ZOUD – Do you care enough to enter the zone of uncomfortable debate?

Last week I had the pleasure of hosting a conference session with Olympic gold medallist rower Martin Cross. Over the Summer I had read Martin’s book ‘Olympic Obsession’ in which he talks about his long career performing at the top of his sport. As I read Martin’s book I was struck by his penchant for engaging in challenging conversations as he and his rowing colleagues pursued their courageous goals.

It reminded me that the word rowing has two definitions – one is  ‘propelling a vessel by the leverage of an oar or the like’ and the other is ‘engaging in a noisy dispute or quarrel’. I joked with Martin that not only had he been rowing all over the world but he had been rowing all over the world as well!

In his book Martin refers to one particular ‘row’ that happened between himself and Sir Steve Redgrave as they prepared for the Los Angeles Olympics in the coxed four. In the middle of Lake Otay, the growing tension in the boat reached a crescendo as Martin and Steve found themselves in the zone of uncomfortable debate (ZOUD). This is how Martin describes the situation in his book:-

‘But Steven never tired of pointing out that the standards that  I had settled for were second best and that what was good enough in the past was now no longer applicable. It was a challenge to me and everything I stood for. He wanted me to change my mind-set to that of a potential Olympic champion rather than just a medallist. Looking back on it, he was right. Maybe he sensed that unless I changed in some way, I would always be good for second or third place but never the top spot. At the time though, his comments were the cause of a huge row in the middle of Lake Otay during training’

Whilst we don’t know the exact words that were spoken, we do know that the presence of a shared courageous goal allowed Martin and Steve to name the ‘elephant in the room’, to face the FACTS and get to the heart of the matter – a defining moment in which Martin challenged his own limiting beliefs and stepped beyond them for the first time. Several weeks later, the Team GB coxless four powered past the leading US boat with 500m to go and hung on in determined fashion to claim a historic gold medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic games.

As Martin shared this real life example with the delegates at last week’s conference and as we related it to the concepts within challenging coaching it struck me again that the prerequisite for such challenging conversations is a shared commitment to a courageous goal. Without such a grand endeavour to focus the mind then challenging conversations are just not worth the hassle. Equally, when such a courageous goal exists then all involved know that the reason for the challenge is not because someone gets a kick out of putting someone else under pressure but because all involved CARE so much that they are willing to enter the ZOUD on behalf of the wider good. This is fundamentally a systems thinking perspective.

So in the same way as we challenged our conference delegates I would also like to challenge you, the reader of this blog – what is your courageous goal? Who do you share this goal with? What is the challenging conversation that you are willing to have in the next week that will let others know that you care. That you really CARE.

Let us know your thoughts via the challenging coaching linkedin group

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