Out of the comfort zone

20 August 2018. Published by Benoît Labourdette.

In collective work, paradoxically, it is when one does not feel reassured that one works best. But how does it work?

When we prepare for a job that involves the collective (leading a meeting, training, cultural action, giving a lecture, a conference, playing a show, music...) we generally try not to be put in difficulty in our work: we learn our text by heart, we take notes to prepare the course we are going to do, we write the text of his lecture, we prepare an agenda for the meeting for which we have responsibility, etc..

Different ways to be disappointed

You’ve probably been disappointed by someone who didn’t prepare well for the meeting he was hosting, the concert he was giving or the course he was giving: you get bored, you don’t feel respected as a participant. We feel that the person has not worked hard enough for what he is proposing.

On the other hand, we have also all experienced situations where people had written the text of their conference entirely and put us to sleep when we read it, or others who had prepared the agenda of their meeting so much that they left no room for anyone to express themselves, making it completely useless, etc.

The preparations are double-edged

The preparations, which are obviously necessary to “work well”, can also be double-edged: they can harm the full and entire development of the collective work that one animates or in which one participates. How to distinguish good from bad preparations? And how, at the moment, to feel that one is “working well” and not putting one’s audience to sleep !

First of all, you can never prepare enough the work you have to do. Rest assured: you will never be ready enough. Anguish will never leave you. What I say here is not pleasant: no one wants to feel bad during his lecture or course, and everyone would like to be perfectly ready and reassured by the certainty that it will happen as well as possible.
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Example: a failed conference

Let’s use an example: I have a lecture to give. I would like to be absolutely sure of its success, so I will write the whole text. Thus, at the time I will only have to read the text that I will have written and had proofread beforehand, whose structure and meaning will therefore be impeccable. I arrive in front of my audience. I’m afraid, of course, but I have my lines. Basically I’m completely reassured: all I have to do is read and my lecture will be perfect.

At the end of the conference, some people will no doubt tell me that it was interesting, because undeniably my text was well written. But I wouldn’t have noticed, all attached that I was reading my text, that the reality is that a good half of my listeners were sleeping and didn’t learn anything from my intervention. You can tell me: I worked badly.

A conference is about addressing something to the people in front of us. That’s not what I did. My use of orality brought nothing to the text I had written. I would have done better to give my article to read to the spectators and then lead a debate with them after they read it, it would have been much richer for everyone.

So I gave a very bad lecture, and yet I had done my best to prepare it, to ensure its success.

The comfort zone

What happened? What happened? I stayed in my comfort zone. I made my preparations in order to be reassured during my intervention. I have put my fear of failure at the centre of the dynamics of my preparations, and that is precisely what has caused my work to fail. Moreover, I may not even be aware of it, reassured that I am by the few people who tell me they enjoyed my lecture. I may, in good faith, give my next lecture in the same way.

I thought I had really done my best, but I missed the essential point: the work I was asked to do being a collective work, addressed to an audience, it is this collective, that is to say me in relation to this audience, which should be at the centre of my concerns, and not my personal anguish.

“All right, all right, we agree with your analysis, but how do you propose we do it then in concrete terms?” I will simply appeal to your memories, where you will find the answers to this question.

The difference between your good and your bad teachers: remember

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The immense value of the human collective is its uniqueness: each moment, each group is unique and exceptional. Remember the best courses you have attended, which have nourished you for your whole life: these are those magical moments of collective invention, where you had all the room to build your thought, in relation to your mentor, the brilliant teacher who has brought you so much. You don’t remember the soporific lessons read by a teacher who was bored. What were they used for? Nothing, I can tell you that.

What is the difference between these two teachers? The great teacher knew what he wanted to bring you, he knew why he was there: to bring you new knowledge. He had worked to prepare his course, to know his subject. He had also prepared the course of the session, but in a flexible way. He did not know exactly how the course was going to take place, because he chose to leave the place to his interlocutors, the students to whom this course was addressed. Surely when he began his course, and probably even throughout the course, he was not sure of himself, things were going in unexpected directions, he escaped, and he worked, in dialogue with the students, to answer them by trying to treat the subject as well as possible for them, having to go through unexpected paths, that he had not anticipated. He wasn’t reassured, he wasn’t in his comfort zone. But, you will tell me as you recall this course, he was very comfortable on the contrary. Yes, that is the impression you had, because he also knew that his role was to reassure you, to provide you with the necessary framework so that you would be confident and therefore fully capable of receiving the course. He was worried inside but he wasn’t making you weigh him, he was there for you. A large part of his work consisted of this. And after the class, this teacher asked himself a thousand questions about the way it had gone, about the method he could have to do even better, etc.

The other teacher, the one who was reading his class, of whom you remembered nothing, was completely reassured. He was fully in his comfort zone: serene when he arrived, because he knew that everything would go according to plan, and serene when he left, because he had “treated” his subject perfectly, given the quality of the course he had patiently written. But you didn’t have anything left of it.

The adventure of thought

One more clarification about the great teacher: even when he spoke alone, when he was not in direct interaction with his students, he used the same method. That is, he had prepared his course, of course, but perhaps at the time that he himself, in the situation of transmission, discovered new things about the subject that he had not anticipated. He was, even in his “masterly” word, himself in search, discovering his subject, full of surprises, new learnings and inventions for him. Thus he fascinates his listeners because he himself is sincerely passionate, not knowing where he is going to arrive, holding the helm as best as he can in this adventure of thought.

This is also particularly true for an actor: he always says the same text, but succeeds in finding in it surprise, astonishment, to discover while he is saying his text, new senses and emotions, each time. He lets himself be surprised, he learns, he is destabilized, he must adapt. And yet the words are still the same. And even more so if he has partners who are in the same attitude, of course.

The nature of work

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The above examples are, I think, simple enough and speak for themselves. I leave you to formalize the methodology, which will be unique to each field of activity and each person. I do not give “solutions” but teaching techniques, which it is up to you to appropriate.

I can however add some concepts on :

  • the nature of the preparatory work,
  • the nature of group work.

The preparatory work should rather be devoted to a good knowledge of the subject that you have to treat rather than to the manufacture of a text or an object intended to reassure you. Prefer reading more books and articles on your subject, experiencing things for yourself, asking yourself unanswered questions, rather than spending your preparation time making a “perfect” but superficial Powerpoint. Of course, prepare your course or conference program, but be prepared to be surprised during the course and to be able to respond to unforeseen events that may occur. What will happen will always be different from anything you could have imagined, but the fact of having imagined several unforeseen situations will have given you the necessary intellectual agility to be able to adapt to new surprises.

Collective work is an adventure. Do not think that one day you will find a way to be reassured about what will happen. Be ready for a moment of life, of invention, of collective intelligence, of personal questioning. Know that the value of what will happen will depend as much on your good knowledge of the subject as on your openness to the unexpected, on this exceptional group creativity that you will thus be able to mobilize. Know that this moment will be a unique moment in your life and that of your interlocutors. Give this exchange its full and complete value: be ready for anything. Imagine that it is a date: you do not know what will happen, but you know that it is the quality of the meeting, of your listening, that will be able to make that this date there will perhaps change your life and that of your interlocutors. If you do classes every day and you see things that way, then you’re just going to live a very intense life, more intense than average, but all the more exciting!

If it makes you feel any better: it’s your job to change people’s lives!

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