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Communicating with Empathy – by Rabbi Craig Lewis

Since February includes my wedding anniversary and a day on which everyone celebrates love (February 14), I wish to share these thoughts on relationships from a recent sermon on Parashat Va-eira. In the Torah, God sends Moses to talk to Pharaoh and tells him, “I will put you in the role of God before Pharaoh and your brother Aaron shall be a prophet. You speak the words I command to you, and Aaron will speak them to Pharaoh” (Exodus 7:1-2).

Rashi, a medieval rabbi and author of a comprehensive commentary on the Talmud, understands why Aaron’s role is not redundant. Aaron makes the words eloquent for Pharaoh to hear and understand. Thus, we learn the role of the prophet: taking complex ideas, hard lessons, and putting them into plain language. Even the greatest of wisdom is worthless if it cannot be applied. Language is only the beginning, and must be coupled with empathy, with attention to non-verbal cues, and with proper tone. We know Moses claims to be slow of speech, especially compared to his brother. His speech is fine, but Aaron knows the real difference between speech and communication.

Studying and teaching communication has become a passion for the actor Alan Alda – Hawkeye on M.A.S.H., who established the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. Through improvisational training and special workshops, he helps scientists talk to “normal people” about their work. The discoveries made have all sorts of applications. Alda writes in his book, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face? In it he tells us how clear communication could help companies recruit and maintain good workers, help put customers at ease and establish trust and reasonable expectations. It could be the secret to good health and public safety.

Most importantly – especially with the approach of February 14 – speaking for understanding is the key to healthy relationships. Knowing what to say is secondary. The most important thing is relating. Relating demands empathy and active listening. Alda shares wisdom he received from legendary director Mike Nichols: “You… think relating is the icing on the cake. It isn’t. It’s the cake.” Even the best couples can fall into patterns where they forget to relate. They grow tired, or develop routines where efficiency takes precedence over connection. They speak matter-of-factly, perhaps without emotion. Even phrases like, “I love you,” can be said unconvincingly.

Alda explains relationships through the household chore of doing dishes. Apparently 40% of couples argue about how this gets done. If one of you sees a stack of dishes and things, “I guess I should do something about it,” it’s less likely to get done. However, if you see them and imagine how your partner will feel in the morning, waking up to an empty sink, then you are more likely to do so, and the action will have come from a genuine place.

The key to empathy is thinking first how someone will respond. The second important thing in effective communication is to consider non-verbal cues. With dishwashing, there can be basic disagreements about which direction forks and spoons get put in. In these situations, eye rolling can be a trigger. So too are grimacing and shaking your head dismissively. A small gesture can lead to a blow-up. Knowing how the other person might respond to these gestures can help you choose to control the response. Awareness and control of non-verbal cues can help us be better communicators.

The last thing to consider is tone. Even “thank you,” can be sarcastic. We would also do well to avoid the tone of certainty, when you establish you are not only correct, but superior. Alda calls this tone “Triumphant, but self-defeating.” The truest statement or best advice can fall on deaf ears. When this happens, it moves us further away from our goals. In our homes, our goals are to have healthy relationships with spouses and children, so we must be thoughtful in communication.

These lessons expand beyond the family. In our work-lives, our goals are to be successful and productive. But we cannot achieve anything unless we make employees, managers and clients understand our work. In our communal lives, our goal is a peaceful society. When we demonstrate care for others accompanied by self-control and self-awareness, we open the door to true connection, relating with one another and establish paths to understanding and partnership.

This was God’s purpose in partnering Aaron with Moses: to work together to speak to Pharaoh. Pharaoh’s heart is hardened each time they approach. The lesson here is profound, since try as they might, Moses and Aaron cannot convince Pharaoh until it is too late. But that is a call to us: to remind us that if a heart is hardened, it must not be from our failure. And if we are speaking truth, we must find the right way to say it, with faith that the listener’s heart can be softened, that they can truly understand. The Torah give us this prescription for redemption and peace. May all our relationships be strengthened as we communicate for true understanding.

Rabbi Craig Lewis

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