Working with Our Edges and No-go Zones

What is it that makes Woody Allen so jumpy? Why do we laugh?  What is it we recognise about ourselves in his crazy and illogical antics?

Woody Allen or at least the characters he portrays is a little afraid of his own shadow.  Just as he is about to act he pulls himself back.  Whilst he poses questions he rarely answers them. I think we love his characters so much because we recognise something of ourselves in him.

As a coach and consultant I’m interested in where the point of growth lies for my clients.  I know many leaders and managers share this commitment to bringing out the best in their employees.

I’m constantly asking myself questions:

Where are they struggling?

What stops them asking for the support they need?

What prevents them taking the next step?

What limits their capacity to engage with this situation more resourcefully?

I’m interested in whether their dilemma is unique to one situation or whether it crops up in other situations.

As I listen to client’s stories I begin to notice where the demands of a role or situation start to push against either the limits of someone’s experience, their ways of thinking till now or their self-image.

In my experience, the key to many of the challenges individuals and organisations face, lies in something that psychologist and physicist Dr Arnold Mindell calls the edge.1  An edge is the limit to what we know and are comfortable with.  Understanding our edges can help us get a clear picture of our self-concept, assumptions and avoidances.

Each person has unique edges, some endure for most of our lives, while others are situational.  We can have edges to being assertive, edges to taking risks, edges to being a little more sensitive with our staff or edges to showing our vulnerability as leaders, to name just a few.

Whenever we come to an edge we become unsettled in some way – anxious, worried, confused or temperamental.   At times these signs are subtle, while at other times they’re marked.

The discomfort or uneasiness we experience at the edge is a sign something is being challenged within us.  In some way we are being prompted to change – to do something differently.
One of the challenges of working with edges is the automatic impulse to alleviate the discomfort we experience there, either by moving away, blocking or deflecting the issue.  The roles Woody Allen plays illustrate beautifully some of the crazy manoeuvres we engage in at the edge.

As you might imagine, this can make understanding and learning at our edges difficult.  A coach or consultant’s key contribution can be holding and supporting their client at the edge long enough for them to discover a little more about it.

Encountering our edges is an opportunity for growth.  They represent more than what we know and don’t know about.  They confront us with the gap between what is needed in a situation and our own comfort zone.

Exploring our edges can prompt us to rethink our self-concept, to examine the assumptions driving our choices or to take action on something we’ve been avoiding.

Our edges are inhabited by biases, fears, blindspots and past experiences that have become somewhat calcified.  They hold the reasons we fail to behave differently or do what’s needed in a range of situation.  The edge is an interesting place – I recommend taking a torch to help you find your way around.

To anyone with an adventurous spirit, the edge heralds a frontier to the as-yet-unknown.  It is a call to become more flexible, versatile and resourceful in the way we approach life.  Leaders who routinely recognise and work on their edges are more responsive to the challenges they face on a daily basis.  They start to recognise what causes them to hesitate, to avoid things or to behave in erratic ways.  They are less brittle and reactive.

While the territory beyond the edge, holds new ways of thinking, being and doing things, we must learn to navigate the edge itself, if we want unfettered access to these capacities. Individuals who have worked on their edges are usually more flexible.  They have fewer no-go zones.  They tend to be capable of being both firm and responsive, disciplined and relaxed – sometimes simultaneously.

Given that our edges exert such an influence on how we engage with situations, much of my attention as a coach is committed to uncovering the edges that shape our behaviour.  It’s at the edge that the potential for change and growth exists.

In future posts I’ll write about what happens when we come face to face with our edges, and suggest various ways of traversing them.


1Mindell A (1995) Sitting in the Fire, Lao Tse Press, Portland

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