The Saving Grace of the Third Thing

One of the things I really enjoy about working with business leaders and organizations is the ability to grow by focusing on something outside oneself.

As a therapist, my focus was internal and naturally, always directed towards my clients. As we talked, we focused on the emerging stories, and intensely on each other. In that sacred space, much about relating in general is revealed. It is a binary process.

In my work with businesses, our focus is on growing the initiative. Even if I am meeting with a client face-to-face, discussing his or her behavior, the stance is as if we are side-by-side, facing outward towards the mission or business, tracking what is being set into motion. There is still personal growth, but somehow it’s all way less personal. It occurs in the service of growing something else: The third thing.

This third thing creates a triangle: The two of us partnering to develop something outside ourselves. Triangles are incredibly stable. (Can you believe those pyramids have lasted THIS many years???)

The triangle is the ideal geometric configuration of parents towards children — two standing side-by-side, focused on the task of raising the other(s). Single parents often triangulate with grandparents or other caregiving figures to create a stable environment for their children. Disfunction is obvious when a parent and child make up the stable ends of the triangle.

In relationships without children, finding a third thing — like a shared hobby or vision — is incredibly useful in getting out of the weeds. In early dating, when we rush into romantic dinners, all there is to focus on across the table is the other person. That binary set up leaves each party vulnerable to pressure and weakens the task of gathering valuable information about the other.

By choosing activities that place the focus on a third thing, you can learn a great deal about a person. How a potential partner responds to a painting, or an activity they’ve never tried, will tell you as much or more about who they are than their stated answer to a personal question.

When you feel trapped inside your head with your thoughts and feelings, polarized between the big and small self, searching for the outcomes you wish to create will guide you to a third focal point and create perspective. Desired outcomes force you to own your impact. 

The third thing offers us space and perspective when the inner work has come to a momentary standstill. 

10 responses to “The Saving Grace of the Third Thing”

  1. Ric says:

    i’ve often used this idea of a third thing in art. for instance, if, while drawing, you focus on some other object in the room – say, a glass-and while drawing, you focus on making the glass levitate; you often find that your focus on the drawing is even greater. it’s difficult to describe, but it helps you to get into another place.

    • Blair Glaser says:

      Brilliant. Thanks, Ric.

    • Ric, That’s interesting about making the glass levitate! How exactly do you do that? First I think what came to me was the glass in a window and I was wondering how that would work. But now I think you are referencing a drinking glass…So it sounds like you are imagining the drinking glass hovering above the table or moving instead of just sitting still … seems very cool.

      • Ric Dragon says:

        Exactly. I´ve also got a whole bunch of other tricks – eg, imaging the body filling the room, or being five feet away… all these mental imaginings short-circuit the mind from all the chatter that might go on, like is this drawing any good, etc.

        • How fun! Distractions that actually keep you focused…the irony!!! 🙂 Yes, sometimes some of the mental chatter can really get in the way, so that’s a splendid idea.

  2. Hello Blair! Love your idea of the ‘side-by-side’. I think that can play into coach-player and teacher-student relationships, where it may be the case that at one point or the other, we are riding the see-saw and one party is the heavyweight in a certain area and the other defers … but then there’s a time when we are riding back and forth and we are exploring together. Also, we can see it in other relationships where there is a partnership or team of people caring for someone who is vulnerable, whether an older member of the family or someone facing a health or other life challenge. Working alongside another person can be challenging, but in a healthy co-caring situation, the teamwork can balance out the responsibilities to avoid burnout. Also, your point about the ‘third thing’ is wonderful. It immediately reminded me of the quote about how we learn a lot through ‘play’ … I had to look up the quote and here it is … You probably know it or will remember it: “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” –Plato And in a situation where there are two people, perhaps the third thing can be the relationship between the two…it might not be the thing of focus especially when the reason the relationship comes into being is because one person seeks a particular sort of support from the other in order to relate to other situations and people outside a therapeutic context. But it’s been something I’ve been thinking about…the relationship becomes the thing we have in common…it may seem obvious, but even if it is for one minute or for many hours over the course of months, it’s what we are nurturing. For a physical therapist, there’s can be a focus on the other person, but the third thing is to get the other person’s shoulder to move freely…it’s something desired by both parties and which requires joint participation. For someone focused on inner work, perhaps it’s about applying it in session — I got the sense that Gestalt or Gestalt-inspired therapy incorporates some of that? Anyway, thank you for sharing and for this opportunity to explore these ideas here in this forum with you!

