Listen Up and Speak Your Truth

images“Are you listening or are you just waiting for your turn to talk?”

– Anonymous

When I hear people complain about a spouse’s lack of backbone and initiative, describing their loved one as a person who lets others walk all over him or her, otherwise known as a doormat, or in Yiddish, a “schmatta,” I halt them in mid-rant with this observation: “Ok, I get it.  But then I guess that makes you Mrs. (or Mr.) Schmatta.  There now – do you feel better?”  I enjoy seeing the dawn of understanding in their eyes when they realize that when they put down their spouses, they indict themselves as well.  Most of the times people are not malicious, and they may genuinely feel that to correct the shortcomings of others, and to put them in their rightful place, is simply being helpful, kind, or responsible.  In other words, it’s the loving thing to do.

Shame, however, whether inwardly directed or outwardly projected – is never a catalyst for growth, change or transformation.  How then, can we avoid shaming people with whom we have a bona fide disagreement?  How do we prevent the trap of the position-based power struggle?  And how can we communicate with others when the topic of conversation is in the red zone, meaning it’s sure to set off emotional triggers, resulting in anger and defensiveness, or its opposite, which is withdrawal and stonewalling?  Borrowing the words from the title of Adele Farber’s famous book, how do we talk so that people will listen and listen so that people will talk?[1]

Listening With No Ego

The Torah portion, Bamidbar, which means “in the wilderness” or “in the desert” is always read before the holiday of Shavuot, which is when we received the Torah on Mount Sinai.  The best state in which to receive Torah is when we make of ourselves a desert, meaning that we nullify our egos, enter into a state of total humility and create the internal space to take it in.  As Marianne Williamson says, “When the ego steps back, the power of God steps forward.

Being able to access this state is a prerequisite for handling tense conversations and emerging through conflict with a higher state of awareness and connection. There are any number of constructs for active listening.  My favorite, “Imago Dialogue,” was created by Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt.  In a nutshell, the listener has to be able to mirror back when the speaker has said – sentence by sentence and then check in that they have repeated the words accurately, followed by a genuine expression of empathy or compassion for the point of view that was just expressed.  The beauty of this model is that for the listener to be able to do that, the listener has to tune out all of their internal thoughts that would otherwise be flooding their minds with counter-arguments, defenses, shifting the conversation to themselves, and other ways of blocking what the speaker is saying. Just like you can’t have simultaneous live conversations, you can’t truly listen to another person as well as the voice in your head at the same time. 

 When you listen with deep presence, attention, and curiosity, sometimes it’s enough for the argument to subside, in that the other person simply wanted the opportunity to be heard without interruption or invalidation.  Other times, you can hear – finally – what the other person has been trying to communicate in vain for years and you can have a whole new perspective. 

For example, for years, my husband and I would have a big upset over our different perceptions of time, and how early or late we should arrive at events, like a wedding.  I make the assumption (which is true) that no wedding ceremony ever happens at the time stated on the invitation.  I also am fine with arriving moments before the couple makes it down the aisle.  My husband, on the other hand, would prefer to arrive at an event early – possibly before the caterer even showed up.  For years, I brushed off his complaints:

“I like to get there early and talk to our friends.”

“But you see them pretty much every week anyway, so what’s the big deal?”

“But I like to get there for the smorg.”

“That’s just a lot of unnecessary calories, on top of a fattening dinner and dessert. Do you really need it?” Etc. Etc.

One day, we sat down to have a conversation about this conflict and we used the technique of active listening and mirroring, and for the first time, I actually heard what my husband was trying to tell me.  By being curious and listening without preconditions, I didn’t reactively defend against what I had perceived to be a control issue.  I was open to seeing what a reasonable request it was to drive to an event leisurely and then enjoy all of the varieties of experience and connection and fun that are part of a joyful wedding.  I was also able to see how being on time could be an expression of personal integrity and even more important, showing love and respect to the people who had invited us.

Talking With Appropriate Ego

The first line of Bamidbar ends with God’s command to Moses to take a census. Rashi, the medieval commentator, explains that God loves us and counts us, just like we like to count our prized possessions.  So, on one hand, to receive Torah, we should be lowly, like the shifting sand of a barren desert.  But on the other hand, each soul is a precious and unique possession and we are tasked with striving for actualization as well as being a light unto nations.   For that to occur, we must live Torah, that is, to stand tall and be counted and know who we are.

 If you continue to express an issue in a relationship, you can assume that it is based on experiencing an unmet need – and, as radical as this may seem, all unmet needs are valid issues.  It is simply not acceptable for others to summarily dismiss your needs and concerns as invalid, and you don’t have to justify or argue why you have the feelings that you have.

