Challenging others can be, well, challenging. Sometimes this is because we’re afraid that our challenge will land wrong. Sometimes it’s because we’re not sure if we can take the risk. Sometimes it feels better to play it safe and say nothing.
If we spend our whole lives and careers never challenging anyone or anything, we’ll miss out on the benefits of challenge. And the people who might benefit from our challenges will miss out on them too. Challenge helps us to move forward by:
- Breaking old patterns.
- Leading to new learning.
- Creating the space to make change.
Challenge doesn’t have to be confrontational. In fact the most effective forms of challenge are matched by a high level of support. This builds the trust and rapport needed for the person we are challenging (including ourselves) to feel able to enact the change that is needed. Challenge can come in all sorts of forms: asking non-judgemental questions, allowing silence for the person to think, reflect, and reconsider, offering observations, and reflecting back what the person has said.
You may already be familiar with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on flow, demonstrating that a state of ‘flow’ or increased productivity is reached when a person’s skills and abilities are paired with an appropriately challenging goal. Too little challenge with high ability and we get bored. Too much challenge with low ability and we get anxious. Here’s a wonderful diagram illustrating the point.
Challenge and support works in a similar way: too much support and we risk trying to ‘rescue’ the person we’re challenging and fix all their problems. Too little support and it’s a cozy chat, a frustrating discussion, or builds fear and breaks trust. When the right amount of support is provided with the right amount of challenge, we can have truly powerful conversations that help others–and ourselves–to go far, fast.