Managing Comfort Zones

Managing Comfort Zones

Managing Comfort Zones

You're probably in one now. You might not realise it and you're very unlikely to admit it, but the reality is you're very likely to be in your very own Comfort Zone.
How can I say this? Especially when I don't know anything about you - your profession, interests or background. The answer is simple. Nobody stays outside their comfort zone for very long - we leave it for long enough to achieve what we need to achieve then we scuttle back for cover.

So, what is a Comfort Zone?

A comfort zone is a set of practices, behaviors and limitations in which we feel comfortable. Beyond the boundaries of that set, we begin to experience negative emotions. Like a fish in an aquarium that never notices the presence of water until it is removed from the water, what we really experience is a 'discomfort' zone.

Put simplistically: for a person who experiences vertigo, their comfort zone might mean avoiding high places. What we're talking about here, however, are anxieties we may not even be aware of: avoidance of confrontation, nervousness around money, an inability to take criticism or fear of failure. And all of these stresses are inhibit our confidence and ability to conduct the essentials of our work, be it: cold calling, public speaking, correcting team members, making tough decisions and many other aspects of sales management.

To address the question of our Comfort Zones, we need to ask:

1) What causes these negative emotions?
2) Why do they exist?
3) What can we do about them?

Comfort zones only exist inside our minds. If, for example, you are uncomfortable speaking in public, it's not the public nature of the presentation that's at fault, nor is the audience to blame. The problem is how we represent the event inside our head. And, while it may be in our minds, it's not psychology, it's biology. Let's have a look at what happens inside the brain:

The neurons of the brain receive signals from each other through a whole lot of 'dendrites' but they transmit information from just one axon.

In order to transmit signals, these axons reach out to dendrites on other neurons but they don't actually touch them. To get information from the transmitting axon to the receiving dendrite the signal has to cross a microscopic gap called the synapse.

In terms of comfort and discomfort, the synapse is where all the action is. How you react to a situation depends on which neurotransmitter the axon decides to use to carry the signal across the synapses, from cell to cell to carry the brain's response. Over 50 different different neurotransmitters have been identified but the one we are most interested in here is called dopamine, which is responsible for the feelings of comfort and discomfort.

And, it comes as no surprise that we are programmed to seek comfort and avoid discomfort. The word seek is important here. We learn about the world by making forecasts about what will happen and then we use a pain/pleasure feedback mechanism to signal the level of error in our prediction.

For example, when you go to the fridge to take out a carton of milk, you make a prediction or forecast of what precisely you need to do to accomplish this task. The sub-conscious predicts how much force you have to apply to grip the carton. Not too much or you'll crush it, not too little or it will slip and spill. It predicts how much muscle contraction is necessary to lift the carton. Get the prediction wrong and lift up the carton you thought was full but is actually empty, and you'll experience an unpleasant 'jolt'.

Now, apply that biological reality to your time in sales and you'll see what happens. If you have had negative experiences that are linked to, say, cold calling, the very idea of lifting the phone begins to bring on the negative emotions. Those axons call out the dopamine and instruct you to go and make a cup of coffee instead. Perhaps it's public speaking. You know the feeling, sweaty palms, the stammer that came from nowhere and the onset of temporary amnesia. Instead of stepping up to the plate and giving voice to that sales pitch you truly believe, dopamine hops, skips and jumps through your system and tells you to mumble so that few in the presentation can hear you and even fewer are convinced. In fact, the only person that is convinced by the situation is you, who are now even more convinced that you are a bad public speaker and mumbling becomes your comfort zone. All down to dopamine.

This works the other way around too, as Ivan Pavlov discovered with his now famous dogs. Every time he rang a bell, he rewarded his dogs with food and soon the dogs associated the bell (prediction) with the reward and began to salivate when they heard it. Interestingly, the dopamine is released in the dogs at the sound of the bell, not when the food is delivered - proof, if it were needed, that thinking and emotions are biological processes.

The pain and pleasure effects caused by the presence or absence of the dopamine neurotransmitter are essential to our evolution and our survival because they let us learn about the world without a teacher. The trouble is that, while comfort may enable us to survive in the short term, it can have negative effects in the long run. Bingeing on our food stores might makes us feel comfortable in September but it could mean starvation later on in winter.

Our discomfort zones come about for one or more reasons. These can be;

Our own experiences: childhood, social or professional. Repeated teachings or messages: learning bad practices. Social Pressure: family, friends, status, religious conviction.

The key to escaping our discomfort zones is in the same mechanisms that created them - it simply means getting the dopamine to work for you instead of against you. Pavlov's dogs learned to associate a ringing bell with the comfort of food. Further experiments show that even a slightly negative trigger that leads to a reward causes the same effect
of positive anticipation.

If cold calls, public speaking, networking, negotiation or any other factor of sales is causing you to retreat to your comfort zone, the key is to find or create a tangible, positive reward that will help to incentivize and reward you. Essentially, this means creating a new comfort zone and it's not as easy as it sounds, you may need a coach to help you.

We can also complement this process with a series of repeated messages that focus on our new comfort zone. An A/B journal where you repeatedly record positive messages such as "I am the best thing to happen to my prospect today, he just doesn't know it yet" or "I only have to make cold calls, I don't have to like them" or "every cold call earns me money and personal freedom regardless of the outcome". Do this often enough and frequently enough and you'll develop a different attitude to any activity that is uncomfortable for you - good bye 'Discomfort Zone', welcome to the real Comfort Zone.

Finally, are there negative influences in your life that help keep the negative associations you have alive? Do you have a family member who derides your success? Do you have a friend whose success intimidates you? Do you play golf, even though you're bad at it, just because you feel you should? All of these things can be changed. Politely tell the family member how unhelpful their comments are and if they won't listen, avoid them. Look at your friend's success as an incentive not an inhibitor. Give up golf and find something you actually enjoy. It's that simple. Find new activities and influences that support and encourage your goals, rather than ones that undermine them. Gradually, you'll find yourself capable of much more than you ever imagined and comfortable with much more than you have ever dreamed.