The Discomfort Zone: Bridging The Gap For Leaders with Jay Acunzo and Dr. Marcia Reynolds

There is gap between the work that you want to do, the work that you should do and the work that you need to do. Closing this gap is possible, you just need to work very hard. Jay Acunzo likes challanges that seems crazy at first until you try it for yourself. He shares his insights on knowing the right questions instead of someone else’s answer. The Discomfort Zone is the best opportunity for leaders to learn and grow. Dr. Marcia Reynolds has researched the disruptive process that occurs in our brain. This process helps people understand why they do the things they do and not get stuck on an idea from other people.

TTL 160 | The Discomfort Zone


We have Jay Acunzo and Dr. Marcia Reynolds. Jay is a keynote speaker and a digital content marketer. You’ve probably heard his podcast called Unthinkable. He was originally at Google. He’s done so many things That Harvard Business School, New York Times, the Washington Post, and Shark Tank have recognized. We’re going to talk to Dr. Marcia Reynolds. She is an amazing leadership skills and emotional intelligence coach. She teaches skills in 39 countries. She has written so many bestselling books and her excerpts from her work has been on Harvard Management Review, Forbes, CNN, Psychology Today, Wall Street Journal. We’ve got two very interesting people on the show.

Listen to the podcast here

The Discomfort Zone: Bridging The Gap For Leaders with Jay Acunzo

I am with Jay Acunzo, who’s an award-winning podcaster, a dynamic keynote speaker, and a veteran digital and content marketer. He was a digital media strategist at Google, and head of content for multiple start-ups including HubSpot. He spent several years scaling a venture capital firm called NextView, using content marketing and narrative storytelling. He is the host and producer of several web series about the meaning people find in the work they do. His podcast, Unthinkable, explores examples of work that seems crazy until you hear their side of the story. Nice to have you. 

Thanks for having me on.

You have this great storytelling style. I like Sarah Koenig. I don’t know if you’ve ever listened to her on Serial. 

Every podcaster who aspires to do any show that succeeds whatsoever is envious of the initial Serial season, but also in a weird way grateful. It’s this weird looming presence over you at all times, so I get the appeal.

You remind me of that. The way she just keeps you glued, you want to hear what happens next. You do all this storytelling in a way. There’s the protagonist and different parts of the story. I was listening to your Man Bun one, that’s your most popular one. That was such a great episode. 

Thank you. That’s such a nice compliment. I can’t believe you said that but thank you.

You do this very interesting story and you weave all this content in before you start speaking with whoever you’re speaking. What I thought was interesting was how you got to be this kind of a storyteller. I read your background, you’ve done some amazing stuff. Your work’s been cited at Harvard Business School, by writers in New York Times, and Washington Post. It was on investors on TV Shark Tank. Looking at your background, can you just give a little bit about how you got to this point? 

I feel it’s so weird to hear you say all those things. I feel the reason I’m in the business world or in the marketing world is because there’s this demand for content creators. I latched on to that part, and hope the rest works out right. I over-invested in creating things that I like, and others like, too. It seems to have worked out for me. I started trying to be a sports journalist. I think that’s where some of the storytelling chops and/or interests may have arise. I had this weird obsession in college with sports montages. The big cheesy stories that once in a while ESPN would run about some athlete’s hero’s journey or the recap of a decade of sports set to Aerosmith. I always love the drama of it all. Not only game to game when you cover sports, but the human element. When I left college I wound up working for Google, but it was only because I’d left this idea of working for print publications behind. Both because I was getting increasingly interested in digital, and also I just didn’t want to move to a tiny little town and cover sports for ten years to get the right to move back to a city I wanted to live in. Like anybody out of college I was a selfish twenty something that wanted to work in a great town.

A long story long, that’s where it started. Dropping you right into a story, the reason I love applying good storytelling mechanics and a little bit of drama or a little bit of emotion to the business world is because I came out of the world where that’s all that I knew how to do. You get into marketing or business and people claim they tell stories, but what they really do is create case studies. They claim they sell a product that helps others tell stories, but what they really do is sell search engine optimization software. I’ve come out of the traditional storytelling world and I fell in love with business. I’m just trying to marry the two at every opportunity.

I wrote a brand publishing course when I was working with Forbes School of Business with a Forbes data. A lot of CMOs and those type of people are people I’ve dealt with and their frustrations with trying to market their ideas. They do want to be able to tell a great story. Not only on your podcast, but you’re a speaker as well. I know Michael Brenner suggested I have you on the show because he goes, “You got to have him, seems so interesting.” I’m like, “Yeah.” You go for the laugh, and I like that. Have you gone for the laugh and heard crickets? 