 But you do need to recognize that your needs and feelings are not universal.  They are not the objective truth from on high.  Therefore, take responsibility for unmet needs as being your issue, and don’t automatically make the other person wrong for not meeting your unmet need.  Once you make your issue about you – and not the other person – you are able to communicate in a clear and powerful way.  You can describe events and facts such as, “You were really late coming home,” versus being critical: “You’re such an inconsiderate jerk for being late.”  And then you can explain exactly why you are upset (because the surprise dinner you had made is now ruined).  And now you can make reasonable requests about how your partner can meet your need for certainty around the time of arrival.  Since only you truly know what would satisfy your unmet need, you need to ask for what you want.  And now you and the other person can be creative about finding solutions that work for you both.   Making space for another’s reality while also being able to stand up for your own self is a never-ending dance of give and take, that when done with love and respect, can create an unbreakable bond of love, connection, and joy.

[1] Adele Farber and Elaine Mazlish, How to Talk So That Kids will Listen and Listen So That Kids Will Talk, (NY: Simon and Schuster 1980).

The Jewish Paradox of Standing Tall and Being Small

“True humility is not thinking less of yourself;

it is thinking of yourself less.”

– C.S. Lewis

The Desert

The Torah portion, Bamidbar, which means “in the wilderness” or “in the desert” is always read before the holiday of Shavuot, which is when we received the Torah on Mount Sinai. The classic commentary on this is that the best state in which to receive Torah, is when we make ourselves into a desert, meaning that we nullify our egos and enter into a state of total humility. 

This makes a lot of sense. After all, the desert is an appropriate place for encounters with the Divine (think Burning Bush) as well as the setting for many spiritual journeys. In the desert, there are no material distractions, no cultural noise, and no exits from its stark reality.  

The opening line of the Torah portion is: “And God spoke to Moses in the desert.” The word “midbar” (desert) anddibur” (speech) share the same root, and so the relationship between the desert and speech – Divine speech – is beautifully correlated. For starters, speech represents freedom.  The First Amendment, which guarantees free speech, is considered fundamental and integral to a free society.   Slaves, on the other hand, have no voice. They are silenced. Their opinion is irrelevant, as they are not seen as people, but as property.

On Passover, which is the holiday commemorating the exodus from slavery into freedom, we read from the “Hagadda.” The word Hagadda derives from “lehagid” which means, “to tell,” and so integral to that transition is the telling of a story, that we re-tell every year. In her TED talk on vulnerability, shame researcher Brene Bown defines courage as the ability to tell the story of who you are – with your whole heart.

But speech only works when one is able and willing to both talk and listen. And to listen, and truly hear what the other is trying to say, requires patience, focus and humility. Therefore, the desert is the ideal location for the Jewish people to be open to this Divine speech for there is no distraction.

We don’t have to be physically in a desert to consciously strip away the layers of egocentricity that distort our clarity. By shutting out the noise that distracts us, we can transform ourselves into an appropriate desert of open receptivity. As the Lubavitcher Rebbe stated: “Without question, the material world and your everyday needs distract you from living meaningfully.” While this is the theme oft-repeated in this Torah portion, in my opinion, it’s only half of the picture. Focus on that idea alone (as great as it is) and we’re missing out on a really great paradox.           

The Jewish Paradox

The first line ends with God’s command to Moses to take a census. Rashi, the medieval commentator, teaches us to understand this to mean the following: that God loves us and counts us, just like we like to count our prized possessions. We are not counted by ability, wealth or status, but by identity – signaling that we are unique, precious and beloved. No two people are alike, no one can contribute to the world in the same way, and so, we are singularly purposeful.

On the one hand, we are elevated, each soul, a precious and unique possession, and yet on the other, we should be lowly, like a barren desert, indistinguishable and insignificant as shifting sand. So which is right? The Jewish answer is, of course, that both are right. It’s a Jewish paradox.

In fascinating research done at the Stanford Business School, Jim Collins was able to provide answers as to why some companies are visionary and successful and others are not.  It seems to depend on the companies’ ability to chose between contradictory concepts, and the ability to embrace both sides of the coin, adopting a strategy known as the “genius of the and” and rejecting thinking characterized as “the tyranny of the or.”  Being limited by either/or thinking isn’t good for corporations and it certainly isn’t good for people either.

When it comes to receiving the Torah, we must humble ourselves, create the space to take it in and learn, at times, to focus on our collective identity rather than our individual identity. As Marianne Williamson says, “When the ego steps back, the power of God steps forward.” But when it comes to living the Torah, we must stand tall and be counted and know who we are. We are created and yearn to reach our highest possibilities. Being a light unto nations and repairing the world is simply not a job for wimps. 

The paradox is that we must always be simultaneously embracing both sides of the coin if we are to understand either side of the coin, and that is a lesson, not just in preparation for Shavuot, but for any time of the year.

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. Write down five things that take up the majority of your time on a daily basis. Now, write down five things you would do and focus on if you had the time. This week, cut out ten minutes of each day to focus on one of those five. By the end of the week you will have spent more than an hour on something you find meaningful that you had previously not made time for.
  1. Think about someone or a situation that silences you–where you feel you had no say or that no one would listen to your opinion. How does that make you feel? Now write down what you want to say to that person or in that situation. Can you think of some practical ways you can begin to get that message across and reclaim your voice?
  1. We all struggle with our ego at times. And more often than not, it leads to avoidable problems. Where in your life could you use more humility? What do you think would change if you could lessen your ego?