Intercultural CompetenceKnowledge of the notions and concepts of acceptance of ambiguity and changeRefers to theories, concepts and experiences that relate to ambiguityReflecting acceptance of ambiguity and change

How to develop tolerance to ambiguity and change

This article will enhance the ability of the trainer to prepare participants for, and support them through, the ambiguity and uncertainty that is an integral part of the learning process.

Why did I choose this tool? This tool uses a concept that is familiar to most trainers, that of the comfort zone, and makes it applicable to understanding and becoming more tolerant of ambiguity and uncertainty.

How does this apply to being a trainer? There are so many layers of ambiguity in a training, from the ambiguity experienced by the trainer in planning and implementing the training process, to the ambiguity experienced when things don’t go as planned or unexpected issues arise, to the ambiguity experienced by the participants when faced with unknown concepts, unknown situations or unfamiliar people (as in the case of meeting new people in general and especially people from different cultures and that have different mindsets). Being able to tolerate, navigate and retrieve a positive result from ambiguous situations is an important skill not only for a trainer to have but also an essential skill to be able to train participants to have.

Main content:

Explanation of the comfort zone/stretch zone/panic zone model

According to the comfort zone model, the center of the circle is where we feel comfortable and safe, and yet because it is a “known” zone it is not where most of the learning will happen.

The stretch zone is the zone where there is a possibility for growth and development, it is out of our comfort zone, but it is a place of exploration that we can venture into and yet not a place of extreme discomfort or where we feel unsafe.

The panic zone, on the other hand, is the zone where we are in extreme stress and are likely having the “fight or flight” response. We are not being comfortable or feeling safe, and we are most likely not really learning either because the brain is not calm enough to think objectively or to process new information.

When we relate this model to ambiguity and change, we can see the comfort zone as the “certainty zone”, the place where we are certain of ourselves, of our abilities, of our environment, and our understanding of all of the above.

The stretch zone, on the other hand, could be described as the “ambiguity and uncertainty zone”, and can occur when we realize we don’t know about something and want to understand more, or when we feel challenged by a person or a concept to go deeper, and when we acknowledge that we have come to the limitation of our capacity but we want to expand it further.

The panic zone could be described as the “confusion and chaos” zone, where we feel so uncertain and so immersed in the ambiguity of it all that we are paralyzed, can’t make decisions, and are afraid to act because we really don’t understand what is going on or what we can do to make things better.

A word of caution

Some training methods or trainers base their practices on the idea of “pushing participants outside of their comfort zones”, believing or assuming that the further outside of their comfort zones they get the more they will learn.

This is done by putting participants in extreme situations in nature that they don’t know how to handle, or by intentionally creating ambiguity in the training process that participants can’t really clarify or find a way out of, or instigating conflicts within the group to supposedly achieve certain learning outcomes.

The problem with intentionally putting someone in the “stretch zone” is that there is no way that we as trainers can know exactly where someone’s stretch zone ends and where the panic zone begins. And if we unintentionally put them in the panic zone, the result can be detrimental to them and to the learning process, because after being in the panic zone the natural result is to retreat back into the comfort zone, possibly permanently in that area of their life.

The comfort zone/stretch zone/panic zone metaphor is therefore meant to be merely that: a metaphor by which we can understand how it is possible to expand and grow without negative side effects. As trainers we would merely provide the opportunity, and the support, for those who are ready to expand their comfort zones and learn, thereby increasing their tolerance of ambiguity and change and simultaneously allowing them to increase their knowledge and skills on different topics.

“Let us provide students with favorable conditions for authentic and meaningful experiences where they are challenged in an appropriate manner and suitably supported by those with a genuine interest in their learning informed by sound educational principles. It is time to reposition the comfort zone model as a metaphor; a metaphor to describe how we might think about learning and growth rather than a rationale for implementing dubious teaching and learning practices.” (Brown, 2008)

How to stretch properly

Being in the stretch zone is very effective, however, when in the right conditions the participants decide to put themselves in that zone. It would be similar to an exercise routine where someone chooses to stretch themselves further than they did before (rather than having someone yank their leg upward without any warning).