All the time. I’m not a comedian, but I do love watching comedians. Both when they’re working on stage and also when they talk about the craft. I’m obsessed. Every opportunity I get to hear behind the scenes commentary about a stand-up comic talking about their craft, there’s such a seriousness in the process behind what is ultimately so silly and wonderful. It looks natural. They know all the moves. To me that’s a great comp for the speaking world. That’s useful when I’m trying to be a podcaster on a microphone or in front of a video camera doing a show. I host stuff for a living or speak on a stage. I learn from other professional speakers, But comedians to me, they’re it. They get it. They workshop their material in small crowds and small clubs, because they want to search out those moments where they don’t get the laugh, to figure out why, and to re-engineer their material so that when they do the big Netflix special, or in my world the big keynote speech, it kills.

If you watch any of the videos I share, I get the laughs but that’s because I spent hours and hours and hours writing, researching, and practicing alone. Then hours and hours and hours going to smaller events and trying out that material like a stand-up comic would. I’m used to it by now. It sucks every single time. To me, it’s almost like a test. Tests are fine to fail if you learn from them. When I don’t get a laugh, as long as I’m aware of which moments didn’t get a laugh and maybe try to observe why, then fix it for the next time and try it out. It’s exciting to me because it represents growth and learning.

It’s nice to test out ideas on the podcast and different things. You sometimes don’t know which way you’re going to go, you say something, and then you get a laugh, and you go, “I didn’t even though of that.” Then you incorporate it later. People need to think for themselves more, you want them to. Why do you think we have so many people who blend in? How do you get them to stand out and not have other people think for them? 

I’m really fascinated by this gap that people experience in their work, whether it’s in terms of results or meaning that they find in their work. The gap is between doing something average and doing something exceptional. Nobody aspires to be average. Nobody sets out and says, “On a scale of zero to ten, I hope this project, job, or company winds up a five.” Nobody says that, but there’s a lot of fives happening in the world. I don’t think it’s because people want that. They want the ten out of ten, but the way we approach our work creates a lot of fives. In the internet era, if you need an idea, answer, or tactic, you can just search for it. You can just find it instantly. There’s a lot of copying going on, there’s a lot of basically clinging to conventional wisdom, obsessing over best practices, or the latest trendy tactics. To use a great metaphor from one of my favorite shows, Game of Thrones, those are spokes on a wheel. It’s like today one is on top, tomorrow is another one. From the marketing standpoint it was search, then it was paid search, then it was display. Then it was re-targeting your display ads, then it became social media and paid social, content marketing overall, video, and AV. It just keeps going.

We’re holding up these things like they’re going to save us. Unfortunately, all the best practice can do is tell you what works on average. It creates average work, unless you’re willing to somehow add in all the things that make you an exception from others in your situation. The details of you and your team. The details of you and your customers, or the customers and the insights you have about them. Certainly, the restrictions of your own resources. That’s your context. We’re in this mode because it’s so easy to get someone else’s ideas or answers, we throw out the details of our own context and we obsess over some generality out there. That’s what a best practice is. I’m really trying to push people with my talks, with my podcasts, and with my book to focus more on your context first. Understand that because then it’s sort of a filter that you can use to vet all the other advice out there for what you should or shouldn’t do. That is the process of thinking for yourself.

What you were saying was about easy to get ideas or answers. I’m writing about curiosity, which is not that different from what you’re talking about. It’s trying to get people to think for themselves instead of getting the answers. Do you think you can develop that? People don’t know what they don’t know and then they don’t care to look into what they don’t know. 

I came out of a place of wanting to write emotional things, tell great stories. I am totally comfortable and at ease with all the fluffiness of creativity and the squishiness of things like curiosity or intuition, I talk a lot about that. What I’m out to do is make that stuff as practical as following a best practice. That’s the hard part. A best practice is like a list article from an expert you admire, who has a great bio, and they’ve said, “This works, follow me. Do it this way.” It’s really hard to say, “I’m going to reject that and instead I’m going to focus on this internal gut feeling that I have.” That feels a lot squishier. Even worse, you can’t really explain it to other people too well. Let’s first get on the same footing. Let’s make that stuff feel strategic. My podcast, the name is Unthinkable because from the outside looking in everybody we profiled did something that does seem crazy. When you talk to them, it’s clear that they asked themselves the right questions of their own situation and environment, and started with that.

Then they decided which best practice to reject entirely, which to use a percentage of, and maybe which scenario should I concoct my own practice. The switch here is instead of obsessing over everyone else’s answers for you, start by asking the right questions. You can phrase it as curiosity. You could phrase that as being an investigator into your own environment, instead of the Google search results page for how to do something. You could phrase it as intuition, which translates from Latin to mean ‘knowledge from within’. The key here is if we knew the right questions to ask instead of just obsessing over somebody else’s answers, we set ourselves up to begin to think for ourselves to pull out more details that make our situation unique. In the end, to find better practices than any best practice can give you.

How did you incorporate this into your book? Can you talk about your book a little bit? 

