Am I a Truth Teller?

OK, so my mission is to bring more veracity to the world—starting with brands, businesses and, ultimately, life. But, like any big mission, it has to start small. Right here at home. Right here with me. How can I ask people to be truth tellers unless I am one myself?

Well, am I? Hmm. I guess the answer is both yes and no.

I happen to be the product of two Irish-American parents. One of which holds tightly to the adage that if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Suffice it to say, she’s awfully quiet. The other has used a (mostly) charming bluntness as both a badge of honor and a weapon throughout the course of his life. The majority of his colorful, repeatedly told stories begin with the sentence, “That’s when I told that SOB what he really needed to hear…” I seem to have inherited a bit more of his DNA and, as such, I came to the conclusion long ago that “truth telling” and “telling people off” were one and the same.

I found there’s a particular kind of satisfaction, almost a “high” that comes from telling people off; especially when you strongly believe that what you’re saying is JUST PLAIN TRUE. I have reveled in those self-satisfying moments most of my adult life. I know I’m not alone in this.

But, since I’ve lived to tell about it (surprisingly) and instead became a student of truth, I’ve come to an alarming and somewhat shameful realization. Being an authentic truth teller isn’t about blowing off steam. It isn’t about being so selfish that you say whatever you feel like saying no matter how it might hurt someone else. Nor is it about bluntly telling people, “Yes, you look fat in that” or “You, my friend need a big bite of humble pie” (although I’m still OK with saying those kinds of things if they are said with real kindness). It’s about knowing what is really true for you and standing for it.

So, I thought I had it all figured out. I believed I had really learned to tell the truth differently. To take a stand — but with thoughtfulness. To become conscious of my messages, and confident in their delivery.

Then, just recently, I had a relapse. A hired a friend (let’s call her Madeline) to do a project for me and it turned out to be much more lengthy and complex than originally intended. She was handling it beautifully, except, at one point, she said she would do something and then did something different. What she did differently was actually much smarter and more beneficial to me than what she said she was going to do — but I didn’t see that. In retrospect, I know I was blinded because it hit a hot button for me – my “integrity” button. You see, one of my beliefs about being a truth teller is that it is paramount to do what you say you’re going to do.

Of course I had never shared this “core value” with Madeline. I just expected her to have exactly the same approach as me and I let her know it – rather harshly. I believe my exact words were, “Well, I’m going to need you to do what you said you were going to do.”

It didn’t go over well. We got into a pissing match and everything escalated. Ugh! How did I let this happen? Was I taking a stand or just jockeying for the power position? Was I staying true to my values or being pig-headed and self-righteous? What was the truth? I didn’t know!

As I tried to unravel it, and to really be honest with myself, I felt stymied. But here are some things I’ve discovered:

In the past, this kind of thing has happened often; with colleagues, siblings or even just random acquaintances. In those days, I would have shared the event with everyone I knew, making sure they got on my “side” and agreed with my story. I needed to feel justified. I wanted to make sure that MY truth was the ONLY truth. This time, I chose not to tell all my friends and family, but rather shared it with a trusted mentor to see what she could help me learn from it.

In the past, I would have steamed for days, weeks or months, holding out for an apology. This time, I thought about how I might have been kinder while still maintaining my sense of integrity. Maybe, if I had said, “You know, Madeline, something is bugging me and I think it’s because it feels like there’s a lack of integrity. Could you help me get more clear about your decision to handle it this way?” I have a feeling that may have yielded a much more valuable and far less toxic discussion. So, rather than waiting for an apology, I extended a heartfelt and well-received one.

In the past, I wouldn’t have been able to forgive her for the things she said to me (the Irish can hold a grudge), nor would I have been able to forgive myself for the things I said to her. Today, I forgive us both — we are simply doing the absolute best we can with what we’ve got for tools.

Have you ever been in this position? From this relapse, I can see how far I’ve come, and how far I still have to go. Clearly, owning your truth and staying true to your values while remaining kind remains a challenging balancing act for me.

I’m continually trying to hone my tools because, as I said, they’ve been pretty blunt.

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