Russell Bishop Blog

#21 Change and the Comfort Zone

Let’s pick up on a term I have used earlier, but not defined, the Comfort Zone. Most people have heard the term, and many have used it. Like communication, the Comfort Zone is a term that can be freely used and seldom understood.

If you have been around long enough on this planet, you may have bumped into the term Comfort Zone applied to thermostats. In the old days, household thermostats often had Comfort Zone printed right on the dial.  The basic concept was that you could establish an upper and lower limit for air temperature and the heating and air condition system would only kick in once the upper or lower limits were exceeded.

Say, for example, you set your thermostat for an upper range of 76 and a lower end of 66. Once the air temperature rises above 76, the air conditioning kicks in and lowers the temperature back into the “Comfort Zone.” Similarly, if the temperature falls below 66, the furnace kicks in and raises the temperature back above 66. Various thermostats had different ranges in which they would operate, and rarely was anything so precise that a mere 1/10th of a degree would cause something to start or stop.

As long as the air temperature was within the “Comfort Zone,” things were just fine.

In the heating and air conditioning trade, the Comfort Zone is often referred to as the “dead zone.” Why “dead zone” you might ask?

A friend in the trade told me that they called it the “dead zone” because as along as the room temperature was within the defined range, the system behaved as though it were “dead.”

So, let’s think about his application of “Comfort Zone” blended with “dead zone” and consider human behavior. Some of us have larger Comfort Zones and others of us have much more narrow zones.

Where is yours? Probably it varies depending on the subject. I began writing this morning in my Hawaiian townhouse. Things were calm, serene and generally beautiful. I could hear the birds singing, felt the gentle breeze wafting in through the open windows, and even the sound of the lawnmowers on the near by golf course seemed part of the picture.

Suddenly, the calm was interrupted by the sounds of shouting; a verbal fight had broken out in a neighbor’s unit. At first, I couldn’t make out what was happening – just some loud noises which broke my concentration, and then the silence returned.

But not for long. A few minutes later and I heard more shouts, went out to the lanai to see what was going on, but the silence had returned again. Back to writing I went, and then more shouting. This time, it was loud, profane, and what I would consider to be abusive, possibly threatening.

By now, I was outside my comfort zone for tolerating the ranges of human behavior.  Inside, I was becoming upset – not so much by the disturbance as it applied to me, but by my perception of what might be happening to whomever was on the receiving end of the yelling and swearing.

So, I found my self getting up, putting on my flip flops, and heading over to the unit where the upset was taking place. Inside, my stomach was turning and part of me wanted to just stay out of it. But another part didn’t want to be one of those who just looks on while others risk injury or harm, and so I continued on over.

As luck turned out, the guy who was doing all the yelling and swearing came outside. I went up to him and asked if things were OK. He was a bit embarrassed, said things were fine and apologized. I persisted a bit more, all the while noticing my own fear rising that he might have a physically violent side to go with his verbally violent side, and let him know that it didn’t sound fine.

Again he apologized and I ended things by letting him know that his type of behavior was both noticed and not appreciated. He apologized yet again. Now, I don’t know if this was just a one off occurrence or whether there will be more to be watchful over; the important thing is that both of us know that someone is noticing.

(More on this later, especially as it applies to levels of responsibility and choice. Section 11 has a bit to say about victim and accountable behaviors and you might want to revisit that section as well).

For now, the simple side of this event is that I was in my Comfort Zone and I found myself moving to the outer edge of my “dead zone” (where I was willing to just notice and not act). Once I crossed the edge of comfort, “deadness,” or complacency, I moved myself to act.

We each have our own zones of what is acceptable for our selves and what is acceptable for others or what is happening around us. When things are within that range of acceptability, we tend not to do anything other than the “normal.”

Now the question arises, “What is normal? Or Acceptable?”

Forty years ago, I remember hearing someone teach about the Comfort Zone, referencing something that was supposed to have taken place with the sales force of IBM back in the days of really “big iron.” The short story is that a VP at IBM was curious to learn why sales people rarely seemed to exceed a certain amount of annual sales. He noticed that occasionally, a sales person would hit a pretty high number, perhaps hit it once or twice, and then never approach that number again.

So, he began to look a bit more deeply into sales figures across the whole sales force. What he found was intriguing: there seemed to be a lower limit or floor to annual sales below which a sales person would not fall without leaving the company. Similarly, there seemed to be a ceiling above which they would not rise.

He began to interview his sales people and discovered something interesting, something he christened as the “Comfort Zone.” The way the story goes, he started interviewing sales people to find out what was going on.

When talking with those who had achieved strong sales, well above the average high sales mark, he heard stories about not fitting in, trying too hard, showing everybody else up, not being “one of the guys,” and all manner of indications that exceeding a certain level somehow distance the individual from the rest of the team.

Interestingly, when he interviewed those who had fallen below the average minimum sales figures, he found almost the same story being told, with a slight twist. Now it was more about not keeping up, not being part of the team, not being “one of the guys.”

For those who fell below the line, one of two behaviors seem to follow – either they would bring themselves back up and never fall below the line again, or, they would just leave the company. For those who rose above the line, they might rise once or twice more, but would settle back to annual numbers within the upper and lower “limits.”

He concluded that his sales people were driven by a need to belong, to be “one of the guys,” and that falling outside the normal ranges was just too difficult for people to take, and so they would modify their behavior to fit in. He called this phenomenon the “Comfort Zone.”

Now, I have no idea whether this is really true or not; however, it does make for a good story to illustrate the point. I know I have certainly found myself at times modifying my behavior to fit into a comfort zone, a place where I could be “just like everyone else.” In fact, I can distinctly remember times as a kid when that was the admonishment from a teacher or other “grown-up” – to be “just like everyone else.”

As we continue to explore various aspects of how to create life as you truly want it to be, we should stay mindful of the Comfort Zone, and especially the “dead zone” concept. It may be that some of what we share here will cause you to consider choices or behaviors that are outside your current comfort zone; however, do also keep in mind that comfort is often associated with familiarity.

So, if something shows up here that is unfamiliar, it is also likely to be uncomfortable, at least at first. The challenge will be how to explore the unfamiliar, to play the “What if” game, long enough to find out if it will work for you. The process may be a bit uncomfortable at times, but that surely beats the “dead zone!”

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