The ZOUD: What Is It and Do You Need To Go There More Often?

For those who are unfamiliar with the ZOUD, no, I am not talking about some trendy new bar, meditative state or far-flung fictional galaxy; I am talking about a concept I only came across recently myself – The ‘Zone of Uncomfortable Debate’.

Already those words probably conjure up very personal images of discomfort – maybe clumsy words, awkwardness, anger, offence taken, palpitations, nausea, anxiety, emotional reactions, negative repercussions. Certainly something to avoided!

We all have memories of difficult conversations we have had, or dread those that we know need to happen; whether that is having to give a colleague feedback on their poor performance or telling a romantic partner that we are unhappy. Although the phrase was originally introduced by a Professor Cliff Bowman as part of his research into high performance teams, the ZOUD is just as relevant in your personal life and I think a reflection on both is useful.

It’s even worth observing what feelings, thoughts and recollections come to mind as you read this. What do they reveal about your relationship with the ZOUD? Do you perhaps enter there more easily in some areas of your life than others? Or with certain people? What’s your team or company’s relationship with the ZOUD – is it encouraged or seen as something bad? You’ll find additional questions below to help you explore this further.

But first you may ask, why does this matter? Why should we be more willing to enter this ‘danger zone’? Let’s consider then what happens without it – individually and in a corporate context.

At an organisational level, we can end up with a familiar, comfortable ‘cosy club’ or ‘groupthink’, as Yale research psychologist Irving Janis called it. The team’s (often unconscious) priority is harmony and group cohesiveness. There is a lack of critical debate/evaluation/disagreement, little exploration of alternative ideas and a strong degree of self-censorship (to fit in, to be accepted by the group). But this is not the environment for creative thinking, robust decisions, high performance or pushing boundaries. Equally, mistakes can be allowed to happen, as no one dares to speak up. The slogan for this approach might be: ‘Don’t rock the boat’…

In a personal context, a sign of avoiding the ZOUD could just be an underlying dis-ease – a carefully preserved façade that everything is OK whilst plainly ignoring the elephant in the room (i.e. that you can’t stand each other anymore!). For many, living with dis-satisfaction, resentment, unhappiness or frustration is far preferable to the discomfort of facing facts and raising an issue. We wait for the situation to go away, for someone else to deal with it or mention it or we resign ourselves to it. It seems so ridiculous written down, to fear a conversation, but I have no doubt that many of you can relate to this.

So what’s the answer? Well, self-awareness is obviously the starting point, so that you can recognise when you are avoiding or are likely to avoid the ZOUD; then at least you can be alert and choose more consciously how to proceed.

Ask yourself:

  • Am I better at entering the ZOUD personally or professionally?
  • Does it make a difference whether it’s one-to-one or in a group?
  • Do certain types of people trigger different reactions within me? Does seniority, age, gender, appearance, confidence, nationality or personality make a difference?
  • What or who makes me more likely to avoid the ZOUD?
  • How well does my manager, my team or my romantic partner enter the ZOUD?
  • Do I invite feedback or respond well if someone challenges me?
  • Am I supportive of others when they enter the ZOUD?
  • Is there an area of my life where I am avoiding the ZOUD right now?

How you enter and manage the ZOUD is also important. It is not an invitation to be aggressive, disrespectful or needlessly confrontational. It will take practice and, by its very nature, may never feel like a pleasant place to be. Here’s how you can have greater success with the ZOUD:

  • Build good rapport, whether that’s with an individual or a team. The stronger the relationship and greater the trust, the more deeply you can enter the ZOUD. It sounds obvious, but is easily forgotten when time is scarce or in an eagerness to adopt a new, frank approach without fully understanding its application
  • Educate people – whether that’s your significant other or immediate team. Create a culture of the ZOUD. People are more likely to embrace it if they can recognise when and why you are leading them there. Give them the skills too to handle the ZOUD, so that everyone is on board and your discussions can be more open and effective all round
  • Where relevant / possible, prepare. What’s the best way to approach the subject or to phrase your feedback? When? Where? Then (re)view that through the other’s eyes – how would you now amend and improve your plan?
  • Get used to hanging out with tension. It is a likely and a natural part of being in the ZOUD – a key sign you are there. You may even experience a temporary break in rapport with others. *Beware – at this point, you may try to exit the ZOUD to reduce your / their discomfort, for example by changing the subject or by retracting or modifying your comments to reduce their impact and the heightened tension. So watch for this and hang on in there!
  • Stay focused on your outcome and higher goal (i.e. this is about improving a relationship or a product launch or a colleague’s performance/career). Don’t get drawn into an argument or sidetracked by someone handling the ZOUD poorly. Make sure your feedback remains objective rather than personal or emotionally reactive
  • Keep in mind that sometimes support is more appropriate than challenge. How resilient is the person or team? What do they need more of in that moment? Challenging Coaching by Ian Davy and John Blakey is an excellent book for exploring this and getting the right balance in an executive/corporate context
  • Finally, whilst this post is about entering the ZOUD more willingly and consciously, check that you’re not going to extremes and using it as an excuse to vent or attack or antagonise. Are you always the first to raise uncomfortable issues? Is it too often? How well do you do this? What would others say? Would it be more appropriate to address the issue at a later time or more privately? Choose your moments.

This might all seem like hard work and it can certainly be tempting to keep the peace and ignore the obvious for the sake of an easy life at work or at home. And of course the ZOUD is not intended for every conversation – thank goodness!

But there is a pay off for braving the ZOUD – new insights, breakthroughs, greater trust and authenticity, better relationships, better decisions, avoiding mistakes and problems in the long-term, peak performance, finding improved ways of doing things, more dynamic or motivating debate and an opportunity for growth personally and professionally. So whilst it may not be your preferred place to go, there’s certainly a case for adding the ZOUD to your or your company’s communications repertoire. It seems the ZOUD is not something to avoided after all…

If you’d like Katherine to come in and talk to your team about the ZOUD or other topics covered in the Barton Insights blog, do contact us. Katherine also coaches executives and other individuals – click here for more about our coaching services.