By Jeroen Robbe
Comfort, Learning and Panic Zones is a leaderful organizing tool that can support us to create a transformative group culture.
Understanding the model of Comfort, Learning and Panic zones can be a useful way to frame and understand ourselves, our learning spaces and our groups. It offers insight into what supports us to keep learning, get into a flow and thrive, or equally what might limit or even inhibit our capacity to learn at all.
How this tool supports leaderful movements
If we understand our groups and organizations as a context for learning and growth, as a container which we establish together, within which we can explore, make mistakes, and stretch ourselves, then we frame a group culture that can support us to step into the ‘learning zone’ together.
This ‘learning zone’ is a space that is not so comfortable or familiar as to become lazy (comfort zone), nor is it so challenging that it induces panic and leads to us shutting down (panic zone).
Exploring the question of how we can help each other step into the learning zone is a useful way to frame conversations about group agreements or codes of conduct, and building a culture that is both caring and challenging. It also offers a lens through which to reflect on our experiences of group life as they unfold, and bring a more level perspective to challenges that may emerge, especially in areas where we are likely to make mistakes (like around active solidarity, for example).
The learning zone model supports groups to build capacity for ongoing learning, but it will also be beneficial in other leaderful organizing competency areas such as transformative collaboration, as it offers a way to talk about how you can maximize everyone’s opportunity to feel safe while learning, growing and ultimately thriving within a group.
When in the comfort zone we feel relaxed, safe, open and at ease. With this, we may also feel a bit ‘dull’ or ‘lazy’ – not at our sharpest. It is important to be able to spend time in this zone, resting, recovering, practicing self care etc. But when in this zone, we are probably not learning very much.
When in the learning zone we are likely to feel more of a sense of challenge. We are more engaged, stimulated, we are required to make effort, using our energy and taking responsibility. We are taking new information/experiences in, assimilating, making-sense-of, etc. This requires effort, but it also gives us energy. It can sometimes feel demanding, but this is part of how we grow. Being in the learning zone brings us fulfillment, aliveness etc.
The learning zone can sometimes be experienced as uncomfortable. We are exploring new territory and are likely to make mistakes.
If we push the challenge and demand too far however, we will end up in the panic zone. Here, things have gotten too much for us. There is too much being asked, too much threat (to our sense of self, to our identity, to our cherished views or values, to our sense of safety in whatever way, etc) and we close down to protect ourselves. At this point, we have lost the optimal conditions for learning (because we are closed and somehow ‘hardened’ by our protections).
We can ask: what are the conditions that will help me to spend more time in the learning zone? What will make me feel supported and safe enough, being challenged enough, without habitually falling into over-comfort or panic?
It is useful to get to know our edges between the zones and treat them tenderly. Understanding where our edges are, and being able to communicate them, will support us to create a transformative group culture. Over time, it is possible for us to stretch and expand the learning zone, so we are able to spend more and more time in it.
In group settings, this framework can be used in various ways.
- After explaining the model, you can use the dynamic of this exercise from Training for Change to explore people’s experience of different aspects of group work and culture.
- As noted above, this model is a useful entry point for conversations about group agreements or codes of conduct. You might say “this can be relevant at many levels: for each person here, individually; for thinking about our groups back at home; and for thinking about this group and the time we are going to spend together. How we can maximize our time in the learning zone, is what we are going to explore now…”
- Leaderful Organizing: Action Learning Cycle Framework
- The Spiral Model: A Learning Framework
- The Learning Zone Model
- Questioning for Learning, Co-creation and Liberation
- More resources from the Leaderful Organising Collection