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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.

The Moment Before - 5 ways to keep your last conversation from ruining your current conversation

The moment before. It’s a concept that we use in acting, where we imagine what JUST happened to our character (before they made their entrance onstage) to inform the way they interact in the scene.

Let’s say I’m in a scene where two co-workers are discussing their next big project. Applying this technique, I imagine the possible “moment before” for this character.  Did I just get back from a lunch with my very best friend? Or did I just have a meeting with my boss, telling me that a project I worked on for months has been canceled? Depending on which choice I make as an artist, will have a huge impact on how the scene goes. Lunch with a friend? I’ll be open, bringing a feeling of excitement and collaboration to the scene. Email from my boss? The conversation will likely be riddled with defensiveness and stress.  

It is these subtleties that allow two different actors to interpret and play a role in two completely different ways.

How does this apply to you?

We use this technique in acting, because it reflects human behavior. Emotions and thoughts from your “moment before” naturally carry over to your next conversation, impacting the way you think, feel and act.

With this understanding, how can we get ourselves back to neutral so that we can bring our best selves to our next interaction?

Here are a few tips:

  1. Notice first, how are you feeling? By simply noticing that we’re feeling stressed or fearful, can help to take away some of that negative feeling’s power over you.

  2. If you don’t have time, DON’T CHECK YOUR PHONE. Simply glancing at our phone and seeing the subject line of an email can elicit an emotional response, raising stress levels, making us less able to take in new information in a productive way. If you don’t have time to process that information before your next interaction, leave it in your pocket.

  3. Take a breath. Deep breathing can help to calm our system and lower levels of cortisol (the stress hormone), bringing us back to a more neutral state.

  4. Create a mantra, a simple phrase that will bring you back to a positive place.

  5. Think of someone or something that you are thankful for. Experiencing gratitude helps you to feel more relaxed, resilient and optimistic. What a gift to bring to your next conversation!

Each conversation carries some kind of importance, because all people deserve to be treated with respect, not as the recipient of residual emotions from the situation that you just came from. This is especially important for conversations when you are giving or receiving feedback, delivering tough news or conversing with a customer or client. Bringing your best self, in these instances, may have a direct impact on your job, organization, family or community.

Try it out!

Start small, when you’re at the grocery store, notice if you got frustrated because they moved your favorite creamer. Try one of the tactics above and see if you can get yourself back to neutral before you get to the checkout and see how your interaction with the cashier goes. The way you connect with them could change their day.

Follow the Fear - how one word can make all the difference

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of speaking at the 2018 International TWA Conference in Ontario, Canada. The focus of my talk was, “Follow the fear,” Which is a concept that comes from improvisation, referring to our tendencies to second-guess our ideas and shut ourselves down, before we give that idea a chance to breathe. The concept of “Follow the fear,” encourages us to step into what it is that only we have to offer.

We understand that that the more afraid we are, the more important and brilliant those ideas are, and the more necessary it is to share those ideas or things that you feel need to be called out.

During the talk, I used one of my favorite exercises, One Word Story. It’s pretty self-explanatory, a group of people stand in a circle and tell a story together, one word at a time. It gives participants a chance to practice simply saying the first thing that comes to mind, without judging it. We also notice our natural tendencies to want to have the entire thing planned out ourselves, and spend time thinking about what we’re going to say, rather than being present and listening to our teammates.

The best part is leveraging the creativity of the entire group and creating something together, that we wouldn’t have come up with on our own.

While discussing these insights, a participant made another wonderful point. She said, “If any one of us weren’t here, the story would have been completely different.”

Yes! I wanted to cheer and jump up and down, but that would have been inappropriate.

Your unique insight, creativity and expertise is invaluable.

What are you holding back? Where are you second guessing yourself or keeping quiet because you don’t have every detail figured out yet? How could contributing your “one word” drastically change the story of your organization or your community?

I encourage you to “Follow the fear” and see where your “one word” takes you. I’d love to hear how it goes!

Support Your Competition, Enhance Your Culture


I recently competed in my first tug of war competition. I was in the Adirondacks, for a bachelorette weekend, which also happened to be the Tupper Lake Woodsmen’s Days. We were outsiders and showed up completely unprepared (most of us were wearing sandals), but with all the gusto in the world, we registered to compete in the tug of war competition.

Immediately upon signing up, a woman from a competing team came up to us, giving us all the tips we could handle, strategy, what order to line up in and how our own extra team members could support us best. We’d be competing against the reigning champion for the past 10 years, Team Rope Burn, and she wanted to help us have the best chance possible to succeed. It was time, we were pumped up and also fully ready to fall face first in the dirt.

What happened next was incredible, not only did we have our “screamers” (those teammates whose job is to coach from the side), but this much more experienced team rallied around us as well. The energy of our own team putting in our all, plus the unexpected full support of our competition, cheering, coaching and well, screaming, was incredible. We didn’t win, but we did get third place and made some new friends!

So what does this have to do with culture? I’ve observed in many organizations, cultures where teams and departments not only work in silos, but see each other as competition and sometimes as go as far as describing them as the enemy, again, this is within the same company!

Is there a team or department within your organization that you see as competition? Or simply a department that does nothing for you? What if you took the same approach as this competitive team took with us? What can you do to cheer them on? Is there information that you have, that they could really use, but perhaps it’s being withheld because of a spoken or unspoken rivalry? What skills or insight does your team have that they could use? What would happen if you took the first steps to bridge that gap and really began to support one another?

Another twist, is to think about the newbie. The one who doesn’t have a clue as to what they’re supposed to be doing and doesn’t seem to deserve to be there. How did they even GET this job? Instead of watching them flounder or butting heads with them because they have a different approach, apply the same principles. Give them all the support wisdom you’ve got, right from the beginning. Don’t waste a minute, you have something truly valuable to give.

If you have trouble getting past the rivalry or perception that you’ve become so accustomed to, ask yourself, “What is the overarching goal that we’re both trying to work toward and how can we help each other out?” This takes the focus off of the friction between you and that person or team and puts it on something greater, that you can both get excited about.

In improv, we call this concept simply, “Make each other look good.” Imagine what you could accomplish if everyone in your organization followed this approach?

Let’s get a little dirty and make each other look good.