Am I Perfectly Clear?
My youngest daughter was about four years old and playing outside with a friend. They were into a little mischief playing in an area of the yard that was off limits. In my stern mother voice I clarified the rules again and then asked, “Am I perfectly clear?” (I am not even sure where I picked up that expression but I seem to have used it a great deal in my mothering.)
Neither girl spoke instead staring up at me, frozen, with eyes big as saucers. I asked again, this time a little slower, enunciating each word, “Am…I…perfectly…clear?”
No answer. I began to get annoyed. My instructions were simple. You can’t play in this area. These were too really bright little girls who had heard these instructions before yet they were standing in front of me like little baby deer in headlights.
“Annie, why aren’t you answering me?” Tears of frustration began to well up in my daughter’s eyes. She began to form words with her slightly trembling lips, “But…I don’t know”.
“You don’t know? We’ve talked about this several times. This woodpile could topple over and hurt you. It isn’t a safe area to play”.
“I know that. I don’t know if you are perfectly clear. (sob sob) You keep asking me and I don’t know what that is”.
That moment has been etched in my brain for 23 years. I remember her dirty white turtleneck with the ruffled collar and tiny flowers. I remember her yellowed, cuffed shorts. We were standing by the maple tree that was trimmed too much and looked awkward with its oversized trunk and tiny branches. The warm spring weather and ground wet with winter thaw. But most of all I remember the light coming on in my awareness as I realized the irony of “perfectly clear”.
My super-smart little girl did know that she wasn’t supposed to playing in that area. She and her partner in crime knew they were “caught”. But they had no idea if I was “perfectly clear” because they didn’t know what that meant. They had no context for it. And that caused them to freeze in their tracks. Thankfully she came into this world with the ability to use one of my favorite tools…asking for clarification of things she doesn’t understand.
So, what does this have to do with anything? Let’s break it down. Have you ever been going along, pushing the envelope, stepping outside your comfort zone and bam! You get caught. Perhaps your boss calls you on shortcutting the step you can’t stand doing. Or maybe you were doing a little spontaneous happy dance in your cubby thinking no one was around. Or perhaps, like Annie and her friend, you were edging closer to playing where others think it is unsafe.
In the moment we are caught, we feel vulnerable and our adrenal gland begins kicking out adrenaline and telling our body to prepare to flee or fight. When that happens, literally, the side of our brain that deals with cognitive processing starts receiving less oxygenated blood and the side of our brain that triggers large muscles to react gets more. Why? So we are able to stop wasting time analyzing and start fighting or moving to protect ourselves. In the day of the saber tooth tiger wanting to eat you and your baby, this was helpful. Today, when survival depends on creating connections and relationships, not so much.
My little Annie (married, buying a house and pregnant with my first grandchild and still clarifying) was born with an incredibly valuable skill. Demanding clarification of what she does not understand. For most of us, in the moment we are caught, our fight or flight kicks in, and the last thing we do is reveal what we don’t understand. Naturally we avoid showing vulnerability when we are in fight or flight mode. But my child was willing and able to and not because I taught her. Deep down in her knowing she understood that being vulnerable, asking for clarity and standing in that space was the best way to create a connection with me and deescalate.
When she stated her truth, I have to admit I became disarmed. As the light bulb came on I realized that she understood that she can’t play in that area but was confounded by “perfectly clear”. I started laughing. Cracking up actually. At myself, at them and at the irony of the situation. In asking if I was clear I was actually being less clear. Their little faces lit up (mirror neurons) and they started giggling too. Suddenly we were all giggling and laughing. We didn’t have any real idea what the other was laughing about, but it didn’t matter. The stress release and the happiness sure felt a lot better than the fight or flight energy.
I then had the opportunity to explain what I meant by perfectly clear (and to take a look at it for myself…what the heck did I mean?).
My point, in case this is not perfectly clear to you, is that in the moment when we are caught, embarrassed, guilty or feeling a little shame, the simplest way to deescalate our selves and the other person to take a breath, be vulnerable and ask a clarifying question. Help me understand. Can you say more? Could you say it another way to see if I can understand better? I’m not quite sure I understand. Please give me an example?
Being vulnerable when fight or flight is triggered is one of the hardest practices. At its simplest, it is intentionally using the act of taking a breath to create space between our reaction (defending ourselves, attacking the other person or storming off) and responding (being okay with our vulnerability in the moment).
So the next time you feel yourself “caught”, try these three steps:
A. Calm yourself and create space by taking a few breaths (how many of you faithful readers saw that coming?) B. Acknowledge that you are a feeling vulnerable. Vulnerability builds connection. Defensiveness inhibits connection. C. Disarm by asking for clarification if you are unclear. D. Remember to giggle.
Am I perfectly clear?
Beth Wonson is a speaker, executive coach and business consultant. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn. To find out how you can bring Beth to speak to your group or organization, email firstname.lastname@example.org.