As I read Richard Powers’ teaching tips, I am reminded of how many experiential leadership classes at Stanford emphasize going outside of our comfort zones for maximal learning.

Richard writes:

Students will reach their optimum learning pace if they’re just a small, reachable step beyond their comfort zone — enough to be stimulated and motivated, but not to the point of feeling pressured or stressed.

This is similar to what I learned in Leadership Labs, Interpersonal Dynamics, and Arbuckle Leadership Fellows. At Business School, we like numbers. So these classes doesn’t just simply emphasize going beyond our comfort zone, but specificies going 15% beyond.

Why 15%? Well, just a little bit beyond your comfort zone isn’t challenging enough and thus isn’t maximizing learning. If you’re inside your comfort zone, you’re probably doing something you’re already good at. If an experienced dancer takes a beginner class, then there’s very few things for her to learn in the class.

But, going too far beyond your comfort zone will cause emotion distress and withdrawal. As Richard wrote:

When students are pushed out of their comfort zone, they emotionally put on the brakes.  Learning stops.

This is what GSB professor Carole Robin calls the Zone of Danger. Going too far beyond the comfort zone could result in emotional backlash. Afterwards, the student retreat back into the comfort zone for safety. For example, if someone with no dance experience jumps into an advanced dance class, he may come out of it thinking he is terrible at dancing and never try again.

The good news is that as you go outside of your comfort zone, your comfort zone expands. So over time, what used to be in the Zone of Danger can end up being in the comfort zone. For example, if someone with no dance experience start with beginner class and then move up to advanced classes over time, the advanced classes would no longer be scary.

This gradual expansion of comfort zone and natural behavior applies in leadership as well. When I was practicing leadership coaching for the Arbuckle Leadership Program, I found that the best coaching occurs when I successfully interweave tools I learned from class into my normal repertoire and personality. For example, when I insert a few tools I learned in coaching into conversations with my husband or my friends, they find it very insightful and useful. Or if I told them I’m trying something and give them a heads-up that it may feel unnatural, and ask them for feedback while I’m trying it, we are owning the unnaturalness and we both learn something from the experience. On the other hand, if I gave no warning and started using coaching tools one after another in a conversation, they often feel intruded and possibly overwhelmed.

Similarly in dancing, there’s a few steps that’s most familiar to each lead. If the lead only did these steps, there’s little room to grow. So to learn and grow, the lead would try new moves with their partner. Some of these moves would become part of their normal repertoire over time, whereas other moves are still rusty. These rusty moves can only be practiced a few times at once or would make the dance too stressful. But I find it’s sometimes OK if I ask my partner ahead of time and get their agreement to be doing a lot of practice.

However, we always want to return to the familiar between new moves, so that we can really enjoy the dance instead of feeling hectic. It’s like remembering to build a safe space in coaching, so that the coachee can stretch and go outside of her comfort zone occasionally. But can also return to the safe space to rest and recover their energy for the next stretch.