September 2015

Be Focused

Consciously Choose Your Path

The word focus comes from Latin, meaning hearth or fireplace. This makes sense in that the hearth was the focal point of a home. Though focus has several different uses, we're using it to mean directing or concentrating one's attention or efforts.

In conversation, this translates into staying with the topic at hand. Rather than maintaining a single focus, staying focused in a conversation involves adaptability and flexibility. I like what Dwight D. Eisenhower is quoted as saying: “Focus is nothing, focusing is everything.”

The nature of the mind is to create narratives, to make sense of what is going on. As such, ideas are generated freely and they flow in and out at warp speed. However, if we were to follow our thoughts as they emerge, our conversations would go all over the place, be extremely difficult to follow, and probably fail to arrive at any conclusion or resolution. The conscious act of choosing which thoughts and feelings to follow and which to ignore allows us to stay on a path during a conversation and arrive at a destination.

If we choose a focus and attempt to stick with it regardless of what emerges, our conversations become staid and rigid. However, our conversations become lively and engaged when we start with the end in mind and are focusing on that which will guide us to the desired end, such as alignment, resolution, understanding, greater trust, or other such things.

This month, we'll look at how focusing supports healthy discourse and moves a conversation forward and toward resolution.

Let's look in on Sally and Donna to explore how each use focusing in their conversations.


Sally has just revealed the truth about why she wants to leave the company to her boss, Tom.

Tom responds with compassion and empathy. When he suggests that she might want to postpone her departure and take some leadership courses, Sally becomes irate, feeling as if Tom is blaming her for the problems she's facing. Tom asks Sally if she wants to hear what his intention is in suggesting the courses.

“I'm not sure that I do want to hear,” retorts Sally. “I just don't think you understand or appreciate me. If you did, you wouldn't suggest some leadership course. I know that I'm not the cause of the problems, so there's no point in going to some class where some teacher tells me how I should communicate better or how I could motivate people. I've been there, done that, and I've had my fill of it, thank you very much. I know I shouldn't have told you what's really going on.” Sally shuts her mouth and practically glares at Tom.

“Okay then,” Tom responds. “I won't talk about the courses we offer. It's a shame, though. I really do think you might appreciate learning a very different approach than you've ever experienced. I know that I was very surprised, and I've had tons of leadership classes throughout my career.”

“I really don't understand you,” Sally says, continuing to glare at Tom. “How can you sit there and speak so calmly when I'm telling you that you're wrong for blaming me? I just don't get you.”

Tom waits patiently while Sally shakes her head, shrugs her shoulders, and then looks at him again.

“What is it with you, anyway?” Sally demands. “Why are you being so nice with me? I'm quitting, telling you your employees are nuts, and you're nice to me. This is even weirder than I thought.”

“Yes, I imagine that it seems like that” Tom says, smiling and nodding his head. “I can tell you that I wouldn't be like this had I not taken the leadership classes here. I'm sure I would have felt insulted and found a way to end the conversation quickly, doing everything possible to get out of an uncomfortable situation. I would have been angry at you and quite judgmental. However, now I'm able to sit with my own experience, let you have yours, and not think or feel insulted that your experience is different than mine. I am not taking what you say personally, though I am listening for what I can learn from you. I know that your perceptions have validity, that they came from your experience, and that they seem absolutely legitimate to you. Regardless of whether or not you stay here, the more I understand how you have made sense of your experience here, the more I can help create a great company.”

Sally is working hard to follow Tom. Her glare diminishes. She cocks her head and says, “I really don't understand you at all. What is all this mumbo jumbo? It really sounds crazy to me. Maybe it's just time for me to say goodbye and leave.”

“Perhaps,” Tom says, raising his eyebrows and nodding at the same time. “Or maybe you would be open to speaking with one of your peers in another division who came in around the same time you did? Or would you like more time to reconsider your decision?”

“I don't think that speaking with anyone or taking any more time will change my opinion,” Sally says, sighing. “I think it better that I leave.”

“Okay then,” Tom responds. “But if I were able to arrange for you to speak with someone now, would you?” Sally nods as if she is a small child obeying her parent.

