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Home » Blog » Being Comfortable with Uncomfortable

We all have a benchmark for being uncomfortable. Each person has a different threshold, which varies in intensity. Your comfort level with discomfort increases as your threshold rises.

We must often face uncomfortable circumstances if we are to develop and learn. For instance, lifting large weights is necessary if you want to get stronger. Instead of spending the entire day at home binge-watching Netflix, you should write more frequently if you want to enhance your writing.

There is no way for you to develop as a person if you constantly stay in your comfort zone and steer clear of circumstances where you might fail or feel uncomfortable. This is what Emmanuel David talks about in his session with xMonks, at coaching matters. Here is a transcripted version of the same.

Being Comfortable with Uncomfortable

Be willing to be uncomfortable. Be comfortable being uncomfortable. It may get tough, but it’s a small price to pay for living a dream.  – Peter McWilliams 

Let’s begin by looking at both the words comfortable and uncomfortable. If you work with them, we use it like a two-by-two matrix. The first one is you can be uncomfortable with the uncomfortable. So if you are uncomfortable with the uncomfortable what will happen? They become reactive. They become reactive. We don’t need to give you an example. We have it in our own lives every time even a small little word is said, and then there’s a reactive response to your spouse or your child that has a domino effect. And here’s an interesting thing I’ve noticed when we usually look for some outcomes, we say by saying something, it can be positive, we want an outcome. The outcome is something desired. But what we get is residues as a bonus, when we are uncomfortable with the uncomfortable and be reactive. 

The next one is being comfortable with the comfortable, that’s being complacent, the proverbial story of the boiled frog is known to each and every one of us. It’s been repeated. But nevertheless, if take a few seconds, if you put a frog into hot water, it’s going to jump out. However, if you kind of let it be in normal water, and then slowly put a small fire beneath, and actually becomes comfortable with it, and it’s enjoying it, and then warm water becomes hotter and warmer, and then it’s too late for it to take any action. Therefore it is the point and perhaps none of us can be in that zone of being comfortable with the comfortable, because there is no growth that happens. And perhaps we might end up dead like the frog. 

The other aspect, which I have noticed, is being uncomfortable with the comfortable. And we’ve seen that happen. That’s the stuff with people who have a lot of aspiration and ambition. Many of you and I know of some of you who created value of patriots superior value, and who have actually made a difference. So that’s another aspect which is there. So that zone, which we are familiar with. 

But let’s go to the next one. And that’s where the leadership circle comes in. But even the fact when Gaurav asked me to share my profile, I was very uncomfortable. I said, Well, this is something personal. How can I do that? But then we had some conversations, we said, well, we can look at it. So there was some comfort with the discomfort. And that’s a journey in itself. But look at the leadership circle, there are two dimensions. One is, you know, the vertical if you see there’s a creative side and the reactive side, and you’ve looked at the horizontal axis of the relationship and the task side and there are several aspects which are there. And if you look at the creative side, you have got relating self-awareness, authenticity, system awareness, and achieving on the reactive side, you’ve got controlling, protective, and being complying. 

The black line shows how we assess ourselves and if you look at the green-shaded portion that’s how different people have assessed us. And I looked at different segments, my seniors, my peers, my people who report to me, and other friends as well. That’s how this is an amalgam of it. There’s just a joy in getting this kind of information because then you know where you are. And the differential between where you are and how others perceive you. 

How could you move from a reactive zone to a creative zone? This happened a couple of years ago, and I think I’m still a work in progress and but this acts as litmus or as a Northstar to tell you where you are, what you can do, and why I like this particular circle is, it gives you aspects where you can work towards, for example, there is and some of you have worked with me will know if you look at this aspect of being perfect, and the other side is being achieved. So I need to work towards that, rather than trying to be very perfect, and that’s the differential that does become a bit of a challenge. And if you really see, and you’ll know me, and people have also given me reasonable scores on being on the relative on relating, or on self-awareness. 

So there is an opportunity to move from this dimension towards this dimension. And therefore you can be effective and achieve what you want to do. If you look at the reactive behaviors, some of these are just blown it up for your benefit. And this is a whole thing of being aware of where you can improve, or how you are. That awareness enables you to understand what can happen, just mark my words that awareness can build and enables you to understand what can happen if something goes wrong. 

So as I mentioned, self-reflection is key that brings about awareness. That brings up whatever is new. So when I go out in the sun, I wear a cap or you know, I protect myself. But the whole thing about awareness at a meta-level. When you are aware, it creates possibilities. It creates choices, you know what to do. So that’s an important aspect. 

Examples of Being Comfortable with Uncomfortable

So let me just talk to you about being comfortable with the uncomfortable. 

And the story goes. I was working at Voltas, it had a legacy dispute. For what 28 years, the union-wide a pretty strong hold on the long-term settlements. There was a lot of bad blood. There are a lot of litigations, and so on and so forth. We had to go through those things and navigate the union leader, one of them was retiring. But that doesn’t mean he would not continue later means retiring. 

I meet him at the union office and I gave him a gift of a book. I told him this is from Emmanuel This was me. He didn’t receive it in his hands. There were lots of union office bearers also sitting there in the room. It was obviously upsetting. He looked at me and then he said, I don’t want any gifts. And I said it’s from me, not the CHR but a human being Emmanuel. Then he told somebody just take it from this man, and let’s see what it is. And then he opened it. The other person open is always given a book to me. Okay, friends, I donated to the Union. 

