Discomfort Required

We often hear the saying that “Change is uncomfortable.” We think that change brings discomfort. It can and often it does. However, what if it is actually the other way around? Could it be that discomfort triggers change?

Change –> Discomfort

What were the last three big life changes you experienced? Maybe it was a work related change like a new job or employer. Perhaps you started or ended a friendship or romantic relationship. You relocated to a new neighborhood or city. You moved in with your parents or maybe your parents moved in with you (thank you, pandemic). Maybe you launched a new business or side hustle. The process of each of these significant changes probably brought discomfort with it. It takes effort to go through change. Often the newness of the situation or change is awkward or uncertain, and those feelings bring discomfort. That change leads to discomfort is a ubiquitous idea. 

However, what if, to begin with, the order of events is actually reversed? What if the reality is that some level of discomfort is required — either experienced by you or someone else — for change to take place? It’s not that change triggers discomfort but that discomfort drives change.

Discomfort –> Change

Think about the last time you were home alone and thought the room was too warm or too cool. Maybe you were curled up on the couch watching your favorite Netflix show while lounging in your comfy sweatpants with a dog or cat snuggled up next to you. Getting up to go down the hall to adjust the thermostat would take some effort and upset the current state of affairs. So for a while you may have stayed with your butt on the couch. At least until you got too hot or cold to thoroughly enjoy your show or you decided you needed something from the kitchen. Either way, you getting up off that couch was most likely motivated by some level of discomfort – either in the temperature of the room or in your rumbling tummy.  

Those three most recent changes in your life were probably motivated at least in part by your discomfort or that of someone else. Perhaps the work related change was the result of growing weary of reporting to an abusive or bullying boss. Perhaps the ended friendship was due to the friend rarely having or making time for you. You may have left the romantic relationship due to infidelity, abuse or simply growing apart or not feeling connected anymore no matter how hard you both tried. You may have relocated to a new neighborhood or city for a lower cost of living, less crime, a new job opportunity or to be closer to family. You might have moved in with your parents or maybe your parents moved in with you due to the isolation of lockdown during Covid or because of job loss or financial strain. Maybe you launched a new business or side hustle because you were bored out of your mind in your anchor job. There are probably other reasons for the above changes, but at some point discomfort became a motivating factor because as humans we aim to avoid pain. Further we are often more motivated to avoid pain than even to seek pleasure!

The notion that enough discomfort is required in order to initiate change struck me in a profound and disturbing way in March of 2016. I was at a conference in Portland, Oregon. It was rainy and dreary as Portland often is. I didn’t mind the weather because I was stoked to enjoy the leftover Vietnamese green curry that I’d tucked away in my hotel room refrigerator the night before. It was the morning I was to fly back to my home in Utah. Checkout was before lunch time but those rich and comforting leftovers called my name for breakfast. I popped them into the microwave and sat down on the upholstered chair in my hotel room to have “brunch” before heading to the airport. With my mind on the flight ahead that would take me back home, I scooped up a bite of that lovely green entree and then stopped. I put my fork down. 

I could not will myself to even take one bite. My stomach was in knots and the thought of chewing made me queasy. My body was telling me not to go back to Utah. That going back to a dysfunctional and unhealthy marriage was not safe. I wanted to see my youngest son who was still living at home but I did not want to go back to my spouse at the time and the stress, strain and deep unhappiness that relationship had brought over a number of years. It would take me another two months to leave the relationship for good. I had tried back in January and failed. This time, my body made me pay attention to the physical, mental and emotional discomfort that relationship was bringing to my life. That earth shattering discomfort helped me realize that something had to change. If I was going to save myself, I had to do something different. My discomfort that day was pivotal to the major life change I would initiate and that, after the agony of a divorce process, would lead to some of the happiest and healthiest years of life, and I hope for my former spouse too.

The Discomfort of Others

Think of some of the most innovative, cutting-edge companies or products winning in today’s economy. Apple, Amazon, Google, Tesla, Pfizer, Uber, and Airbnb may be top of mind for many. What do these have in common? They were willing to “rock the boat.” To do things differently than they had been done in the past. To make some people uncomfortable. Things don’t change when we are comfortable with the status quo, the current state of affairs. Our world only changes once we experience enough discomfort to motivate us to put forth the effort — possibly tremendous effort — to alter life as we currently know it. Until we are aware of our discomfort or that of others, change is unlikely.

