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Comfort Zones May 22, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership, Networking.
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Last summer, I had the opportunity to watch a group of Boy Scouts go through a high-ropes team building exercise.  Beyond the fun of watching boys climb 50 feet in the air with nothing more than a safety rope hooked to their waist, I learned a clever trick about comfort zones.

High-ropes courses are all about getting out of your comfort zone.  I am very comfortable on the ground, enjoying the combination of gravity and my feet firmly planted on the earth.  Climbing a 40-foot ladder comprised solely of five planks at eight-foot intervals took me way out of my zone, to the point of near-frozen, knee-shaking fear at the top.  But I did it, and I’m better for it, if only to avoid embarrassment in front of 13-year-olds who scrambled to the top like monkeys.

There was a more subtle comfort zone that was shattered five minutes into the day.  When we arrived, the instructors asked the boys to pair up.  As you would expect, they found their best friends and quickly formed twosomes.  She then asked them to each assume a character, either SpongeBob or Patrick (remember the audience here).  They did so.  She then gathered all the SpongeBobs into one group, and all the Patricks into another.  One group headed to the ropes course, and the other to another exercise.

In one deft motion she separated every boy from his best friend! For the rest of the day, the boys worked without the comfort of their buddy, opening them to social opportunities they would never have had.  They still had fun, accomplished things, and grew a bit.  But they did it with a little more risk and became more open to partnering with others throughout the day.

I was so impressed by this trick that I asked the leader about it.  She shared that they had choices for any number of groups.  Need groups of three? Team them in trios and then ask them to become one of the Three Stooges.  Foursomes? Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And so forth.  They had learned that boys know how to game the “count off” trick, positioning their best friends “n” people away to make sure they stayed together.  The character game took them by surprise, before they could figure out how to thwart the leader’s intent.

As adults, we probably won’t be asked to become a cartoon character (I’d pick SpongeBob, FYI). But, boy, do we need to be broken up and moved out of our social comfort zones!  How many times do you arrive at a networking event and look for the familiar faces?  I’m guilty of this, and I really enjoy working a room and getting to meet new people.  For the less gregarious among us, breaking out to meet strangers is a difficult exercise.

How many opportunities do we miss for fear of breaking away from our comfortable friends?  There is such value in meeting new people, expanding our horizons, and finding ways to help others.  Our reluctance to engage a stranger costs us so much.  As adults, we are supposed to know better and not require outside intervention to make us do the right thing.  Yet we still revert to old behaviors, rooted deep in our psyches.

We all own this problem.  At your next event, acknowledge the familiar faces and turn away to meet the strangers.  If your friends chase you down, gently aim them at others as well.  You may have to write “SpongeBob” on your name tag to make your point, but it will be worth the effort.