The trainer’s role then becomes to encourage them to take that challenge, and to support them before, during and afterward as needed so that the learning is enhanced and so that they have no need to panic at any stage but are able to grow instead.

This is how tolerance to change and ambiguity is increased: by taking steps, on each person’s own terms, to handle more change and ambiguity gradually. For example, it can start by meeting someone from another culture. Then it can be increased by watching a movie or documentary with more information about that culture. Then it can be built on by visiting that country and learning some words and phrases in the local language. The next step could then be actually moving to that country and integrating it.

As we step into the stretch zone more and more, what happens is that our comfort zone ends up expanding as the previous stretch zone becomes the new comfort zone. This is how someone could, using the above example, jump directly into moving to a new country without following the above-mentioned steps, and also without experiencing panic or extreme stress. It means they have taken the same or similar actions in the past, and are now comfortable with them. The previous stretch zone has become the comfort zone, and the previous panic zone has become the stretch zone.

However just because someone has expanded their comfort zone in one area it doesn’t automatically mean that they have in every area. It is possible that their comfort zone in another area of life, for instance in relationships, is very narrow because they have retreated into their comfort zone after negative experiences in the past. If this is the case, they need to take small steps to gain the courage to enable them to navigate ambiguity and change in that area of their life.

It’s just like your daily workout…..

Here we can refer to the exercise analogy: as we exercise certain parts of our body, they become stronger and more flexible and are able to handle more stress without becoming injured but rather becoming stronger.

No one can exercise for another person, neither is it effective to push someone into exercise unless they are into it themselves. It must be a self-driven process. When it comes to increasing tolerance for ambiguity and change, it helps a lot when participants see the results of their courage to step outside their comfort zone.

When they are actually able to create something new, have a new pleasant experience, or in any other way actually see a positive result to what they are doing, this is what will inspire them to take the step out of their comfort zone and into the stretch zone the next time around. Stepping into the stretch zone needs to have enough positive associations in their minds so that they know it is worth the effort.

“The quality of your life is determined by the amount of uncertainty you can comfortably handle.” – Tony Robbins

Reflection questions:

Check in with yourself in what areas you might be resisting change in your life, and where your quality of life may be going down as a result (or simply not improving). Then decide how you will change that and step into the stretch zone in that particular area of your life.

  • In what area of my life could I be resisting change?
  • How will my quality of life improve when I embrace change in this area?
  • The steps I will take in order to step into the stretch zone of that area are:


How to apply it in everyday life:

It’s important to find a balance in our everyday lives between being in our comfort zone and being in the stretch zone. If you find yourself feeling bored and unmotivated, it might be time to see in what area you can step into the stretch zone and challenge yourself. It doesn’t have to be something complex, it can be as simple as learning how to make a new meal. On the other hand, if you find yourself regularly stressed and anxious, it might be time to step back into the comfort zone for a while and nourish yourself until you feel stable enough to step into the stretch zone again. This will especially be the case if you have been thrown into the panic zone. Learn to listen to yourself and to ask yourself what you need, is it comfort or stretching?

Leilani van Rheenen

has been active in youth work, training and coaching since 2008. Her specialty is emotional intelligence, emotional fitness, since it is the primary ingredient in competences such as inter-cultural competence, learning to learn, cooperating successfully in teams, etc. Leilani’s contribution will combine the information and methods she has created with the vast array of tried and tested materials available. Leilani has developed herself as a trainer from the Salto training for trainers, but also from renowned coaches and authors, and adapted methods learned from these sources to meet the needs of youth workers.

Click here to read more about Leilani van Rheenen

Read more from this author

Bookmark (0)
ClosePlease login
Formvan Rheenen, L. (2018). Emotional Fitness Academy WorkbookBrown, M. (2008, January 1). Comfort zone - model or metaphor?

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Back to top button