How often have you avoided saying or doing something that perhaps might make someone uncomfortable? Not something mean or intentionally harmful but something that you believed or knew was true but that might not jive with the other person’s thinking or perspective on the world? Unfortunately, as Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever explain thoroughly in their book, “Women Don’t Ask,” women in particular are often socialized to make others comfortable, and to put others’ needs above their own. While this may be beneficial to others in the short-term, it is often harmful to the woman and to the relationship in which she frequently or continually subjugates her needs to those of the other person in the relationship. That might be a romantic partner, a parent, child, friend or coworker. We keep our thoughts or ideas to ourselves out of fear of “rubbing someone the wrong way” or “creating conflict.” Conflict is not inherently a negative thing. Consider that without conflict, women and racial minorities would not have the right to vote in the United States. 

The key is to have productive conflict and that is often through our willingness to have a “difficult conversation.” Discomfort triggers change but only through awareness. Awareness of our own discomfort or that of others and then the motivation to make a change that relieves that discomfort. Here are critical tactics for having a difficult conversation that helps initiate change without causing unnecessary harm:

Be curious

More specifically, ask questions that demonstrate your curiosity instead of making statements that suggest criticism or judgement. It is so tempting to go on the attack when we want change in a situation or in a relationship. We are hurt, frustrated or scared and those emotions might lead us to lash out or be less than our diplomatic selves. Giving into anger and lacking curiosity will only lead to harmful conflict that gets us nowhere but leaves us with the status quo. Is it okay to be angry? Of course. But manage that anger and use it to fuel your curiosity so you can make progress toward meaningful change.

Use questions that start with “What” and “How

Avoid questions that start with “Why.” With “What” and “How” you’ll get richer information about what motivates someone to do, say or believe something. You’re more likely to understand their thinking or logic, and — perhaps more importantly — to help them understand or even realize their own thinking. “Why” questions tend to put the listener on the defensive and build walls in the conversation because the other person may perceive they must argue for or defend their actions or thoughts. That can often shut down the conversation and lead the listener to double-down on their perspective rather than looking at it more objectively.

For instance, if a colleague shares with you their perspective that male electrical engineers are much better than female electrical engineers, a knee-jerk reaction may be to say “Why?” or even to say, “Like hell they are!” Instead, ask questions like “What makes you think that?” or “How did you come to that conclusion?” “What have you seen that distinguishes their performance?” I had a colleague who once noted that high school girls are not very good at math or at least are not as good as boys. However, research suggests that gender differences in mathematical achievement are negligible. Summoning my patience and managing my shock, I said, “Hmmm. Interesting. What have you seen that suggests that?” He noted that male students in our school had taken more math classes in high school compared to the girls. I followed up with “What may motivate boys to take more math in high school compared to girls?” He thought for a moment as the implications of what he’d just insinuated washed over his face and said, “It may be that boys are encouraged more to take math compared to girls. It may not actually be an issue of ability.” This colleague is a strong proponent of our female students. He didn’t mean harm or to be biased. He was just unaware of that bias, as most of us are.

Assume good or at least neutral intent

Are some individuals mean-spirited or looking for a fight or to hurt someone? Sure. But more often, people are simply unaware or uneducated about an issue that needs changing. Until there is evidence to the contrary, take the perspective that the other person is just unaware or even clueless. Take the opportunity to share your perspective and what you’d like to see change going forward. Then ask them for their thoughts. And wait patiently for their response. Then, let the negotiations begin!

Dare to make someone uncomfortable

Initiating a difficult conversation takes courage. Difficult conversations often make others uncomfortable. This is part of the change process. Nothing changes until someone, somewhere becomes uncomfortable enough to act. That someone may be you. Your discomfort with the status quo gives you the guts to plan for a difficult conversation with someone, or maybe with yourself. That difficult conversation may lead to the other person feeling some level of discomfort. This is OKAY. I can almost promise you that the sky will not fall down if a conversation makes someone uncomfortable. Discomfort is required for change! Dare to rock the boat and see the change that you can help bring about in your world and in the lives of others. It is not your job to make others comfortable. In fact, if change is required, you may have an important role to play in making others a wee bit uncomfortable so they will be motivated to have a difficult conversation and then produce change.

Bottom line: Discomfort drives change and real change can only be initiated through difficult conversations. Without discomfort and difficult conversations, we stay in that unsatisfying career, abusive relationship, one-sided friendship, the home we can’t afford, the job where we are underpaid, or continue to worry and lose sleep over our aging parents’ ability to live alone. Pay attention to the discomfort in your life this week whether it be physical, mental, emotional or spiritual. That discomfort may be telling you that change is needed. Will you listen?

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Merideth Thompson

Merideth Thompson, Ph.D., is an educator, author, and speaker, who empowers young women with the skills they need to live a happy, productive life. It is her goal to demystify dense academic studies and data for everyday people so that they can make informed decisions for themselves. 


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