    • Blair Glaser says:

      Thanks for such a thorough response, Manisha! There is so much rich stuff you brought up to respond to, but let me start with this: I have found, contrary to popular belief, that using the relationship between two people as the third thing itself becomes very tricky. It tends to take over the whole relationship, which in many, but not all cases, ends up being destructive. I write about the pros and cons of using the relationship as your third thing here (
      Also, two people who are in a relationship automatically have the connection in common. I love Martin Buber’s thinking on the You, Me and Us.
      My preferred concept of using a third thing in relationships is vision. A vision of a relationship is a small difference from the relationship itself, but it can be communicated and negotiated more freely precisely because it is not internal. I realize this all seems very heady, but I hope it makes sense and can be of use!

      • Hi Blair!
        Thank you for your response! Perhaps what I was thinking of or attempting to convey aligns more closely with your notion of the ‘vision’. Last spring — about a year ago — my family took a large piece of construction paper and randomly shared what we wanted … and we circled things multiple times if it was something that more than one person wanted … this poster ended up being filled with desires ranging from those which were considered more material to those that might be considered more spiritual. It was an unexpectedly fascinating, fun, and revealing experience. Beyond serving to create a new realm of possibility for us, that experience also serves as a bedrock when things go awry — we can remember why we are relating to each other and that we deeply value that relating.

        I checked out your article, and I think it is wonderful — and actually critical — to question and explore models. Even to observe that a model or practice appears to have arisen is valuable in and of itself, and I love what you shared there in terms of your observations since indeed it seems to be the case that so many people might be living and possibly seeking healing in the confines of a defined committed relationship as opposed to living freely in the undefined where perhaps there may be nothing more than a shared commitment to truth.

        So I think I meant to convey something different from what you may have inferred. I wasn’t thinking so much about a relationship in which we refer to another person by virtue of whatever role we have assigned to them in our lives, but here I’m thinking about a broader relating between any two sentient beings and, in this case, human beings … and, as such, a relationship in which words can both serve to clarify and sometimes also to confuse! 🙂

        With regard to “relationship” in my comment above, I’m speaking of something incredibly immediate…even such as the relationship that you and I have at this moment and through this exchange. As I’m writing, I’m thinking: How can I convey my deep appreciation for this exchange with Blair? How can I express in words my sentiment when words feel so limiting? How can I ensure that I’m respectful even if my view or terminology differs in some ways? So in this way, the nature of the relating becomes more the focus as opposed to the focus being either of the parties to the exchange…the nature of the relating would even take second place to that which is being related, i.e., the views/perspectives of each. For this reason, I think that any relationship between two people is already more than binary —hence the example of the PT and patient with shoulder injury — and I think it can be the same between any therapist and client/patient.

        In this sense, I think that the third thing — and I love how you referenced it as the saving grace — is always available to us in any relationship between two people. I looked up your reference to Martin Buber, and I sense (in a nutshell) that in his work the third thing is acknowledged in the form of God/what God represents and I agree that can also be a beautiful way of expressing this sort of idea. As you say, the connection is automatically there, but it is not clear to me that everyone is aware of it or nurtures or values it similarly. When considering a subject-object relationship in consciousness, there is the seer, the seeing, and the seen. So there would be someone relating something, the relating itself, and the person on the receiving end of that relating. The relating is almost like a dance of perceptions…and this was something that came up for me recently in exchange with a friend who is a dancer. The two persons may not even realize at first that they are in something together. We think we are in two different bodies, yet really we are moving together in one body, so to speak…and our common body is the conversation we’re having, it’s our vehicle, our feet, our hands, our eyes, and ears, so we already share something in common and we want to [or want to feel motivated to] take good care of our common body, our conversation, our connection. I’ve discovered that when I can express myself spontaneously and/or be in the presence of someone whose expression is spontaneous and real, things just feel ‘right’ and we experience a sense of wholeness. I can’t help but feel that sense of wholeness is the third thing — the saving grace — that’s available to us if we are open to receiving it. Does that make any sense? For all I know, the words may well be getting in the way! In any case, thank you, as always, for the exchange!

        • Blair Glaser says:

          Yes it makes sense! What a gift of a response, always grateful to hear from you and learn from the way you see things. The exercise with your family is golden! What a wonderful way to be known, to work together, to find the space to take everyone’s needs and dreams into account.
          You are a rich philosopher, very generous. And I am grateful for getting to know, play and exchange with you here and on the newsletter. Letting the poetry of our relating and the way you put it play on throughout the day.
          THANK YOU!

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