For the last few months, I’ve been on maternity leave with my second child. My first little girl is three years old and I had forgotten many of the nuances of caring for an infant. Through the process of getting to know my new little one, I began to reflect on a drawing that we often show to our clients in our planning or reflection workshops.
The drawing consists of three concentric circles. In the center circle, we write “comfort zone.” This, we tell practitioners, is where most of us operate on a daily basis during our work day. We feel safe in this zone because it consists of routines and interactions with colleagues we know well. In the middle circle, we write “learning zone.” This is the zone where we have “ah-ha” moments and take in new ideas from our own work or interactions with colleagues. Perhaps we go to a meeting where different points of view are shared, and we have a breakthrough moment about a project we are working on or see something familiar in a new light. We tell clients that this is, ideally, where we want them to be during our workshops—open to sharing and receiving new ideas. Then, of course, there is the outside circle which we label the “panic zone.” This is the zone where we shut down because we are too uncomfortable to take in new learning or ideas. When this happens, we long for the “comfort zone” and, until we find our way back there, we are unlikely to be receptive to our colleagues’ ideas. Instead, we often put up walls or use defense mechanisms to deflect what we find uncomfortable.
I’ve operated in all of these zones the past few months. Before going on maternity leave, I was in my “comfort zone” with my first daughter. Even though she changes every day, we have a daily routine that works pretty well. With her, I happily and regularly enter the “learning zone” as well. She is constantly learning new things and, now that she is in school, she is learning at a rapid rate. As I’m sure many of you who are parents know, this is challenging and surprising in a pleasant sort of way. Then, my second daughter was born, and I entered the “panic zone.” She is amazing but, although I remembered the newborn phase in the abstract, I’d forgotten all the little challenges of caring for a very small baby. Once you think you’ve mastered one thing, it changes, and you have to adapt all over again within a relatively short period of time. As someone who loves organization, schedules, and routines, I find this an uncomfortable state of being. She is slowly shifting into more predictable patterns as she grows but I’ve decided that the newborn phase is my “panic zone.” I’m much more comfortable with older babies and toddlers.
When we facilitate meetings or workshops, we encourage our clients to invite a diverse group of relevant stakeholders to sit around the table. Many times, those who attend have interacted with one another on a limited basis. Thus, the reason we present the learning zone graphic is because we know from experience that facilitating a conversation among colleagues who rarely come together to discuss and reflect on ideas can create a challenging environment for some. And, as we tell everyone, we all have different thresholds for these three zones. What is comfortable for some might cause others to panic. For example, I am more likely to hit the “panic zone” when dealing with a newborn while another mother might hit this zone more readily with a toddler. Since we want everyone to operate in the “learning zone,” we remind practitioners to pay attention to how they and their colleagues are receiving the ideas being discussed so no one enters the “panic zone” where learning ceases to happen. So, at a time when we are all reflecting on the past year and forming New Year’s resolutions, I find myself thinking how important it is for us all to be honest with ourselves and one another about our thresholds for these different zones so we can spend more time learning and less time panicking.