Why Does it Take a Crisis to Change?

brain picYour brain isn’t just resistant to change; it is lazy. In order to define who you are and make sense of the world around you in an instant, your brain develops constructs and rules you live by. In Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel laureate and founder of behavioral economics Daniel Kahneman says it takes effort and energy to think about your thinking. Most people do not question their decisions and actions before or after they are made.

Then, if do you stop to ponder your motivation, you are likely to quickly rationalize your actions, even when your reasons for procrastinating, mishandling your communications, or acting habitually do not make sense. Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, author of Who’s in Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain, says we are constantly fooling ourselves into thinking we are acting consciously and willfully. Humans are master rationalizers regardless of the level of education achieved.

It takes a crisis to bring the truth of a situation to light. A bad result can break down the walls of your defensive brain. You then look back and see the errors in your thinking. Hopefully, you commit to making a change based on what you learned from your mistakes.

Can you avoid making regrettable mistakes?

To think and act differently before you do or resist something you later regret, you have to disturb the automatic processing. This is easier said than done. Even if you stopped reading this post so you could think about it, your private contemplation would not last for long. For the same reason you can’t tickle yourself, you can’t fully explore your own thoughts. Your brain resists self-imposed exploration.

Consider your own experiences. The sudden, new, and amazing solution to a problem probably didn’t come to you as you hovered over your desk rearranging the details. The new path forward didn’t appear to you as you sat in the dark ruminating over past conversations. Profound changes to your personal and professional life weren’t caused by a self-generated flash of insight. The sudden solution, amazing truth, and profound understanding that gave you no choice but to change your mind and behavior most likely came as a result of a disruptive question and deep reflection initiated by someone else.

When someone you trust adeptly challenges your reasoning and asks you the powerful question that breaks down your protective frame, your brain is forced to reorder data in your long-term memory. For a moment, the breakdown feels awkward. You might feel a pinch of anger or sadness, but then you are just as likely to laugh at what you see…after you gasp. I call this moment The Discomfort Zone.

This hole creates a moment of uncertainty that feels uncomfortable. It is this moment of uncertainty when you are most open to learning and acting differently from what you would habitually do. These realizations can help you avoid a crisis.

Yes, you might feel vulnerable in these moments so allowing someone to probe your thoughts and emotions might sound intimidating. But wouldn’t it be better to have someone poke holes in the frames of your brain before you create a crisis instead of after?

Creating a Discomfort Zone is best done by letting someone you trust challenge your assumptions and beliefs and surface the underlying fears, needs, and desires that are keeping you from taking on other possibilities. Someone trained in coaching skills would be your best choice. Or you and your colleagues can learn how to use these techniques as outlined in my new book, The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations into Breakthroughs. There needs to be a hole in the force field that protects your sense of reality before you will actively explore, examine, and change your beliefs and behavior.

Even well trained coaches might shy away from the emotional moments a Discomfort Zone conversation could cause. How good are you at gracefully handling uncomfortable conversations? To find out, you can rate your Zone of Discomfort by taking this quiz.

The best leaders and coaches make us feel unsure of ourselves. Then they know what to ask to help us see ourselves and the world around us in a new way. If you allow other people to help you examine your thinking, you might have fewer crisis and regrets in your life.


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