It’s called Break the Wheel. The idea is that best practices hold us back from doing our best work. We’re clinging to this never-ending cycle of yet another best practice, yet another guru that comes out of the woodwork. It’s unbelievable to me how what we want doesn’t actually reflect how we act. What we all want is the same thing. When it comes to our work, we want to do work that matters and matter in our work. We do matter in our work profoundly so because if I plucked you out of your situation and added a colleague, or a competitor, or somebody brand new, somehow that work will change. We do matter in our work. It’s that we throw out those details of us, our customers, and our resources, in other words our context, when we try to glom on to the latest trend being professed by some guru or the latest hack that sounds really nice on a blog that we admire. I get so frustrated by that. You get one life, shouldn’t we make this life count? Not only that but logically, you want to think about things and do things that work not on average, but in your specific situation. Even if you reject all the fluffy stuff that I love about creativity and all that, even if it’s fluffy.

TTL 160 | The Discomfort Zone
The Discomfort Zone: Start by asking the right questions. You can phrase it as curiosity. You could phrase that as being an investigator into your own environment.

The most results-driven executive would get on board with the fact that, “We want to optimize for what works for us, not for what works in general or for a competitor.” Yet our behavior doesn’t match that. I tear my hair out thinking about that stuff. The book is going to explore why do we do that, first and foremost. What are the dangers in doing that? True to what you led off with in our conversation, what stories can I bring up, and analyze together with you, that illustrate people who have done it differently, and perhaps lead us to the different questions that we should ask ourselves in our environments. The result of that book will not be another list of tips or a blueprint. It’ll be a list of questions that we can all ask each in our unique situation. If you ask them, if I ask them, and we both run similar podcasts or businesses, we would still land in different places. I want more think for yourself first and less follow the listers out there.

You noticed that you didn’t give me a list of questions and I didn’t ask you to have one. We might have to get this to be like a very honest conversation. When you have these shows and you just go down the list and, “What do you think of this?” It’s so boring. This is like you’re at a cocktail part. What do you do? I noticed your show is very back-and-forth that type of thing. I’m curious on the type of people you have on your show which I’m sure your incorporating a bit from your show and your book, which I’m doing the same. How do you determine the people that seems crazy initially? How do you determine that they’re a good fit for your show? 

It was hard at first. The thing about the show is it’s evolved in public, and I’ve made it very clear when we changed our focus. When I started it, it was about creativity in marketing, and it really has gone way, way further into all of business and trying to figure out what it takes to do exceptional work in a world full of average. That crazy idea is really the pivot point. Finding those examples, as you can imagine, is really hard. Until I realized, “Let me reset back to how do I physically react? Literally physically react when I see one of these examples, or how do others react?” It’s always the same. It’s like a laugh and then shaking your head. You smile to yourself knowingly and shake your head, either because their work is so awesome. You’re like, “That’s insane that you did that. I wish I could create a documentary about our industry,” instead of another how-to blog post, which is an example we profiled with the story of design disruptors. That’s like, “It’s amazing, I wish I could do that.”

Or you shake your head and smile because you’re like, “That is so insane. It will never work. No way. You’re crazy. You’re in innovator. You’re a risk-taker. You’re all these things that we laud and also separate from in our work, no way.” If I have that reaction to an example, or somebody sends me something that I can articulate it because I’m getting more inbound now, that’s a good barometer or good benchmark against which I can vet story ideas for my show. It’s that visceral physical reaction of shaking your head and smiling because their work seems crazy.

It’s hard to go through all that. I know how many people send me things that just aren’t really a good fit for the show. It’s hard to turn people down. You feel bad, but people be waiting three years to get on your show. I’m sure you have to really go through it. It must take a lot of your day going through all that stuff, doesn’t it?

It used to, until I got clarity around what I was trying to do, which by the way, that’s really the subject that I explore. I mentioned the gap between average and exceptional. The book would break the wheel of a show. All of it. I’m just exploring how people can find clarity in their own environments to make better, more strategic decisions. I found clarity when I had this idea of, “It’s work that seems crazy.”Then when you talk to them, it seems strategic. Hopefully, people realize the work they aspire to do might break from best practices and seem crazy, but it’s strategic if they know their context. Now that I have that clarity, I rifle through these stories. What I’m finding is somebody from a PR agency or a marketer on an in-house team will email me the same pitch as everybody else. They’ll say, “CEO, accomplish successful business growth and wants to share the wisdom of doing so.”

I get twelve of those a day and I’m really flattered that anybody would care enough to come on my show. I’m also annoyed at the people that use clearly stock emails but don’t research my show. It’s like being a journalist where you cover the business world and get pitched all the time. I’ve gotten the insert email, “Hi, name here,” that doesn’t work. It literally says, “Name here.” I’ve gotten the name of my show is the name of a competitor show. It’s awful. I do appreciate people wanting to be on the show. Now that I have this kind of awareness, this filter of what I’m trying to do, it’s a lot easier. I don’t know, how do you get people though for your show? You have a lot of great guests. It must be hard for you as well.

