Several years ago, I committed to a daily Uncomfortable Conversation challenge.
At the time, I was working with an amazing coach on taking up more space in conversations. I'd been struggling with telling engaging stories, with interrupting when I had something to add, and with being more vulnerable about my true feelings.
Those situations made me feel tense. And because I didn’t feel comfortable with the tension, I would often stay quiet or speak hurriedly to avoid the spotlight.
And so we came up with a challenge:
Every day, for two months, I'd push myself to have a conversation that felt uncomfortable and track how much tension I felt on a scale of 1-10.
One day, I told a senior engineer I'd worked with for three years that he intimidated me. It was an 8. He thanked me later, as it opened the door to multiple heart-to-heart conversations that created a sense of mutual respect and trust.
Another day, I nervously called up a friend who I felt embarrassed to reach out to because we hadn't talked in a long time — it was a 4, and it led to a warm rekindling of a friendship.
Yet another day, I approached a homeless person on the street — a 3 — and just asked for his story. It helped me see the humanity in him.
The hardest day was when I decided to ask someone for money just for the sake of the discomfort. I froze for twenty minutes on the sidewalk, coming up with excuse after excuse why the people passing weren’t the right people to ask — too rowdy, too busy, too big of a group, too hurried — before finally approaching someone. It was a 10.
The Uncomfortable Conversation challenge was definitely uncomfortable, but I kept at it because I knew that it was helping me build my tension muscle.
Why Build Our Tension Muscle
When we feel tension in our bodies, it's an indicator that there's something important to us at stake.
Tension is neither good nor bad. It's just information.
Our willingness to be with tension shapes our success in life.
We feel tension when we ask for something that matters to us, when we stand up for ourselves, or when we try to take conversations to a deeper level.
If we avoid tension or try to get rid of it because it makes us uncomfortable, we end up avoiding the things that matter to us most in life.
It's why Tim Ferriss once tweeted:
On the other hand, if we step into tension and allow ourselves to breathe and sit in the tension, we can make major shifts on the things that are most important to us.
Jaime Waydo shared a story on The Art of Accomplishment podcast of how a leader she once worked with kept yelling at her — in private, in front of the team, everywhere — for over six months. One day, she decided to step into the tension and say, "I can tell you're really scared. I just want you to know — I don't respond to yelling. I actually become less creative and less able to help you solve the problem." And then she just sat in the tension of the silence. Finally, her boss stopped, smiled, and leaned forward, and said, "Great, let's start solving the problem."
Her ability to stay in the tension created the shift that she wanted and completely turned around the relationship.
Building our tension muscle is therefore one of the strongest leverage points in our lives.
And just like building any other muscle, the best way to strengthen it is by consistently and deliberately working it out.
When we work out, we want to choose exercises that are difficult enough so that we feel challenged, but not so difficult that we freeze or are unable to do it. Similarly, when we build our tension muscle, we want to practice with the 4-7's on the tension scale — and not the 10's like that time I froze when asking for money.
We also expect there to be some discomfort and even soreness when we work out — in fact, we see those as good signs. The same is true when building our tension muscle. Some discomfort is good — otherwise, we're not challenging ourselves enough.
True Freedom Comes From a Strong Tension Muscle
Peter Bregman, leadership coach and author of Lead with Emotional Courage, writes:
"If you're willing to feel everything, you can do anything."
When we're willing to no longer avoid difficult emotions, we free ourselves and do the important things that might feel scary.
We can approach the person that we feel attracted to and start a conversation.
We can share our true feelings to a partner or to a friend when we feel left out or annoyed or touched.
We can ask for what our hearts truly want in our relationships or at work.
Here's why this is critical:
We can't control our environment.
As we pursue our dreams — in our careers, in our lives, in our partnerships — we're guaranteed to hit points of emotional tension.
We can spend our energy trying to manage our environment to avoid the difficult emotions. But then when things feel out of control, we feel helpless, stressed, and lost.
Or, we can get ahead of the game by deliberately developing our tension muscle. This builds our resilience — we gradually teach our nervous systems with ever-increasing tense moments that yes, this too is survivable. So that when the moments come that truly matter to us, we're as ready as we can be to make the most of them.
My tension muscle has grown significantly since the days of my Uncomfortable Conversation challenge.
Today, I'm able to move through — and even thrive — in situations that would've felt so uncomfortable and tense years ago.
Growing my tension muscle has helped me in everything from negotiating job roles to moving through divorce mediation conversations with my ex-wife to navigating through all the uncertainty that comes from entrepreneurship.
I'm able to convey more feedback, share more of my wants and needs, communicate more boundaries, and create more connection.
And perhaps one of the biggest wins of all: it made it possible for me attract the love of my life.
I’d seen a gorgeous woman on the dance floor, and embraced the tension of approaching her for a dance. We shared a 40-minute dance that was at times playful, sensual, intimate, and sexy before we even had a conversation. A strong tension muscle gave me the courage to ask for a kiss — it was fireworks — and to tell her afterwards, “I’m attracted to you. I’d love to take you out on a date some time.”
I wouldn't have been able to marry my wife, create a purpose business, or travel the world as a nomad — had I not learned to step into tension.
Thanks to Daniel Rojas, Akiko Mega, Charlotte Grysolle, Steven Klimek, and Candace Sauve for reading early drafts of this post.