I’m going to share with you a powerful exercise that you can use to create a huge mental shift around any relationship in your life, with your spouse, a coworker or boss, or a friend. It’s called ‘Person of Focus’.
I worked through this exercise just the other day, with my wife Monique as the person of focus, and it enabled me to make a total reset on my attitude around some things. We’ve undergone a bunch of transitions in our lives and our relationship over the past few months, involving getting married and moving in together finally after dating for 3 years, and then moving to and adjusting to life in a foreign country.
A result of these transitions and the little stresses associated with them is that some sharp edges in my personality have resurfaced. I really thought that I’d polished these off over the past few years, with the self-coaching and mindfulness work that I’ve been doing. And indeed I’ve made progress. I used to be as rough as a rocky section of the Appalachian Trail. It turns out that I'm not as smooth as I thought - I’m more like a broken-up sidewalk in Maputo Mozambique than the slick concrete in my garage that I pictured myself to be.
I’ve found myself feeling irritation in some of our interactions, and neither of us likes the quick sharp edge that shows up in my voice as I express my opinions. There is a self-righteousness behind that edge that says ‘what’s wrong with you’, and of course this is a terrible foundation for having a good time with someone.
There are essentially just 2 steps that create friction and discontent in a relationship.
1. You notice that there are some differences between you and the other person.
2. You decide that the existence of these differences is a problem.
If you keep repeating these steps, the thought ‘there is a problem’ settles in and becomes a belief, and thereafter your brain is constantly on the lookout for evidence to confirm the belief. You notice more and more differences, which you’re now committed to labeling as problems, and if you keep this up long enough you have a ‘dysfunctional relationship'.
The Person of Focus exercise offers you deep insight into where you’re seeing differences and labeling them as problems. And it helps you see that in fact some things you’re perceiving as differences actually aren’t. For example, control issues often have a bilateral component – you’re both trying to do the same thing to each other. And finally it lets you find and create evidence for the belief that ‘this relationship is good’. When you have that belief, your brain will constantly be looking for evidence to confirm it.
Without further ado, here is the Person of Focus Exercise. And don’t try to do it in your head, you have to actually write the stuff out, on paper or the computer. I hope you'll really dig in and complete the entire thing thoroughly - you'll get out of it what you put in, and I promise that it's worth it.
Judge this person. Don’t hold back. Let all the “ugly” judgments out of your head. Don’t edit yourself or try to be appropriate or kind. Get it all out.
Now, go back through the list and notice how many of these judgments also apply to you. Circle those that are true about you. Notice that most judgments of others are projections we have of ourselves.
What are your expectations of that person? What do you want that person to do, and why? Let yourself go to a perfect world where they do exactly what you want them to do. Be specific, and allow yourself to be outrageous.
What you would be thinking and feeling if they did all these things perfectly? Notice that you can think and feel these things anyway, regardless of whether they do the things. You get to think whatever you want.
Allow that person to be who they are meant to be, without your trying to control them. Who is that person? What do they do? How do they act? What are they consistent about?
Why do you imagine that person does these things and is this way? What thoughts do you imagine drive that person’s actions?
Do you love this person unconditionally? Do you want to? Why or why not? Make a note below of when you do love them and when you try to withhold love. Just know that their lovability is 100%, so what’s your excuse when you don’t love them? How does it feel when you withhold love?
How do you show up in this relationship? Do you show up knowing that YOUR own lovability is 100%? Do you try to get them to love you more for your sake? How? Does it work? Why or why not?
Who do you want to be in this relationship? In other words, what kind of employee, spouse, sibling, or friend do you want to be? Make sure you think about this separately from the other person’s behavior—don’t let that determine who you are. Decide who you want to be. Take some time to write it all out.
If your Person of Focus is someone that you want to be in love with (romantically or otherwise), write an “I’ve been meaning to tell you” letter below. This is a letter you can send or not send. Just writing it feels amazing.
I've been meaning to tell you ...
I admire you for ...
I'm thankful for ...
I remember when ...
You have shown me how ...
You told me ...
I love you because ...