As a parent, it’s my fundamental duty to irritate my children with phrases of wisdom, ideally played for them on repeat. This duty is not to be taken lightly for it bears a painful short-term cost: one must be prepared to endure eye rolls, sighs, stomps, door slams, glazed over stares, and — the absolute worst — Napoleon Dynamite worthy sass.
I know; it’s rough. M̶a̶n̶y̶ d̶a̶y̶s̶, Every day, I question my sanity. But in the end, I hold my duty dear because I’m a long game kind of gal.
You see, if I’m lucky, my irritating wisdom will wiggle its way into their wee little brains and stick. It will repulse them on the surface, yet their inner human will beg to keep it. Like a stringy stray cat peeking out from the garbage bins, my irritating wisdom will find a home.
And with patience, I’ll have my long-game moment of glory: I’ll hear my children use my irritating wisdom with those they lead. I’ll see my children willingly play broken record — even in the face of resistance and setbacks — as they pursue being and cultivating amazing humans. With chess grand master strategery, they’ll even mirror my wisdom back to me (jerks) when I’m not being my best human.
Recently, I caught a glimpse of long-game glory. And it was spectacular.
A Hard Truth Spoken
It started with my youngest daughter daring greatly. During our after-school debrief, she admitted she’d done something she knew was not a powerful choice. It was a choice she’s made before and will likely make again. Not because she’s broken, but because she’s human. And lest we forget how to human: behavior change is a practice and a process for which we must create time, space, curiosity, empathy, and compassion.
It would have been easy for me to get hooked by the fears and feelings that bubbled up when my daughter spoke her hard truth. It would have been easy to use them as a rope to bundle all the stress, worries, and shame of my day. To take the resulting package and throw it at her.
It would have easy, and I’ve failed her with easy before. I’m human, too.
But I didn’t choose easy this time. I chose sludge pie.
A Sludge Puddle Entered
As my daughter stared at me, pale with the wash of the shame and fear that hitchhike with hard truths, I took a deep breath. I allowed stillness. And I then repeated one of my irritating phrases of wisdom.
“I’d rather have hard truths than pleasant lies, even when they’re uncomfortable.”
Only, I didn’t speak it as part of my duty to irritate her. I spoke it to validate her brave share. And equally as important, I spoke it to confirm for her that I mean what I say. I spoke it to confirm for me that I mean what I say.
Because wisdom loses its root…its “wise”…when used solely as lip service. As bell hooks discusses in All About Love: New Visions, as children, we’re told to be honest, but when we bravely tell the truth, we discover adults don’t really want us to be honest all of the time. Children “are confused by the insistence that they simultaneously be honest and yet also learn how to practice convenient duplicity.” And through this “be honest” lip service, we grow up and tell lies or silence our hard truths to avoid punishment or hurting or disappointing someone else…lest they decide they no longer love or value us.
So, yes. If I ask for hard truths, I have to mean it.
My youngest daughter shook her head in understanding, and said, “But it makes me feel so scared. My stomach hurts.”
“I know, hon. Grown ups are terrified to speak hard truths, too. Our stomachs hurt, too. Me, too.”
I pictured our fear and discomfort in the face of her hard truth. And it made me think of sludge…because apparently, my mind is a gross place to live. But I went with it.
“Telling the truth means choosing to be uncomfortable. It means choosing to meet someone in a mucky puddle of sludge. But if we can sit in the sludge together…if we can choose to not run from it disgusted or throw it at each other…if we can reach into it with shaky hands and queasy stomachs and make the best sludge pie ever…we’re gold. You feel better because you’re not carrying around your truth alone and in shame. You also feel better because you can ask for what you need. I feel better because I feel respected and empowered to support you. We both feel more trust and love.”
My daughter nodded, but in the spirit of hard truths, all she heard was, “Telling the truth means mwa-mwa-mwa” before two squirrels captured her attention. That’s what you get for being wise with a 7-year old.
But to my surprise, the long game made a “sneak peek” appearance. My eldest daughter, who had been seemingly disinterested and reading a book, spoke up.
“Mom. You should post that. I think it’s important for everyone.”
I swear angels sang. Or unicorns. Or maybe it was just my tinnitus.
No matter. Take that, short game.
A Sludge Pie Made (aka Cultivating Trust and Connection)
When we speak and receive hard truths, we aren’t meeting in a mud puddle. Mud puddles are messy but benign. They smell of earth and are cool and smooth to the touch. Sludge is different. Sludge is murky, sloppy goo that smells of roadkill, likely from its special ingredient: septic system runoff. If you grew up in rural america with a creek behind your house, you know exactly what I’m talking about. If you didn’t, it’s worth a trip.
Sludge puddles aren’t comfortable. They aren’t fun to sit in, and they’ll make you queasy. They’ll trigger your brain’s threat center, and you’ll want to fight, flight, freeze, or appease to avoid them. And you can’t engineer them into mud puddles. If you go in, you must accept them for what they are.
So, why invite someone to go in? And why should they accept the invitation? And why should we then follow them?
Because if we can courage our way into the sludge and bring the right tools, we can co-create a pie from all that goo. A glorious pie that is trust and connection.
If we stand on the opposite sides of the sludge? No pie for you. Or me.
