Learn to look. Then be willing to see things differently.
I grew up adoring my grandmother’s touch-me-not plants (𝘮𝘪𝘮𝘰𝘴𝘢 𝘱𝘶𝘥𝘪𝘤𝘢). With a gentle swipe of my finger, these delicate creatures would fold their leaves and droop in a way that would impress even the masterfully forlorn and judgy Eeyore. Being able to interact with — to be acknowledged by — the natural world felt magical. I sensed care for my row of potted friends. I sensed connection.
But as most relationships go, our love was complicated. My curiosity and fascination drove me to poke them. To watch them fold and curl. Open. Poke. Fold and curl. Open. Poke. Fold. Curl. Poke.
But after several rounds of poke and watch, my heart would speak. And as with the drive to poke them, I felt a drive to stop. I’d curl down my head as though a great finger compressed my gut. In a queasy, hushed whisper, I’d apologize.
You see, I didn’t need an adult to explain why my botanical treasures were folding and drooping — children know what it’s like to feel unsafe. They recognize embodied fear as though it’s encoded deep in their bones. And children understand armor. They understand it as though their lives depend on it. Because their lives do depend on it. And with their innate wisdom about fear and armor, they get it: there’s no way in hell to gain BFF status with your beloved plants if you poke them. It’s not personal. They’re just scared.
Yes, we start out as wise mini earthlings. But something happens as we grow older and our most complicated relationships are no longer with plants but instead with humans. We somehow stop recognizing armor and understanding its birthplace is fear. It’s not that we lose our 𝘢𝘣𝘪𝘭𝘪𝘵𝘺 to recognize and understand these things. We just stop looking. And in the rare cases when we do look, we encode what we see all wonky. We understand it all wrong.
We see someone go silent. We see someone check out. Bunker down. Puff up. Get loud. Push too hard. Throw sarcasm. Hurl insults.
Yes, we see others’ behaviors. But we don’t recognize them. We instead write a story about them colored by our own fear and shame. And in doing so, we lose sense of theirs.
- The plant folds its leaves. O.M.G. I can’t believe you’re being defensive when I’m just trying to help. (You don’t respect or appreciate me.)
- The plant curls. Here we go again. I’m trying to be open here, and you decide to just check out. You never want to hear what I have to say. (You don’t value my perspective or care.)
- The plant unfolds. Oh, I see how it is. You’re going to come at me? For that?! I can’t believe this BS given how you’ve acted. (You’re challenging my integrity and worthiness of love and belonging. You’re making me the bad guy because you believe I’m a bad guy. I’m not the bad guy. You are. Jerk.)
Knives out. Armor up. Poke.
And we’ll never achieve BFF status this way.
If our ultimate goal is more…
- effective collaboration and co-creation
…we have to see things differently so we can respond differently. So we can respond in ways that de-risk. That re-establish the sense of safety in the room. That align our behaviors to our original intent of achieving BFF status (or whatever our ultimate goal is).
When we’re willing to look at someone’s behavior as a sign they feel unsafe, afraid, in shame, or in pain, our brains literally shift. This shift dampens our threat centers and opens pathways that allow us to lean in and connect.
Think about situations where you’re trying to engage with someone — perhaps in a difficult conversation — and things start to go sideways. How might things change if you:
- Tuned in and learned to look. Really look. At yourself and them.
- Got curious about the story you’re telling yourself about their words and actions rather than attaching to that story as truth or “reality.”
- Were willing to see things differently. Could this be fear? Could this be a sign they feel unsafe? Do I see neurobiology at work — fight, flight, freeze, appease? Might what I see be armor?
- Used your emotional literacy and empathy skills. Allowed yourself to acknowledge the fears and feelings in the room.
- Worked to re-establish safety and find points of connection before pushing forward. If needed, allowed everyone to step out and then come back in.
- Apologized when you slip and poke, regardless of whether you agree with their beliefs or behaviors. Held firm to your boundaries about what is and is not OK with you AND held yourself accountable for violating their boundaries.
My guess is that things would change for you. Like magical, natural wonder type change. In fact, research in the areas of communication, trust, interpersonal leadership, and human connection support this guess. And although to make such a jump in approach requires skill building, practice, and time, we all can start right now…
By learning to look and being willing to see things differently.
I still adore touch-me-not plants — not in a creepy, “there’s something wrong with that woman” kind of way, but rather in nerdy appreciation for the natural wonder of the world. And that they are also called shame plants, shy, plants, and sensitive plants serves as a reminder of the human experiences we all struggle with…a reminder of our shared humanity when we feel anything but connected. I love this, too, because it’s a doorway to seeing things differently.
Sam Crowe, PhD is a “neuro enthusiast” and humanness expert who believes in loving and laughing our way through the oddities of being human. She serves this world as a leadership and life transformation coach, Certified Dare to Lead(TM) Facilitator, and recovering neuroscientist who advocates for brave, wholehearted living and leading.