Am I Being Perfectly Clear?

Am I being perfectly clear? The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. ~George Bernard Shaw

My daughter was about four years old and playing outside with a friend. They were into a little mischief 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. Both looked up at me, frozen, with eyes as 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. No playing in this area. These were two 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 formed words with her slightly trembling lips, “But…I don’t know,” she stammered.

“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”—she sobbed a little—“You keep asking me, and I don’t know what that is.”

I’ve written about this exchange before because this moment has been etched in my brain for 25 years. I remember everything about it: her dirty white turtleneck shirt with the ruffled collar and tiny flowers; her yellow, cuffed shorts; her standing by the odd little maple tree that had been pruned too much with its over-sized trunk and tiny branches. It was a warm spring day, and the ground was squishy with winter thaw. But most of all I remember the light shined into my awareness as I realized the irony of “perfectly clear.”

My super smart little girl did know that she wasn’t supposed to be 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. She is the one who taught me how to do that.

I see people missing the opportunity to clarify in my consulting work. The result is a lost opportunity for deeper understanding, connection, growth, and even additional alternatives or ideas! Instead of asking for questions like, “Can you say more about that?” or “What does that look like to you?” or even acknowledging “I’m not sure what you mean,” like Annie did, they just nod and walk away, often creating their own story or drawing their own conclusion.

I was facilitating a team development workshop when a valued employee shared in front of the group that he had been considering resigning because his boss just hadn’t been engaging in the same way. The employee was certain that the boss had decided he didn’t respect his work any longer and it was best if he left. I happened to know how the boss thinks of him because he’d shared it with me. The employee created a story that was untrue.

I also know why the boss was distracted, and it had nothing to do with work. The boss was seated right next to the employee at the workshop but the employee chose to make the statement to me, not to his boss. I see this all the time.

I asked him if there was a question he’d like to ask his boss, right here and right now. The room fell silent. The employee mustered all his courage and said, “I have the feeling you aren’t as happy with me as you used to be. Is that true?”

The boss was shocked. He shared a bit about some personal situations that are taking his attention. The next time I met with them, the unity was palpable. Shortly after, a plan was put in place for training and promotion of the employee.

Why do we fear asking for clarification?

When I was much younger I was afraid of appearing exactly as I was: as a learner. I’m still a learner, but now I’m no longer afraid to show up as one. In fact, I believe that people who show up as curious learners, unafraid to ask for clarification or to seek greater understanding or even to check what they believe, end up loving their work, garnering more opportunities, and being tapped for advancement.

But not all of us came in to this life with Annie’s inherent nature for asking for clarification. What I find is that most of us never even consider asking questions to seek understanding.

First let’s understand what happens to us. When someone talks to us in language we don’t understand, and we forget we are life long learners, we feel vulnerable. The last thing we want to do is to show that we don’t understand. What will people think? Our fear of not being enough—smart enough, clever enough, good enough—kicks in. In that moment our adrenal gland begins sending out adrenaline and telling our body to protect itself by preparing to flight or flee.

Literally, the part of our brain that deals with cognitive processing starts receiving less oxygenated blood and the part of our brain that triggers large muscles to react gets more. Why does this all happen? It happens so that we can become able to stop wasting time analyzing and start protecting ourselves.

You can see that clearly in the employee who was plotting his departure from a job he loved. Today everything moves so fast that our survival depends on being curious, asking for more information, creating connections, and building relationships. Yet our tendency is to isolate when we are feeling vulnerable.

That day when Annie asked for clarification, I have to admit I became disarmed. As the light bulb went off, 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. I laughed at myself, at them, and at the irony of the situation. In asking if I was clear, I was actually being less clear. 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.

My point, in case this is not perfectly clear to you, is that it is time to ask a clarifying question in that moment when we are fearful, such as: Help me understand? Can you say more? Could you say it another way? Do you have an example? Is there another word you could use to help me understand better?

Being fearful when fight or flight is triggered is offset by the intentional act of taking a breath to create space between our desire to avoid discomfort and creating a path to clarity and growth. So the next time someone communicates in a way you don’t understand, 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?