A Facilitator’s Dilemma – Too Scary or Not Scary Enough?


My Portland, USA colleague, Nanci Luna Jimenez (see Resources below) introduced me to the Comfort/Grow/Panic Zone model. We’ll show you more of this model inside the blog but suffice to say, I am constantly struggling with this as a life question. I am sure I am not alone based on discussions with colleagues. It is basically a classic leadership dilemma. The dilemma is this: How do we take enough risk to grow ourselves as courageous facilitative leaders, help others grow, but not be in such a state of terror, that we become exhausted and/or racked with emotional and physical pain?

Since today is Hallowe’en in North America, and many of you do not celebrate it, I thought I’d entertain you with scary and not-scary-enough facilitator stories based on photos I took last week in my immediate neighborhood. People here go CRAZY over Hallowe’en decorations! Hallowe’en if you do not know it, is a centuries old tradition based the eve of the western Christian feast of All Hallows. It is meant to honor the dead, including saints, martyrs and all “faithful departed”. Today, it is celebrated by Christians and non Christians by trick or treating (i.e., going to door to door at night to receive candy or sweet things, costume parties, carving pumpkins and lighting the artwork with candles places carefully inside the hollowed out pumpkin, lighting bonfires, visiting haunted houses and other attractions that are supposed to be scary, and apple “bobbing” (i.e., putting your head in a tub of water to try to bite an apple without using your hands). I did it as child and never succeeded in getting a single apple. In this blog we’ll introduce the comfort versus growth versus panic model and illustrate it with four scary and not scary enough scenarios of facilitation jobs I’ve had. My hope is that it will cause you to reflect on where you habitually reside in the comfort/grow/panic model. Is it continuously not scary enough, too scary or just scary enough to grow? My other objective is to help you decide how you might adjust that habit or pattern to be more sustainable for your continued brilliant leadership in the world.

Here is the Comfort/Grow/Panic Zone model or metaphor depending on who you read (see articles under Resources).

The Comfort Zone

You feel confident and easy. It feels like a great place to reside. Most of what you do is not challenging for you but you can sleep at night. Your life feels a little boring but good. It is a great place to come back to but not an especially useful place to reside too long if you want to change the world or feel happy about yourself.

The Grow Zone

Experts say you should spend most of your time here. Your life and work provide ample stimulation. Problems are complex but you tackle them with enthusiasm. You feel fear but it does not keep you awake all night. It is just enough fear to make you push yourself a little harder. You feel great pride in what you discover you can do when you push yourself.

The Panic Zone

Experts say you should move out of this zone as quickly as possible. It should be short lived and only take place when something monumental and unforeseen happens. In this zone, your adrenaline levels are high. That causes emotional and physical discomfort and stress on your body. It often causes you not to sleep well. You may end up “feeding” on sugar, alcohol, caffeine, sex or drugs to dumb the pain. You sometimes or often are not able to think clearly and make wise on-the-spot decisions because your survival brain is causing you to fight, flight, freeze, feed or find a mate. (i.e., the five useful survival functions of the reptilian brain!)

My Zone Stories

Here are several stories to show you how the zones showed up in my facilitator and personal life. As you read them, think about the big stories in your own life and which zone they caused you to enter. How did you handle each zone? Were they consistently too scary, just scary enough, or not scary at all?

Story 1 It is 1994, I work for a consulting firm. I’ve been sick for three years running with lung congestion, exhaustion. I quit this job (because I was in hindsight, likely in the Panic Zone for the last few years of this job). I decided to start a business in April 1995 with $2000 Canadian in start-up capital. That is not a lot! Even then! (Grow Zone) I reasoned that all I really needed was a computer, business cards, and 3 decent work outfits to do networking and client interviews. My first paid job was with a small non-profit in my neighbourhood that offered parenting services. My connection had been with them 10 years previous when I had taken parenting classes with them and then subsequently taught parenting classes there. So they knew and trusted me. I got hired to conduct a facilitated workshop with all relevant stakeholders about how to increase uptake of their services with new immigrant and refugee families (as early as then, many were coming from Syria and Eritrea with new waves of those groups arriving again today). I had only one formal class in facilitation training at this point. This was definitely a Grow Zone job – not too scary because I felt comfortable with parents and immigrants. Also, I was not getting paid a lot so I hoped the client did not have really high expectations of me.

Story 2 It is May 1997. I am just starting my third year of my facilitating business. I had taken more formal training in facilitation and related disciplines. I was grossing $50,000 Canadian a year. That year, my city had experienced the flood of the century. There was extensive damage. I was approached by the director of the Emergency and Disaster Management Agency to do strategic planning. It felt like an important job for me – help my city recover well. The goal was to help the Agency plan and respond better to future emergency disasters. I should have known better but the Director met with me privately and told me I did not need to talk to anyone else. (Let that be a warning to you!) In the middle of the first day of planning, many staff came up to me to complain about the Director the minute this person left the room. When in the room, few would talk. The normally excited mood of vision fell “flat on its face” (i.e, felt dull and boring) with this group. I knew something was wrong. A few days later, a more senior official called me to ask what I had discussed with the Director. I was confused about why they were asking me questions. I learned only later that the client had been suspected of absconding with (i.e., stealing) money out of the bureau’s budget for his own personal use and was being investigated. I never found out if this was true. Thus the photo choice of very large eyes. (Panic Zone!) They suspended my client from the job and brought in a new interim leader director. Amazingly, I was asked to continue the planning with this new boss.