I have a lot of people that want to do things that don’t fit the theme that I’m trying to do with my show. They’re interesting ideas. I don’t want a whole lot on health or wellness and things like that and I get a lot of people that will sell meditative type things. That doesn’t really fit my show. It can in the business success arena, but it’s not where I’m going. I do have to turn away a lot of those types of shows. I try to stick with people that other people recommend, like Michael Brenner recommended you. I get a lot of interesting people who I’ve met through a lot of networking events, like Genius Network or C-Suite group with Jeff Hayzlett’s group. When somebody tells me what they do and I look at their site, you could tell immediately whether you’re interested. I knew five seconds into the Man Bun that this guy’s interesting. If you want to tell a little about that, so people know.

You’re a listener. This is an interesting exercise. What did you take away from it? What is it about, if you listened to the episode? I very rarely get this from the horse’s mouth explanation of my own show. What is the Man Bun episode?

From this horse, I would say that I don’t get to listen to a lot of shows. I’m recording a hundred of my own a day type of thing. Whoever’s going to be on my show, I listened to their videos a little bit here and there and different things they do. That one I picked because it was your most listened to episode and it was about Scott Stratten and this bun that he wears his hair in. He’s on stage and people think he’s the lighting guy or whatever, not the main speaker and why he refuses to cut off his man bun. That’s pretty much the gist of who he is, right?

He looks like a blacksmith. He looks like he got black shirt, big work boots, jeans, he’s got a man bun, a beard, but he’s a business speaker. It’s incredible. He’s a hilarious guy. He did a good job opening up emotionally on that episode, which I hope gave it a little bit of depth versus highlighting the great work that he does. There was some introspection and some struggles that he laid out. I think that’s part of the reason it became one of the most popular episodes we’ve done. There’s this superficial level that again, you’ll laugh and shake your head. Then you go deeper. Those are the stories that I’ve always admired from others. One of my favorite storytelling idols is Anthony Bourdain because his show is called Parts Unknown. I’d love to ask him at some point if I could ever reach the guy, if the name of the show has a double meaning.

I think it’s Parts Unknown in the world, physically I’m going to this place. I also think his magic as a storyteller is he reaches unexpected, unknown, or surprising depths with an individual. He’ll talk to the owner of a food truck, and all of the sudden you’re engaged with somebody you think you might know, or somebody you think you won’t care about in a really deepen human way. That’s what I try to do, and it sounds a little weird, but in the marketing world, in the business world. It shows about work can get that deep, not just shows about travel, entertainment, or sports. Scott Stratten is a good example of somebody who I spent a lot of time with, and hopefully I asked him the right questions that all of a sudden, we found ourselves in a very unexpected place together. He revealed a lot of stuff that as a public figure he doesn’t normally talk about.

What fascinates me is that not only do you have the show, but you’re a speaker and you help organizations. What percentage of your time do you do different things? Do you do mostly speaking or is it radio? Where do you spend most of your time?

It’s definitely shifted. When I started out it was a lot of aerating ideas. To aerate ideas, I did a lot of speeches. I created a lot of blog posts and did my own show on a weekly basis. When I felt my ideas get a lot of feedback, again back to the comedian thing. It’s like the small comedy club stage was over and I’m like, “What would be my next Netflix special if I were a comedian here?”Because I feel good about the material and the performance. Now, it’s, “Can I grow the speaking business?” I don’t aspire to be a full-time 50 to 60 gigs a year speaker. I have friends who are, I can’t see myself doing that. I’m launching a business around the show called Unthinkable Media. The idea is to use all these ideas, frameworks, and processes, and the bleeding-heart creative that I’m trying to be to help other companies explore different work topics, not the ones that I explore on my show.

The vision is, “Can we create a world where content about work actually reflects how we experience work?” It’s not boring Q and A, Q and A, same cavalcade of experts on every podcast commodity type of programs. We don’t want commodity careers or businesses, it’s emotion. It’s ups and downs, it’s all the amazing, terrible, and everything in between things about building a career or a company. That’s how we experience work. Over drinks, over coffee, you name it. Can we create media that actually reflects that reality? There should be an exploration like Anthony Bourdain’s show about several work topics. There should be a daily show of Silicon Valley and tech, because the material’s right there. I want to elevate the conversation a little bit and the plane because I love work and I want shows that are created about work to reflect that. That is now becoming my 100% focus area. How do I create shows together with brands that actually reflect the meaning and emotion we find in work?

TTL 160 | The Discomfort Zone
The Discomfort Zone: There’s this gap that exists between the work you want to do, the work your taste is saying you should do, and the work you can actually do.

I was looking at some of the people you have listed on your site, some of the people that have backed you in this. How do you get the attention of New York Times, Harvard School, Washington Post, and TV Shark Tank? How do you get that kind of attention? What do you think started that particular notice?