“Would you like to say goodbye to your team and your peers?” Tom asks. “I'm certain that they would welcome the opportunity to receive feedback about how their behavior affected you.”

“No way. That sounds horrible. I can't think of a more unpleasant situation. I think not.” Sally stands up, picks up her purse, and goes to the door. She turns, looks at Tom and says, “You really are something. Thank you for your kindness. I don't know how you do it, but people really like you and the company is doing well. So you must be doing something right even though I don't get it. Anyway, thanks.”

“So you prefer that I tell your team this morning that you have decided to leave?” Tom asks. Sally nods in agreement and moves toward the door.

“I'll walk you out,” Tom says, standing up. They both walk out of his office.

Meanwhile....

Donna is moving forward with the ad hoc group that was assembled to create a presentation for senior management at headquarters. She and her colleagues, with her boss Lorin's support, decide to push back on the idea that all teams should be ready to work virtually in the next 10 years. Donna volunteers to be the point person to head the ad hoc team.

After chatting with colleagues, Donna returns to her office. She checks her voice messages first. She finds out that her daughter, Katie, became ill at school and her husband, Darren, picked her up and took her home. Darren wants to know if Donna will be able to leave work early to tend to Katie since he has an important meeting scheduled that he wants to attend. Donna calls Darren and the two of them negotiate childcare issues. Donna agrees to leave work in the mid-afternoon unless her mom is free.

With that settled, Donna begins to read emails. There are several emails regarding WING, the project that had gone off track. As she reads, she finds that they are discovering more problems. She's aware that she and Emily, the Project Manager, have not spoken for several days. She's feeling concerned that Emily is not asking for help when she needs it.

Donna begins to write an email to Emily to set up time to speak together when a text comes in from Tom Biente with an SOS. He wants her to meet with the employee who Donna had spoken about previously, immediately, if possible. Donna texts him back saying yes, she can. Tom texts back with meet us in the lobby ASAP.

Donna leaves her office and, on the way to the lobby, pokes her head in Emily's office. Emily looks up.

“I know you've seen the emails,” Emily says. “I'm looking forward to speaking with you.”

“Great,” Donna answers. “I'm not sure how long the meeting I'm heading to will be, but I'll stop by when I'm done. We'll get WING back on track. You'll see.” Donna exits and moves quickly down the hall to the elevator. She wonders who this woman Sally is, what the urgency is, and how she can help.

Donna arrives in the lobby and sees Tom, who she has only met briefly, standing with a woman who she remembers seeing in the cafeteria. She is beautifully dressed, yet she looks very unhappy. She also looks very tense. Donna remembers her because the interaction between this woman and the person at the cafeteria register was so memorable—in a negative way. She was surprised at how rude this woman was.

Donna walks up to Tom and extends her hand in greeting. “Hi Tom. It's nice to see you again.”

“Yes,” Tom replies. “Thanks for meeting us on such quick notice. Donna, this is Sally, an employee who started at about the same time you did. Her experience, however, has been quite different than yours. I'm wondering if the two of you might chat together for a few minutes. I have a meeting I have to run to.” Tom turns to Donna and says, “Thanks. Let me know when you're finished.” Then he looks at Sally and says, “Let me know if there's anything I can do for you. I hope all goes well.”

With that, Tom leaves and the two women look at each other.


Let's examine how each of these characters uses focus or focusing in their conversations.

Sally is emotionally distraught. Though her focus shifts between her reactions to Tom and to the workplace, her feelings, and her judgments, she maintains her position and focus of leaving the company. She actually has a hard time focusing on what Tom says because she is so flooded with fear and emotion. Sally's focus is to get out of this place alive.

Donna faces a multitude of stimuli in a short period of time and is able to focus on each situation as it arises. Rather than feeling overwhelmed, she focuses on the person and the context with her full attention. It almost seems that she is focusing on something bigger than the individual incidents, as if she has her eye on navigating the waters as the waves crest and break. She seems to be riding the waves, focusing on what is necessary as the environment changes.

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