Story 3 It is year 2000. My gross income had doubled to $100,000 Canadian. For me, that was good. It felt like I was successful by my standards! This story is about a huge client group for me – over 100 people from several influential and important government departments. I was hired to help them merge three different departments. We had huge charts on the walls analyzing pros and cons of various “merge” scenarios. It looked confusing even to me. One person then asked: “Why are we doing this? This seems like a total waste of time!” I called for a break. I had no idea what to do or how to salvage the mess. I felt like sinking into the ground thus the photo choice. Luckily, I had two co-facilitators whom I trusted. I told them I was having a “melt down” (i.e., totally panicked and useless at that moment and needed them to support me while I thought out loud and they gave me insights from their perspective. Quickly we crafted a new direction. I took three deep breaths, pulled my shoulders back and told the group, “This is what we are going to do…” and then I outlined it succinctly and with confidence. We wrote out the instructions on a PowerPoint slide for everyone to follow. NO ONE argued. Everyone got to work and we pulled through to a useful conclusion two hours later. This is a perfect example of being in the Grow Zone and momentarily being in the Panic Zone, but knowing what to do to move out of the panic quickly. I am not always so skillful!

Story 4 I’d like to share one last story. Let me reveal to you that from 2002-2017 the last 15 years, I may have spent more time in the Panic Zone than anywhere else. Part of it has to do with my move to the USA in 2002, and not really knowing how to “be” in this new culture and having to start from scratch in the middle of an economic recession. Another factor was that I was getting significant recognition because of my efforts. That has been scary. More and more complex jobs were being offered to me. Part of it was my own ego of trying to move “bigger mountains”.

Lessons Learned

What I have learned is…and this is the real nugget I have to offer you… it helps to go back to the Comfort Zone regularly. While there, relax and hang out for awhile like this photo of the skeleton in the tree. Nurture yourself in the finest ways. The moment you feel refreshed, add in a little discomfort – walk towards and into the Grow Zone. Support yourself with great colleagues, community and healthy habits. Be sure you have given yourself enough time to prepare yourself well for the difficult jobs. Avoid too much stimulation the day before the job so you sleep better. However, you will get plunged into the Panic Zone often. That is ok. Develop strong strategies for moving through this quickly. It might be a quote you love. It might be a short guided visualization reminding yourself of your ability to survive it. It might be an emotional release technique, a panic phone call to a trusted friend, a look outside to a beautiful benign scene that calms you.

The other lesson I have learned based on doing it myself for short periods of time…is being on the other side of the spectrum, where I spend too much time in my Comfort Zone. So ask yourself: Are you teaching what you already know too well? Coaching one-on-one without facing the unknowns of group work? Leading without ever taking risks? Facilitating the same team over and over again? Using the same facilitation processes over and over? Ask yourself: What could I do to move toward my Grow Zone? What would give me the motivation to do this? Who could I lean on or accompany me when I get too scared?

And, please share a story of what helps you when you spend too much time in the Comfort or Panic Zone. What did you do to help you move toward and into the Grow Zone again?


See Nanci’s transformational cross cultural work to end all oppression at: https://lunajimenezseminars.com/

Interesting article on whether we stretch or grow when in our Comfort Zone. This author says we do still learn in our Comfort Zone: Comfort Zone: model or metaphor

This shows the Comfort Zone model and helps us see our true Comfort Zone is our Grow Zone: http://www.alljapaneseallthetime.com/blog/comfort-zone-growth-zone-panic-zone/

Or, try out a Comfort Zone quiz. I did this and was surprised. http://www.whatismycomfortzone.com/survey/#

A quick story like comparison of comfort versus grow zone by a blogger this month: https://thehealthysoulvibe.wordpress.com/2017/10/19/growth-vs-comfort-zone/

And more… Six Reasons to step outside Your comfort Zone Six Reasons to Step Outside Your Comfort Zone

Barbara MacKay

Barbara loves “everything facilitation”. She thinks BIG! She loves working with other facilitators around the globe to create transformational results for client groups. She loves teaching others how to do that. She loves presenting at global facilitator conferences. She loves certifying new professional facilitators. If you also love what process facilitation can do for the world, connect with her – virtually or in person. She believes facilitation processes, used well, will provide the roadmap to a more just and sustainable world.


  1. Rachel Schaming on October 31, 2017 at 3:37 pm

    Happy Halloween everyone. For me when I sense moving into the panic zone, I reframe the word fear to excitement. I say to myself, “I am excited to walk through this opportunity.” Reframing my panic helps ground me to experience and find the pathway forward.

    • Barbara Mackay on November 28, 2017 at 3:01 pm

      Hi Rachel. That is a wonderful reframe. Thanks for that. i will use it!

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