The widely used phrase, comfort zone, is defined by Merriam-Webster as "a place, situation, or level where someone feels confident and comfortable." It isn't a physical place, though numerous restaurants, bars, and children's camps use the phrase for their names. The phrase is a metaphor, and like all metaphors, it identifies something familiar — a zone — with something less familiar — a psychological or behavioral situation.
That identification is literally incorrect. A zone isn't a psychological space. A zone, again from the dictionary, is "a region or area set off as distinct from surrounding or adjoining parts." It's a contiguous region on a surface, such as the inbounds area of a tennis court, or the Greenwich Mean Time zone, or the territory of New York City.
Using metaphors entails risk. The literally incorrect identification of "zone" with "psychological situation" can distort thinking about the psychological space. Here are four issues for which the metaphor can cause muddled thinking.
- Dealing with discomfort
- The comfort zone isn't a "region or area" distinct from its surrounds. For example, when presenting to your team, you might be in your comfort zone, until your company's CEO enters the room and takes a seat. Clearly, the comfort zone wasn't the conference room; nor was it presenting in that room. In this case, the comfort zone's definition must include the audience. Thinking of the comfort zone as an area, when it's actually an audience roster, can make dealing with the discomfort more difficult.
- Taking responsibility for growth
- People talk about "breaking out of your comfort zone," or "pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone," as if something external holds one there. Constraining forces might indeed exist, but they're usually internal. Regarding these forces as external shifts the responsibility for making a change to someone else (or something else). That responsibility is ours alone; it cannot be shifted.
- Feeling a false sense of security
- When we People talk about "breaking
out of your comfort zone,"
or "pushing the boundaries
of your comfort zone," as
if something external
holds one therefeel that we're in our comfort zone, regarding it as a "zone" can create a false sense of security. Real "zones" — that is, regions or areas — are places that persist over time. Zones aren't usually subject to sudden change. Situations are. Situations can be comfortable in one moment and uncomfortable — even unsafe — in the next. To grasp how quickly situations can change, we must think of situations as situations.
- Seeking real security
- When we think of "seeking a comfort zone," the metaphor compels us to seek a place that's permanently comfortable. This is an objective different from seeking a situation that's comfortable for now, or for some other short period. So we end up looking for something possibly more difficult to find than what we actually need.
Love the work but not the job? Bad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? This ebook looks at what we can do to get more out of life at work. It helps you get moving again! Read Go For It! Sometimes It's Easier If You Run, filled with tips and techniques for putting zing into your work life. Order Now!
- See "Metaphors and Their Abuses," for more about the power and risks of metaphors.
Your comments are welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenfPisQwhtshXzxJVvner@ChacUYLEiQVcXCoqJzufoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Critical Thinking at Work:
- Begging the Question
- Begging the question is a common, usually undetected, rhetorical fallacy. It leads to unsupported conclusions
and painful places we just can't live with. What can we do when it happens?
- Ten Reasons Why You Don't Always Get What You Measure: III
- The phrase "You get what you measure," has acquired the status of "truism." Yet
many measurement-based initiatives have produced disappointing results. Here's Part III of an examination
of the idea — a look at management's role in these surprises.
- Wacky Words of Wisdom
- Words of wisdom are so often helpful that many of them have solidified into easily remembered capsules.
We do tend to over-generalize them, though, and when we do, trouble follows. Here are a few of the more
- Wacky Words of Wisdom: III
- Adages are so elegantly stated that we have difficulty doubting them. Here's Part III of a collection
of often-misapplied adages.
- Managing Dissent Risk
- In group decision making, dissent risk is the risk that dissents about important decisions will be rejected
without due consideration. As a result, group decision quality can suffer, and some groups will actually
eject dissenters. How can we manage dissent risk?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 8: Multi-Expert Consensus
- Some working groups consist of experts from many fields. When they must reach a decision by consensus, members have several options. Defining those options in advance can help the group reach a decision with all its relationships intact. Available here and by RSS on July 8.
- And on July 15: Disjoint Concept Vocabularies
- In disputes or in problem solving sessions, when we can't seem to come to agreement, we often attribute the difficulty to miscommunication, histories of disagreements, hidden agendas, or "personality clashes." Sometimes the cause is much simpler. Sometimes the concept vocabularies of the parties don't overlap. Available here and by RSS on July 15.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenfPisQwhtshXzxJVvner@ChacUYLEiQVcXCoqJzufoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, )
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, )
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, )
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, )
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, )
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, )
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info
- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.
- Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?
Decision-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.