What’s the right level of discomfort?

Human beings initiate change when they feel discomfort or dissatisfaction. So, in principle, a coaching or mentoring conversation that doesn’t involve some level of discomfort is likely to lead to less significant change than one that does. However, we also tend to avoid discomfort, especially if it is elevated to become pain. We also tend to avoid causing suffering to other people. So, one of the key skills of a coach or mentor is to stimulate just enough discomfort to enable the other person to be productively curious.

Pretty much everything I have read around this topic focuses on how the coach can calibrate the level of challenge they think the client can take. It’s common for coaches to push harder and harder until discomfort becomes pain, then throttle back. Yet, there’s a much simpler solution – ask the client!

Draw a spectrum from “Too painful” to “Too Comfortable”. Ask the client where they would want to set the needle on this calibrator, given the learning they want to achieve and the fact that there may be “no gain without pain”. At key points, invite them to move the needle and explore with them what is happening inside them to make them want to do so. If appropriate, share your own level of comfort and discomfort with the conversation and the implications for the conversation together.

The calibrator also offers the option of enabling the client to articulate what is happening for them in the moment – what level of comfort or discomfort are they experiencing right now? And what would be an appropriate shift? Putting the client in control of their own feelings of comfort or discomfort, by making them transparent and adjustable, can provide the confidence boost that allows them to take tentative steps into greater discomfort.

For the coach, it also provides valuable feedback on the interplay between what they do and the impact on the client’s emotions and capacity to engage in deep reflection. These insights allow us to fine tune how we adjust the amount and strength of challenge we employ.

© David Clutterbuck 2023




Our free content is available to everyone. It includes a limited range of Blogs, Videos and Briefing Papers on key topics and the latest trends. If you want to expand your knowledge even further, or support your development or business with up-to-date information and research, sign up for a FREE TRIAL to gain access to the full content of over 500 blogs, briefing papers and videos within our resource library.

Membership with CCMI offer you will access to all the content within this resource of over 200 blogs, video briefings and more.