I’m a disciple of a single thought from Ira Glass, the host of This American Life, which is when you get into a certain line of work, especially creative work, you have a certain sense of taste about what’s good and what’s not. Your ability to match that taste with the work you put out isn’t quite there yet. There’s this gap that exists between the work you want to do, the work your taste is saying you should do, and the work you can actually do. The only way to close that gap, and this is the Ira Glass quote, is ”To do a lot of work.” You have to put out a lot of bad work. I have a paper trail of dozens of side projects from blogs to newsletters, and all kinds of wrinkles on those types of things to other podcasts where nobody cared. I worked my ass off to create something that I felt good about and no one else cared about it. Or I would launch it and then consume it, almost like an athlete watching game tape. I would read my own thing or listen to it and I’d be like, “This is actually horrible.”The only reason I’m getting anybody’s paying attention to my work, it isn’t the one project that they’re paying attention to. They’re paying attention to the sum total of tons and tons and tons of work. A lot of which is really bad. That’s the fallacy of a lot of creative projects.

You look at Tim Urban from Wait But Why, one of the most entertaining and smart blogs on the planet. He was our finale from season three of Unthinkable. We talked a lot about how people assumed this blog he’s created just took off right away because the first few posts did really well. Now he’s got millions and millions of readers and he’s built a whole business for himself around doing what he loves. His point was, “It’s not that the blog started and did really well, it’s that it was this slow march of my career and skills from a lot of stuff no one cared about to the stuff people care about now. I just happened to change the name and the focus partway through that to Wait But Why.”

People only look at the beginning of one-named project or company and they say, “That person is an outlier. I can’t be that person.”What they don’t see is the rest of the iceberg that’s below the water. It’s not the sum total of seven blog posts when he first started. It’s the sum total of 700 blog posts, a lot of which no one cared about. Creativity to me is a wonderful thing, but we misconstrue it with overnight success, innovation, or risk-taking. I don’t think any of that stuff really exists. It’s just about putting in the hard work and it’s always the sum total of lots of little things, little wins, little moments of insight that add up to a big thing. I don’t think anybody goes zero to 60 right away.

You certainly have done amazing things. It’s so much fun having you on the show. I think a lot of people will want to know how they can listen to your podcast and find out more about you. Can you share some of your links?

If you go to Unthinkable.FM or better in any podcast app, you just look at Unthinkable, and it’s the first result that comes up. I am all over the inter-tubes because I think it’s just a series of tubes. Like every social network, you can just find me by name there.

Thank you so much. This has been so fun. I really enjoyed it.

Thank you so much for having me on. I appreciate everybody listening because as someone who creates things to be listened to, I know how much of a commitment it is. Thank you, the listener, for paying attention.

The Discomfort Zone: Bridging The Gap For Leaders with Dr. Marcia Reynolds

I am with Dr. Marcia Reynolds, who’s an expert in improving communications at work and home, and helping people to understand why they do what they do, so they can make better choices and handle difficult situations. She coaches executives around the world and has taught classes in leadership, emotional intelligence, coaching skills, and she’s done it in 39 countries. She’s the author of Outsmart Your Brain, Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction, and her book on turning negative conversations into positive experiences, The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations Into Breakthroughs. You can find excerpts of her books everywhere from Harvard Management Review,, CNN, Psychology Today, Wall Street Journal. It’s nice to have you on the show.

Thanks for having me.

I’ve written my dissertation on emotional intelligence and some of the things you talk about. You’ve done some amazing things. You’ve been doing this for more than 30 years. That’s saying something. What do you think makes a leader the most memorable and significant, based on what you’ve done with all your research?

It’s easier said than done. It’s not so much what you say, but what you do with what you hear. That’s what often leaders think, “I have to be the one who knows the answers. I have to be the really smart one.” Which leads them to not really pay attention to what the person is really saying or trying to fully understand what they need because people don’t articulate that well. When you really listen to me and I feel that you care enough to listen, and then you help me to develop and grow, you’re going to be the leader I always remember. I will work hard for you. That’s something leaders need to fully understand. Not so much what they say and do, but what they do with what they hear.

You hear a lot about the importance of listening. Then you hear that introverts are better at it. Would you consider yourself an introvert? Are you an introvert or an extrovert?

I’m right in the middle. People always think I’m an extrovert and I’m comfortable. I love working by myself. I have to always regroup in the evenings. I get my energy from sitting and doing my own work, but I’ve adapted quite well to be out there in the public, so I’m in the middle.

A lot of people think I’m more extroverted. I am, but then I’m like you, the same kind of things you just said. It sound like you’ve got the good part of the introvert with the listening aspect. They tend to listen better than the extroverts. How do you get people to be better listeners?

I’m a much better listener since I’ve become a coach. In fact my friends, once I started really coaching, which is really receiving what you get from people and using what you get from them to formulate your questions. My friends even said, “It’s so much better talking to you now.”

