Get Out of Your Comfort Zone: A Guide for the Terrified

No one likes to move beyond his or her comfort zone, but that’s really where the magic happens. It’s where we can grow, learn, and develop in a way that expands our horizons beyond what we thought was possible.

Also, it’s terrifying.

For me, operating beyond my comfort zone was participating in classroom discussions in college. Early in my career, it was public lecturing and participating in departmental meetings. I knew I had things to say, but was very unsure if they were worth saying.

And you know what? I didn’t say a word in nearly all of my undergraduate classes, and uttered very little in professional meetings at for a long time. From talking with others about their own unique fears and challenges, I’m sure I’m not alone.

Fast forward 20 years, and I am now in the interesting position of teaching and coaching others to operate outside their comfort zones. So, how can we get the courage to take this leap — and develop the skill and ability to actually pull it off?

Tip 1: Recognize When You’re Tricking Yourself

When I was afraid of participating in meetings or in class, I would rationalize away my discomfort. I’d tell myself quite convincingly that, “Participating just isn’t that important.” Now, in my position helping others to operate outside their comfort zones, especially outside of their cultural comfort zones, I hear similar rationalizations: “Networking isn’t that important; it’s the quality of your work,” or “People who network are slimy or full of themselves, and I’m not like that.”

These statements may be true, but they also may be masking the reality of the situation: that you are afraid of networking or public speaking and can’t get yourself to admit it.

So ask yourself this question:  If you didn’t experience any anxiety at all in your chosen situation — if it were completely comfortable and stress free — would it be something you’d like to be able to do?  Would it be exciting?  Would it help your career?  If the answer is yes (and be honest!), it’s probably fear that you’re grappling with — and that’s OK.  In fact, it’s great to recognize that so you can move onto the next step in the process, which is to use your power of rationalization for instead of against you.

Instead of rationalizing why the behavior is something not worth performing, actively brainstorm all the reasons why it is worth performing.  How can taking the leap and starting to work on performing this tough, but key behavior advance your career, give you chances to grow and learn in exciting ways, or whatever other goals you happen to care about?

Answering these questions honestly will actually give you great fodder for moving forward. Understanding why you want to take this leap and what’s in it for you is a wonderful motivator.

Tip 2: Construct a Plan That’s Unique to Your Situation

Taking a leap without a plan is bold, but unwise.  And without a strategy for how you are going to actually make this change, you’ll likely end up just where you started. So what kind of strategy should you use?

In my work helping people move outside their comfort zones, I help people clearly and specifically identify what is most challenging for them in a particular situation, and then I provide a set of tools to help them develop a solution for overcoming these particular challenges.

The system I use in scary situations is predicated on the idea that there is no single perfect way to perform the particular behavior you’re working on, be it networking, participating at a meeting, or simply learning to make small talk.  Rather, in most situations, you can find a way to customize or personalize your behavior so you are effective in the new situation while not feeling like you’re losing yourself in the process.

Let’s say, for example, that you’re an introvert who simply dreads the idea of schmoozing with a group of strangers at a networking event.  In fact, you’d rather skip the event altogether. I know many people in this situation (myself included) and my advice to them — which is similar to the advice Susan Cain gives in her path breaking work empowering introverts to thrive in an extroverted world — is to resist the idea that there is one single way to perform at these events. Yes, for some people it’s natural to do classic, prototypical networking behavior. But for others it’s not. And if that’s you in whatever situation you’re working on, tweak the situation to your liking.

So, in the networking context: instead of feeling pressured to meet everyone in the room, focus on one or two people you seem to hit it off with, and actually try to get to know them. Or, if this type of conversation isn’t for you, especially in a noisy, crowded room, focus instead to making initial contacts at the event with the ultimate goal of arranging follow-up conversations in a more comfortable setting, like over coffee or even on the phone.

The point is that instead of being overwhelmed by the situation, you can take control of it and make it your own. That’s the power of customization.

Tip 3: Find a Mentor or Coach

Even with a solid plan and a revitalized sense of purpose, a good source of help, courage, inspiration, and feedback can seal the deal. It can be a professional coach, but doesn’t have to. A thoughtful and encouraging colleague or friend can also do the trick.

For example, a mentor can help you identify gaps between how you’d naturally and comfortably behave and how you need to behave in the new situation to be effective.  A mentor can also then help you customize your behavior to find that sweet spot blending effectiveness and authenticity.  Finally, a compassionate and encouraging mentor can help you persevere when the going is tough — and when you’re operating outside your comfort zone, in situations that really matter, that’s almost inevitably going to be the case.

So when it comes to getting outside your comfort zone, don’t mistake magical outcomes for magical processes. Adaptation takes time, effort, strategy, and determination. But with a solid plan in place and the courage to take it forward, your results can be extraordinary.

Andy Molinsky is a Professor of International Management and Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School. He is the author of GLOBAL DEXTERITY (HBR Press, 2013) and REACH: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge, and Build Confidence (Penguin, forthcoming – early 2017). Follow Andy on twitter at @andymolinsky.

This piece originally appeared at Harvard Business Review.

Follow Andy on twitter at @andymolinsky.

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