Entering the Zone of Uncomfortable Debate (ZOUD)

It sounds like it should be a spaceship name from an Iain Banks novel and indeed, for many groups, entering the ZOUD is about as unlikely and fantastic.  It is, as the name suggests, a very uncomfortable place to be and there really are no exceptions to this.  No-one finds the ZOUD comfortable. However, just as some people find leaping out of a plane with a small sheet of fabric strapped to them exhilarating while others find it simply terrifying, some people can cope better with the ZOUD than others and these people are much more likely to be successful group leaders.

cartoon elephantThe concept of the elephant in the room has become common parlance in recent years.  The ZOUD is where the elephant is named out loud by (and this is the really important bit) every single member of the group.  As a group leader you can raise difficult issues as much as you like but if your team doesn’t join in and share their own thoughts and feelings you are really no nearer reaching a consensus decision than if you simply present your plan of action as a fait accompli.

How do you know when your group are in the ZOUD?

  • everyone will look and act uncomfortable.  You will see fidgeting, screwed up faces, shaking hands, inappropriate humour and possibly even passive aggressive behavior.  We have evolved to take open conflict within the tribe very seriously and avoid it if we possibly can.
  • everyone will talk about feelings. 10/10 elephants are emotional issues and make people feel strongly even when they have trouble articulating why.  A decision that makes your team scared, angry or frustrated is not going to be fully supported by them even if they can’t pull together an entirely rational argument for why it makes them feel that way and it’s no good pretending otherwise.
  • the discussion will flow very differently. The pace will speed up and slow down erratically, there will be long pauses and changes in volume.  The pattern of your regular BAU meetings will be broken.

Unless it is somewhere that you and your team go on a regular basis (as some highly successful boards and project teams do) a facilitator is key to finding your way across the ZOUD and out to a viable and sustainable decision point.  Constant reassurance is required to get the whole team in there with you and you can’t reassure people while disagreeing with them; especially if you’re the boss.

 Why put yourself and your team through all that?

I was asked (with a smile) a few weeks ago if I thought that discomfort was character building.  My answer is, “sometimes”.  As a facilitator, I am the first to suggest that a group closes down a topic and moves on when it is clear that there is consensus on the outcome.  But if I’m working with a group tackling a complex problem I will work hard to prevent them closing down the debate just because they are finding it too uncomfortable.  Some incredibly innovative and unexpected solutions lurk in the ZOUD and I am determined to help you to find them.

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