What was it like before?

I think I was so busy being the smart one.

When you have to teach something or help someone, you have to do so much research. You find out the importance of things in there. I could see why you would become better. That makes sense.

I teach for a number of coaching schools and not just in the US, but in other countries, I’m constantly having to work at developing my skills, being able to demonstrate them, so I stay on top of my coaching. If you have to teach it, it keeps making you improve.

It almost makes sense to give people that as a task, as a homework assignment at work. If somebody is having difficulty with listening, then have them write a report on it. It might help them a little bit. You said you teach at coaching schools. What kind of coaching schools?

The International Coach Federation, they’re accredited schools. If you go through the schools, you can go be certified as a coach. I teach out of a school through Virginia Tech, but I also teach in Russia and in China, where I have to be translated, which is even more so you have to be very clear on what you’re teaching and in the demonstration of the practice. It’s interesting because I taught communications and leadership skills in companies for sixteen years before I went out and stumbled on this thing called coaching. I always knew that people would say, “Yes, this is great.” Then they’d go out and just do the same thing they’ve always done. My great curiosity is about behavioral change. What does it really take for people to change their behavior?

My second master’s was in the late 1980s and it was on adult learning. Much of what I learned then is useless now because of what we know about the brain, which you know if you work in emotional intelligence. All the work in neuroscience in the last two decades has really shifted our realization of what really gets us to commit to change. When I found coaching and I realized that this is the best technology that a leader or anyone can use to work with someone to shift their mind, which then shifts their behavior. It’s not in telling them what to do because information doesn’t change behavior. We all have things we know we should be doing and we’re not. When you asked me, when you share a reflection, coaching is a reflective inquiry process.

When you hold up the mirror so I look at myself and I listened to what I’m saying and expressing, and then you ask me the question that makes me stop and question myself, that’s the chance to shift what’s going on in my brain. It creates this awareness that I didn’t have before. It’s not making me look at something I already knew. It’s having me see things in an entirely new way. Once I see myself, who I think I am and the world around me differently, I cannot help but change my behavior. That’s the thing, so it’s again coming back to leadership. It’s not so much what you know that makes you a great leader, but it’s how you’re listening to give back to the person so they stop and question themselves that can make the significant change.

You mentioned curiosity about behavioral change and I’m writing about curiosity because I would like to see more people become curious and have behavioral change. You’re saying make them see it differently. What’s your opinion on curiosity? Can you get people to be more curious? Is it something you’re born with or how do you look at it?

I think we’re all born curious and we have no idea. Were acknowledged for what we know, so we forget to be curious. Curiosity to me, as well as things like judgment, our emotions, people think they’re opinions and that it has to do with your brain. No, it’s an emotion which tends to occur not just in the brain but in your body. Can you feel curious? When I ask people feel curious, look outside the window and feel curious about even looking at a tree or looking at some strange building. That’s the shift. It has to be an emotional shift into, “I’m curious,” which clears my brain and just has me open my mind to, “I’m curious.” What might I see in this moment? What am I missing? I’m really looking and want to find something new. There’s a desire attached to it. All that stuff about affirmations and, “Yes, I’m curious.” It’s not a thought. It has to be a feeling in order to really make this work.

It’s so beautiful here and you get so used to that, and then you forget to look. I think it’s the same thing with anything. You have to put your mind to things.

We’re so stuck in both the past and the future. The ‘what if’ in the future and the ‘resolving something that we can’t redo any way’ in the past, that we’re not fully present in the moment.

Some of the aspects I looked at curiosity, some of them feel there’s fear. I’m interested in your book because you talked about the discomfort zone. What do you mean by the discomfort zone and why is that important for leaders to know that?

One of the things in my research of looking at why does coaching work, how do we learn, is that I found with the behavioral economists like Daniel Kahneman and some of the neuroscientist, Michael Gazzaniga, talked about there’s got to be a disruptive process in the brain for us to see things differently. It has to be external because we don’t disrupt our own brains on purpose. The brain resists that. That reflective inquiry, holding up the mirror and I go, “I’m saying that,” and then asking the question that relates to what you see, it disrupts my thinking pattern. In that moment it doesn’t feel comfortable. For example, one time my boss, I was complaining about everybody else, the typical high achiever. “Why aren’t they working as hard as me?” He says to me, “It sounds like everyone disappoints you.” I’m like, “Exactly.” Then he says, “Will anyone ever be good enough for you?”I couldn’t breathe.

TTL 160 | The Discomfort Zone
The Discomfort Zone: The ‘what if’ in the future and the ‘resolving something that we can’t redo any way’ in the past, that we’re not fully present in the moment.

