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Faith WoodI’m often fascinated by how rigidly some folks cling to the familiar, especially when it comes to being asked to do something novel. Not something dangerous – just unfamiliar.

In my former career, this came up a lot, with leaders standing up in meetings and asking for “out-of-the-box thinkers.” Then they would point directly at me and say: “Except for you, Faith, stay quiet inside that box.”

In truth, I never saw the box or understood the need to stay within it.

However, my superiors would tell me that my ideas could cause all kinds of conflict if not positioned more thoughtfully.

It appears my “out of the box” thinking style has stirred things up again. In my defence, I had no idea it would create such turmoil.

I like shaking things up a bit – especially when no one can get hurt in the process. Maybe your pride or your ego, but not your physical well-being.

What did I do?  

I challenged the norms for an upcoming party. I asked club members to consider dressing in their best PJs (or onesies – their choice).

Yep, some of you are laughing. Others are thinking, “Heck no!” But imagine how much more fun you could have at a meeting if you could come in your flannels and slippers!

I believe in variety and am frequently bored by things that are too familiar.

If we always stuck to tried and true, we would be writing at desks with quills and ink by the light of a candle. We would heat our homes only with wood and not adjustable thermostats. We would be bathing once a week after heating water on the wood stove. Worse, we would be doing laundry by hand – imagine how many hours in your day would be lost to this arduous task.

I had no idea how oppositional some folks would be to a simple shift in protocol.

What scares us so much about doing something new? Is it the lack of predictability in the unknown, or is there something else that stirs up so much conflict and unrest inside us?

Perhaps people fear what they don’t understand or can’t conceptualize. Even when they understand what the new thing in their life is supposed to do, there’s sometimes the fear of ‘what if?’

What if it doesn’t work? What if it all goes wrong? What if I fail? What if the new thing is worse than the old thing?

Or, in the case of my proposed event: What if I’m completely and wholly embarrassed?

Regardless of the level of risk involved in an idea, people are much more prepared to live with what they already know (expect) and understand than risk change and the unknown, even when the idea is not overtly dangerous.

Our unconscious mind is weighing up risks all the time, and until the risks of staying with what is known are too high, we typically won’t accept or endorse a novel concept.

After hearing the responses to my party proposal, I was reminded of just how powerfully fear can hijack one’s thoughts and behaviours.

Heading through security at the airport a while ago, an individual in front of me was having their bag inspected for any illegal drug paraphernalia.

During the search, one of the drug officers approached with his sniffer dog. The security guard inspecting the bag had an instant and flaming phobic reaction to the dog. She screamed, burst into tears and hid behind other colleagues. She was babbling incoherently and was terrified out of her senses.

It didn’t matter that the dog was highly trained and wearing a muzzle and lead. As far as she was concerned, the dog was a huge threat to her safety and the only sensible thing she could think to do was to get away as quickly as possible. 

So if you were asked to wear PJs to a party, how would you react? Would you leap back and lash out against the perceived threat to your safety or pause, reflect and embrace the opportunity to stretch your comfort zone?

Faith Wood is a novelist and professional speaker who focuses on helping groups and individuals navigate conflict, shift perceptions and improve communications. For interview requests, click here.

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