The Pitfalls of Feeling Comfortable

I’ve been reading and working through a revolutionary book. It’s not Karl Marx or Brene Brown or the latest by Yuval Noah Harari.

It’s “Become a Supple Leopard,” by Dr. Kelly Starrett. Starrett is a physical therapist and trainer, and he started out as an athlete himself, paddling for the US canoeing and kayaking teams. In this hefty book, Starrett takes the reader through the mechanics of the body, explains where chronic pain and limited function come from, and details hundreds of techniques to get the body back in effective position (and out of pain). The title of the book comes from the idea that leopards don’t need to stretch or warm up in order to be at their best—their lifestyles and natural movement patterns support them always being ready to leap into action.

In our coaching work, we often run into something that seems like a paradox: we are coaching clients to be authentic communicators, to be relaxed and genuine. At the same time, we know that there are vocal and physical patterns that are distracting to audiences and that take away from the impact of even the most intentional communication. Sometimes clients say, “I’m just more comfortable this way,” or ”This is how I naturally am,” as they pace relentlessly, twist one leg around the other, or end every sentence with an upward inflection. And they’re telling the truth—it does feel more comfortable.

In Starrett’s work, he would say that these are learned habits, repeated for years, that have actually physically changed our bodies—shortened ligaments, made some muscle groups compensate for others, and kept some from working much at all. And the irony is that these habits that make us feel comfortable are the same ones that finally cause us injury when the adaptation breaks down.

The same is true in our approach to coaching communication skills. We’ve all built habits to protect ourselves from feeling too vulnerable or exposed when we communicate, and these habits often keep us from showing up powerfully when we need to. 

When we cross one leg in front of the other, teetering, we take away the stable base that demonstrates we are comfortable in front of the room. When we pace without stopping, we deny the audience a chance to pause and take in our message. When we vocally connect every thought with the one in front of it, never landing a sentence, we strip the impact silence can have. All of these habits diminish the audience’s experience of our message. 

The answer to the paradox is this: what may seem comfortable is merely familiar. And to generate the outcome you want, whether it’s to become a supple leopard or to move your audience to truly hear you, you’ll need to get out of that comfort zone.

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