He was fairly rude and actually humiliating. In an otherwise situation, I would have said something, but it was very uncomfortable. He kept quiet. And I said, Fine, I wish you well and I politely walked out. So what could the default reactions have been? I was angry. One was just dismissing it, or my ego could have been bruised. It was I felt, now that I tell you also I was a little I was hurt, I couldn’t get angry immediately, I got given him one punch. Because it’s me as a person. But I chose to remain silent. I just wished him well politely maintain composure and walked out. And I thought, well, that was one bad situation. 

I forgot about it for a few weeks until four weeks later, there was a union election. All people who are supporting that particular union leader for the Union Committee got defeated and another group got the majority. They came in and of course, we welcome them, and paved the way for better dialogue. But I asked them, what happened? How did this turn around come because for several years, this union leader and his group were holding the fort? What they told me was very surprising. I was grateful for being comfortable with the uncomfortable at that moment. And this, I realized, in hindsight, they said Emmanuel, the way the leader treated you, we didn’t like it. We didn’t like it. You were quiet. So you see, sometimes, having that kind of attitude helps. At the moment, it might seem the best thing to be reactive and use a little sarcastic word or something like that.

But in hindsight, I realized there was value in it. It changed the whole course of, my own career in that place. Because eventually, we went on to sign the settlement, ending a 28-year legacy of conflict and, bitterness. And today, even though it’s many years since I’ve left that space, we do have very cordial relationships with the union. But my friends, that was an interesting example, where I felt that despite the discomfort, it did help me to move on and actually achieved something, which otherwise would have been a challenge. So this is how the thing is, I mean, listen to feedback and reflected on it. And, you know, this created possibilities for action. 

Another example was the speech given by Professor Scott GNR at Boise State University.

The content of the speech goes like this:

And men to become fathers. And all that implies, and young women to become mothers with all that implies. We need to stop looking at every boy and girl as a future worker or a future achiever and start thinking of them as future husbands and fathers and future wives and mothers. Male achievement in our country is not celebrated. Every effort must be recruited must be made not to recruit women into engineering, but rather to recruit and demand more of men who become engineers. Ditto for med school, and the law and every trade, efforts should be redoubled to encourage more men to enter the medical field, space exploration, mining endeavors, and every other high-end and even low-end profession. If every Nobel Prize winner is a man, that’s not a failure, it’s kind of a cause for celebration. Why can’t our celebration of male excellence in sports be translated into all facets of life?

Let me just tell you what happened thereafter. So there was this 22-year-old, Aliure who was a student at the same university. She was studying marketing in the Material Science Department and she was very angry with what happened. She thought about it, she tried to reach out to this professor and say, “What can we do or do we want him to take back those words”, but that didn’t happen. He ignored her. And sometime in January, she said, “well, we need to do something about it.” And created a GoFundMe page and sent it out to very many people. 

 A 22-year-old lady, saying, Listen, I want to create a scholarship for women to study STEM, medicine in law. And there she was. In her own admission, she tells that she sent it out till about two or three in the night and went to bed. She was really pondering whether she was doing the right thing, whether she might get rusticated, she’s not even a graduate. She’s pitted against a tenured professor. But yet, she did what was uncomfortable. Guess what happened? Later in the night, somebody gave $500. By morning, she got 10,000. And by evening, she had something like about $25,000 wanting to support her scholarship. And in two weeks’ time, that code grew to more than 200,000 US dollars. 

That was kind of a thing. So she used her anger positively. Even though she was uncomfortable. She has a lot of discomfort and anger, she was able to use it positively and create something beautiful. The whole thing is you can use your discomfort to make it something positive. There is something valuable coming out of you. That when you have purpose and vision, you can be uncomfortable with the uncomfort or you can be comfortable with the uncomfortable and create new value. That is what I would say. 

About The Speaker

Mr. Emmanuel David is the Director of Tata Management Training Centre, the capability building arm of the Tata Group. With over 3 decades of experience in sectors like automobiles, infrastructure, hospitality and financial services, Emmanuel has led Human Resources function in many organizations, and brings with him the expertise in conflict management, designing and implementing HR policy and system, talent and performance management. While working with Voltas ltd, British Gas and Honda, he has successfully resolved legacy industrial disputes. An alumnus of XLRI, he has equipped himself with an Advanced Management Program of AIMA on Strategic Profitability Management and is also a certified Belbin Team Role Facilitator (UK). 

For his leadership in Relief and Rehabilitation efforts (Disaster Management) during Surat floods in 2006, he had been awarded the “British Gas Chairman’s Safety Award”. It has now been published as a case study in Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad-‘Leadership role of Human Resources in Times of Crisis’. Emmanuel serves on the Board of St. Peter’s High School, Panchgani, and Under the Mango Tree (UTMT), a social enterprise that promotes beekeeping to increase agricultural productivity, enhance incomes and improve livelihoods of marginal farmers in India. Emmanuel is an avid blogger, writer, photographer and an experimental chef. He is also regularly invited to speak in Churches for his deep insights and a practical look at religion.