I want more trust and connection. And as a human, I actually need it for my health and well-being. We all do. It’s a neurobiologically wired need that can’t be hacked.
And as leaders, we must strive for cultivating more trust and connection. Without it, we lose belonging and psychological safety, which are essential for effective teams, employee engagement, and individual and organizational well-being. We also lose creativity, innovation, and problem solving. So much loss culminating in a failure to achieve the outcomes we long for. Our relationship outcomes. Our leadership outcomes. The outcomes we seek for our lives and work.
So, making sludge pies isn’t a “nice to have.” It’s an imperative.
As leaders, we must give hard truths. We also must ask for hard truths and mean it. We must expect hard truths to be given and received AND give those we lead (including ourselves) the skills and tools for doing so.
- If you used your lunch money to buy a snack buffet rather than lunch, tell me.
- If me squirting you with a water gun to wake you up violates your boundaries, tell me.
- If you need help navigating your list of chores because you feel overwhelmed, tell me.
- If you need space to manage your emotions after I question your obsession with leaving wet towels on the floor, tell me.
- If you feel I don’t see, hear, or value you, tell me.
We will enter the sludge together. We will listen. We will seek to understand. We will support. We will assume we’re both doing the best we can in the moment and that we are not our behaviors. We will co-create together.
The examples above are clearly for my children, not your colleagues or staff. But you can literally swap out one or two words in each bullet and discover many of the top workplace hard truths.
People are people. Relationships are relationships.
How to Be a Pie Maker
The good news? We’re all capable of becoming sludge pie makers. We’re wired for it.
We just need three ingredients: clarity, skills, and tools.
Clarity — If we’re going to speak hard truths, we must be clear on what our truths are and why they matter.
- Do we need to own a mistake and make amends to honor our accountability?
- Do we have a boundary that we need to communicate so we stop resenting someone else?
- Do we need help from someone to succeed or be well?
- Do we have a silent expectation or “unwritten rule” for someone that’s eating us alive?
And if we’re receiving a hard truth? We still need clarity. We need clarity about why we’re showing up in the puddle with someone and why the pie matters. Sure, we know it’s important, but without articulating clearly our whys, we’re missing an opportunity to ground ourselves in the goo.
Skills — Not going to lie; pie making takes some mad skills. But all can be taught, practiced, and grown. Three key ones for both the hard truth giver and receiver:
- Mindfulness — Are we aware of what we’re feeling, thinking, and doing? Are we being “with” ourselves without diminishing, exaggerating, or over attaching to our thoughts and feelings?
- Emotional Intelligence — Are we able to name what we’re feeling and choose our responses (as opposed to being hooked or going into autopilot)? Are we able to recognize what the person across from us feels and respond rather than react?
- Courage — Are we leaning into the vulnerability that comes from entering and sitting in the sludge? Are we choosing curiosity, empathy, and our values over armor? Are we aligning our behavior to our “whys,” or are our actions more about feeling safe, right, or clean?
Tools — Every pie maker has tools. I know this because my mom once confused me with someone who can bake and gave me a huge basket of pie making tools. (All I can say is that they are numerous and strange, and I’m still unclear about their use.) Regardless, sludge pies require tools, too.
- Intention Setting Exercises — Across studies of effective relationships and communication, setting clear intentions and using them as a north star for dialogue are key. Whether you’re entering the sludge puddle as a hard truth giver or receiver, know your intention for how you want to show up, what success looks like for you, and what you long to create for the relationship by being in the puddle.
- Tough Conversation Frameworks and Tools — Situation-Behavior-Impact (SBI), Crucial Conversations, Nonviolent Communication, Thanks for the Feedback, Dare to Lead…we have so many frameworks and tools at our fingertips to support us in the sludge puddle. Learn them. Practice them. Bring them with you.
- Values and Character Strengths — When we’re in sludge, it’s easy to get pulled out of our intentions and integrity when things get stinky. Before jumping in, it can help to remind ourselves of our intentions, values, and strengths. It’s also helpful to check-in with ourselves while in the puddle to make sure we’re aligned to them. Several free resources can support you, such as the VIA Character Strengths and the Living Into Our Values exercise in the Dare to Lead Workbook.
How Do You Welcome Sludge?
I often like to think of the following question just to irritate myself with wisdom:
“If everyone in my personal and professional life (including me) woke up tomorrow able to share and receive hard truths, what would change?”
The answer? EVERYTHING.
And even if I change the question to, “What would change if we all moved from a 4 to a 5 on a 10-point hard truth scale?” the answer is still EVERYTHING.
We don’t have to get it perfect. We just have to get it started. One pie at a time. (In fact, maybe start with one at a time. Oodles of sludge pies all at once is a bit much.)
- With whom do you want to make more sludge pies through hard truths?
- How do you support those you lead in speaking or receiving hard truths?
- What pie making skills or tools do you want to pick up?
- What pie making skills or tools do you want to teach?
I’ll leave you with a final piece of irritating wisdom: Don’t confuse being a sludge pie maker with a baker. You should never…I repeat, never…put sludge in the oven e̶v̶e̶n̶ especially if your parents aren’t home. Hypothetically speaking.
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. Read more in her monthly newsletter “Heart-Centered Humaning In a Noisy World” here.