• Phil Cole

One Question to Spark Your Learning



Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash


I start many consulting sessions with a simple question:


What situation or event makes you feel discomfort?

This question is rooted in the learning markers, which tell us that discomfort is a sign of possible learning. When we feel discomfort, we may see one of many things:

  • a challenge for which we feel unprepared (the markers of direction and mistakes)

  • a situation where we failed to perform to our expectations (mistakes)

  • an ongoing set of situations where we aren't making progress or are spinning our wheels (time)

  • the absence of what's next (direction or layers)

  • or any other number of challenges that is a symptom of one of the four general markers of learning.

The answer to this question might be a general situation such as public speaking or performance management, or it might be a specific right-now challenge such as Johnny's refusal to put in enough effort.


My role as a coach is to build from the answer to this question, moving through the learning process into actionable behavioral changes that affect the underlying cause of discomfort. No matter the situation, exploring the specifics through the framework of the learning markers allows us to understand why we feel discomfort, which leads to the learning steps that address this discomfort. Learning is always the solution, in whatever form, and that is why the discomfort question is such a powerful tool for a coach.


One of the most frequent questions clients ask about this prompt is, "What if my discomfort is with another person or their actions?" This reminds me of an experience I had with a horse trainer, which is a story for another time. The moral of that story, though, is that leadership is the way we get others to perform, and our frustration is actually with our ability to impact others. The solution is in our own leadership performance, in the definition and functions, and exploring our discomfort allows us to recognize and own the feeling and our own ability to affect the situation. Without the question, we permit ourselves to displace the failure onto the other person -- and therefore the solution onto them as well.


Answering this question requires being honest with ourselves, which can be difficult. Fear is an emotion we often prefer to hide. Without recognizing our fear, however, we cannot confront the underlying cause. Consider this form of self-examination a skill that becomes easier with practice.


Asking this question doesn't require a coach, of course, and in fact our willingness to reflect and find a path over discomfort, rather than avoiding or denying the feeling, is a major contributor to our capability to learn and therefore our success as a leader. Leadership is a process of learning, remember! We improve our impact on others only when we perform new behaviors, and discomfort is an emotion that keeps us in place, doing the same thing we’ve always done.


So: what, right now, is making you feel discomfort?

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