My whole brain went into hyper drive and trying to make sense of this, and that’s what happens. When somebody does that, does a quick reflection and ask the question that comes up for them, your brain has to rewire. What happens is you go offline for a moment, and then when you come back there’s always an emotion. It’s not comfortable. It could be I laugh at myself, or it could be I’m embarrassed, I could cry. In that moment, there’s discomfort on both sides. I will be uncomfortable because I have a realization of how I’ve been sabotaging myself for years. Generally the leader, the coach, is uncomfortable because I’m having an emotional reaction. You see learning happens in the moment of discomfort and we shouldn’t be afraid of creating that because that’s a powerful moment. People are so afraid. Will I have this conversation and they’ll have an emotional reaction. I’m like, “That’s great.” That means something’s going on. Do not be afraid of that because that’s your chance to break through whatever’s creating them to be stuck or resistant. To move forward. The discomfort zone is the best opportunity to learn and grow.

I’ve met people who get very unhappy when other people don’t meet their level of what they think should be at work. They have a very high expectation of themselves where other people may not. How do you know that the person telling you that you’re unhappy with other people is incorrect? That they’re correct in their assessment of you?

There’s a difference between confidence and arrogance. Confidence is uncomfortable with who am and what I do. Arrogance is the opposite of that, is insecurity. In arrogance there always has to be a measurement. I’m better than you and that makes me okay. There’s always the fear of I’m not good enough, so I have to constantly prove that I’m good. When I hear that, it triggers in me that this person is not secure or confident in what they’re doing. What is it that they really need in this moment? In that moment, it’s like, “What did I need? Why was I saying that?” Probably to get his attention and have me say, “Yes, you’re so great.” There were times when I would have interactions with him where I’d have to say you need to acknowledge me now and then. One time I said that, he goes, “You always do a good job, I have to acknowledge you.”I’m like, “Yes.”Then he says to me, “You never acknowledged me.”

What’d you say to that?

“You’re right. Maybe we both need to do that.” Talking process sometimes, what’s really going on here? What is it you really need to determine how can we move forward, this conversation forward? Why is it that the person needs to complain about other people? What’s underneath the complaint? Even just a response of, “You think other people aren’t working as hard as you? What would you like me to do? You want me to fire them? Is there something that we can do together to inspire people?”What’s the next step, so you still try to move them forward.

Sometimes, people don’t want to know answer. They don’t want to ask the questions. Sometimes, they’re afraid that the people are going to break down. I’ve had people who’ve reported to me that just are very emotional, no matter what you said, you pretty much could guarantee that tears. Even if we weren’t doing anything that was negative or anything, that they had emotional responses to stuff. How do you deal with that? Do you know from both ends if you’re an emotional person, if you don’t like to be confronted or whatever, and the guy or girl that’s the leader, who has to deal with that?

First off, one of my most difficult times was I had the CEO of this company was screaming at me. I made him mad, not recognizing it. Then he turns around, looks at me and says, “Don’t you cry.”Guess what I did? The thing is that when we make a big deal about it, it just exasperates it. I’m already embarrassed because I’m being emotional. In coaching we always say hold the space for the person. Emotions are energy moving through you. Can you hold the space for the person to go through whatever they need and they’ll move on? Criers always come out of it and if you don’t make a big deal, they’ll breathe, and they’ll come out of it fairly quickly. I always say, “Just take a breath. Let it out.” Hold a safe space.

If it’s going on for a while, you might ask what is it you need right now? What is going to take for us to move forward? Do not, if somebody’s crying, “Do you need to take a few minutes?” Don’t make them weak for the experience. It’s just an emotional expression. It’s energy moving through the body. It’s the same thing, whether they’re crying, they’re angry, or they’re embarrassed. Hold the space for them to go through whatever. I always say, “Hold the silence for longer than you think is comfortable.” It’s amazing how they’ll work through it if you let them.

That’s hard for me to hold this. Dead air kills me.

It’s very hard, I know. I’ve been working at it. I’ve gotten good at it, but it’s taken a lot of deliberate practice, but that’s where you use your emotional intelligence. Breathe, get out of my head, and remember. Here’s the thing in coaching, the International Coach Federation, the definition is that it’s a partnership, working to maximize goals. The client is fully creative, resourceful, and whole, which is Alfred Adler’s definition of psychology, that healthy-ish people are creative, resourceful, and whole. If I look at this person as creative, resourceful, and whole, then they don’t need me to fix them. They aren’t broken and I don’t have to like, “Don’t worry about it.” Or make them small. When I breathe and remember this is a creative, resourceful, whole person. They’ll come out and we’ll work together to find a solution. I believe in them. That’s an emotional shift, so that I believe in their potential. Even if I don’t respect them at this moment, I believe in their potential. Then hold that space. Care about this person, I believe in them, and we’re going to move forward in this conversation. That helps.

What is the difference between mentoring and coaching?

