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You Can't Control the Situation, But You Can Control Your Focus

“The only thing we have control over is our breath and what we look at.” said my yoga teacher, Susan Fain, as we were in tree pose, a balancing posture where one is challenged to stay upright while standing on one foot and stretching one’s arms toward the sky. There is typically a lot of wobbling and shaking and in order to keep one’s balance, we breathe deeply and rhythmically and choose a focal point.

 When you are in a tough position or a situation that is shaky or challenging, the same applies. The only thing you have control over is your breath and what you look at or focus on.

Studies have shown that taking a few deep, intentional breaths brings our bodies and minds out of fight or flight mode, where we are simply scanning for threats, and allows us, instead, to think more strategically and creatively. Taking a few deep breaths, in essence, tricks our body into thinking that everything is okay, even if it isn’t.  

What I’d like to take some time with, is “what you look at” or, what you’re focusing on. Think back to the last tough situation you were in. What were you focusing on and what impact did that have on the situation? Whatever we choose to focus on (whether negative or positive), our brain will look for ways to validate it, bringing further momentum to that belief, thought or story. Why not use it to our advantage?

How?
It starts with what you just did, simply noticing. Where is your focus currently? Is it serving you or the situation? Next, you make a choice. Is that the focus that you want to stick with or is there something else that you could choose to focus on instead? Below are some examples to get you started.

  • Are you focused on the problem or the solution?

  • Are you focused on everything that annoys you about the person you are in conflict with or the one thing that you could appreciate about them and what they bring to the table?

  • Are you focused on saving your own skin, or actively supporting your team in order to make them look good and help them to succeed?

  • Are you focused on all that is wrong with an idea that someone has suggested or on how it might work?

  • Are you seeing the person in front of you, or on the other end of that email as an obstacle or as a person trying to do the best job they can?

  • Are you focused on an inevitable negative outcome or the possibilities?

  • Are you focused on what went wrong in the past or what might go wrong in the future, or simply on attending to what is happening in the present?

Yes, it is a good idea to consider the consequences of a situation and how you got there, but does it help to continue to focus on it?

In the movie Bridge of Spies, there is a great scene where Tom Hank’s character, James Donovan, shares with the accused Rudolf Abel, played by Mark Rylance, that most would prefer to see him in the electric chair. Rudolf simply sits calmly and continues to listen. James Donovan says, “You don’t seem alarmed.” Rudolf replies, “Would it help?”

This is not to say that we need to go through life with rose colored glasses, but there is a benefit to intentionally choosing to focus on something other than doom, gloom and negativity. Studies have also shown that those who choose to focus on the positive are more creative and resilient, bouncing back from challenges and failures more quickly.  

Del Close, the father of contemporary improv suggested, “If we treat others as if we are geniuses, poets and artists, we have a better chance of becoming that on stage.” What if your focus and expectation was always that you and your team have the ability, creativity and knowledge to get through whatever you are facing?

The next time you find yourself in a shaky, unnerving or challenging situation, in invite you to take control of your breath, notice what you’re currently focusing on and choose to “look at” something different.