Coaches, be quick and slow down when entering the ZOUD

Entering the zone of uncomfortable debate is a necessary step when working with a coachee to achieve a courageous goal. However, if we move too quickly to challenge, we may neglect building an important foundation of trust and rapport.

The diagram below shows the ZOUD model representing a typical conversation between two people. We enter the conversation through the zone of comfortable debate. This is an easy, sociable conversation catching up on news, sharing personal stories such as weekend activities, sports interests, or family events. To be more than a social conversation and to get to the heart of the matter when working with a coachee we must move into the zone of uncomfortable debate. This is when tension rises as the metaphorical mirror is held up to the coachee, challenging feedback is provided, and habits questioned. In Challenging Coaching, there is a focus on the ZOUD, which may have downplayed the importance of the zone of comfortable debate. As you can see from the diagram, the concentric circles show a linear path from the outer layer to the inner. If we rush too quickly to the ZOUD, then the impact of the challenge will be diminished.

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This was highlighted in a recent virtual workshop with leaders from across the globe. The workshop participants were practicing getting to the heart of the matter in a role-play scenario with an actor playing the role of a direct report not committed to a new strategic direction. After one participant said a few words of welcome, he then said “so is this an issue of you or your team not committing to the goal?” This was a fantastic example of moving straight into ZOUD and speaking your truth. This very direct approach was admirable, and I could see that the actor playing the role of the direct report was on his back foot and lost for words. If this happened outside of a role-play situation, I can imagine the impact of such a direct approach.

If we are too quick to challenge and enter the ZOUD and don’t spend the time to build rapport in the zone of comfortable debate, them we risk alienation, detachment, a defensive response or an aggressive reply such as “sod off, who are you to say that to me?!”

The balance of support and challenge is important, too much or too little is ineffective. The support built in the zone of comfortable debate gives us time to make a personal connection, to understand the coachee and for them to understand us as a coach. Through this support we build credibility and the right to challenge.

In the role-play example above, there was a time pressure to resolve the matter within the limits of the exercise that might have forced premature progression into the ZOUD. We may still experience either time or other pressures when coaching. Although we may have 1.5 hours to work with the coachee, there may be the pressure to “deliver the goods” within that time. When moving into the ZOUD have we earned the right to challenge through a strong foundation of support to build trust? Alternatively, do we spend too long building rapport without challenging and moving into the ZOUD and so have cosy club conversations?

Challenge and support is the yin and yang, as is the ZOUD and the zone of comfortable debate. One cannot exist without the other, but the balance is crucial.

 “What is overextended becomes diminished, what is too high is cut down.”

(Tao Te Ching, verse 36).

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