessons are put into practice?

There needs to be a shift in "who I am and how I see the world" for my behavior to change. Let me give you a quick example of something my boss once did for me.

I was complaining about my co-workers and how I felt that I was the one doing all the work, that they weren't carrying their weight, and so forth. My boss said to me, "Wow, it seems like everyone disappoints you." He paused to let his words sink in before he said, "Will anyone ever be good enough for you?"

His question made me recognize how I had been hurting all the relationships in my life. I had been separating myself from others; my competitiveness, my fears around not being acknowledged for my obsessive good work, and my judgment stopped me from enjoying my work and the company of others. So he changed my behavior forever with one statement and one question.

When we look at what really changes people's behavior—when we are able to break through that protective layer around who they think they are and how they see the world—our work as leaders is most powerful.

If you tell me what to do, I might do it, but I might easily forget it tomorrow. If you threaten me, I'll do it but I'll resent it. But if you work with me in a way that helps me expand who I think I am, then yes, my behavior not only changes forever but it changes for good. In the end, I am grateful.

What do you think will be the greatest asset the C-suite can have five or 10 years from now?

Developing leadership means we develop minds, not just skills. For the C-suite, I think their greatest asset is having a leadership pipeline of mentally developed leaders. When people are promoted for their technical capability, it is always hit-or-miss in terms of how effective they will be as leaders. If leaders at all levels actively develop people's minds as well as their skills, then the organization has a true leadership pipeline.

Yet succession programs are still weak in most organizations. People are moving around jobs so much these days that leaders have to strengthen the pipeline all the way from the bottom up. The greatest asset for the C-suite will be to have all their leaders, at all levels, know how to truly engage the minds, hearts, and guts of their employees.

You are a lifelong learner; what's next for you?

I'm looking at the whole concept of presence. Most teachings on presence focus on the person, not the relationship. How am I truly present in a conversation with someone else? Meaning, how do I give up my ego to fully connect and be with the person I am in conversation with? It's really tough, but I think it is important for us all to know how to do that.

For example, as soon as somebody asks me a challenging question in class, I'm back in my head. How can I embrace the challenge and hear what the person really needs from me without reacting? I love figuring these things out and then teaching what I learn to others.