You can coach when you’re a mentor and you can do possibly a little mentoring. I always say, “Who’s doing most of the talking?”In mentoring, you’re doing most of the talking. If you’re the mentor, you’re sharing your experiences, maybe some stories. You’re helping people understand the organization. You’re doing most of the talking. In coaching, you’re not doing most of the talking, the person is. You’re curious, you’re interested, you reflect, you ask questions. Even when I teach in other countries and they don’t speak English, I can tell somebody’s not coaching if they’re doing most of the talking.

With coaching bring more about asking clarifying questions and to truly understand what’s going on, sharing reflections. I’m activating your brain to work. In mentoring, it’s an interesting thing because I’m doing most of the talking. I may be pacifying your brain. Unless I’m really excited about what you’re sharing with me, it’s wasted air. If I really want your opinion, your ideas, if I really want it, and like, “Thank you. Thank you.” Then it works. Otherwise, it’s a waste of time. Better to be curious, ask questions, and try to understand what the person needs before you even into mentoring.

All the things that you do, you help people with these difficult conversations. In all the training that you’ve gone through, how do you take these really tough conversations and turn them into breakthroughs? Do you have a trick for that? Any steps to share?

If it’s a performance situation, sometimes you might start with a little bit of feedback, but instead of saying, “Here’s what happened, and here is the impact,” would you want to be brief on that? The impact is most important. Because you chose to do this, here’s what the result was. Instead of saying, “This is what you should do next time,” you say, “Would you be willing to explore this? What else you might do to reach the goal you want?”That’s the thing a lot of leaders don’t remember. It’s got to be the goal they want, not what you want. It could be what you both want, but you first have to know what is really important to this person that could help them change their mind.

If the person wants to be a leader, do they want more credibility? Maybe they want some peace and quiet. What is it that’s important to them? That could be some pre-thought of really understanding that. Even before you go into a conversation, you want to know what’s important to them. You want to set your emotional tone, you want to go be curious in care, and can you hold the person in high regard. Can you believe in their potential? Those are three things before you even go in, but then while you’re in this conversation, it’s so important that, I say, “It’s not just listening, it’s receiving.”

TTL 160 | The Discomfort Zone
The Discomfort Zone: Coaching is a deep listening that creates an energetic loop, that creates safety in the conversation, so the person is willing to be vulnerable with you.

When I teach coaching, I teach people to listen with their entire nervous system, with their head, their heart, and their gut, which is all connected. It’s a deep listening that creates an energetic loop, that creates safety in the conversation, so the person is willing to be vulnerable with you. There’s a lot of research and therapy on therapeutic presence. If I’m fully present and I’m receiving what you’re giving me, then I can move into that. I’m sharing back when I’m picking up, I sensed all of a sudden you got quiet and even a little sad, and then you hurry up and change the subject. Tell me what’s going on with that. What is it that makes you sad?

I can really set you catch, and I say, “Catch it and give it back.” You catch the shifts, you catch the subtle, you catch what they’re not saying but you’re sensing, and you share it back and take the conversation to that level. It’s amazing where the conversation will go, but always have that goal because that’s your stake in the ground. As you get close, they feel uncomfortable. They’re going to change the subject. You come back to, “Are we working on this?” Stake in the ground, but you’re curious of what’s stopping this fully creative, resourceful, and whole person from moving forward to a goal they want. See if you can find that out together.

How can people find out more about what you do? Do you have a website or an email, or something you want to share?

My website is There’s a contact place there so you can contact me from my website. My books are on there on The Discomfort Zone. If you click on that, there’s a visualization for opening up your nervous system. There’s models, and all kinds of a quiz, all kinds of things that can help you on the website.

Thank you so much. This was very interesting. Thank you for being on the show.

Thank you. It was great conversation.

Thank you so much to Jay and to Dr. Marcia. Hope you come back for the next episode of Take The Lead Radio.

About Jay Acunzo

TTL 160 | The Discomfort ZoneJay Acunzo is an award-winning podcaster, a dynamic keynote speaker, and a veteran digital and content marketer. He was a digital media strategist at Google and head of content for multiple startups, including HubSpot. He spent several years scaling a venture capital firm called NextView using content marketing and narrative storytelling, and he is now the host and producer of several web series about the meaning people find in the work they do. Jay’s podcast, Unthinkable, explores examples of work that seems crazy … until you hear their side of the story. The show is a journey to understand what it takes to break from conventional thinking and achieve more exceptional things in your work.

About Dr. Marcia Reynolds

TTL 160 | The Discomfort ZoneDr. Marcia Reynolds is the president of Covisioning LLC. She is the master of teaching others how to engage in powerful conversations that connect, influence, and activate change even when emotions have taken the wheel. From Ernst & Young, Sanofi, and Hershey to schools in Italy, Russia, China, Singapore, and Kazakhstan, she’s been hired by organizations around the globe, not just because of her highly engaging presentations but because of ability to change people’s minds.

Important Links:

Love the show? Subscribe, rate, review, and share!
Join the Take The Lead community today:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *