Communication: Its Art and Soul
The power of words and the importance of mindful speech are central features in Jewish literature. King Solomon warns: "Death and life are in the hand of the tongue."1 The father of modern linguistics, Noam Chomsky, posits that the ability to understand and form language is unique to the human condition and that linguistics are at least partially inborn.2 Because human beings are essentially social creatures, effective communication is critical to success in every area of life: at home, in the workplace, and in social settings.
Lesson One: The Essence of Communication
The opening lesson lays the foundation of good communication: one's self-concept and respect for others. Effective communication is a spontaneous reflection of how one perceives themselves and others.3 In this lesson, we study the inherent dignity and value in every person, toward considering a novel paradigm of viewing others that will help produce positive instinctive reactions, leading to improved communication and relationships. We also explore good communication not only as a result of personal growth, but as a catalyst for self-improvement and bettering one's relationships.4
Lesson Two: Opening Up to New Perspectives
"I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen," wrote Ernest Hemingway. More than a silver tongue, good listening skills are the key to good communication.
At the outset of the lesson, we establish the importance of good listening in effective communication.5
We will outline the basic skills in active listening techniques,6 including listening, mirroring, and validating. The lesson also reviews modern listening and processing methods consonant with classic Jewish wisdom from the ages. To listen well, one should empty the mind of preconceived thoughts
and opinions, and take the time to process what is said. We also explore the role of empathy, as well as the importance of being nonjudgmental and able to accept criticism in good listening. Lastly, the lesson addresses the challenge of social media, texting, emails, and other digital methods of communication which do not allow for full expression including nuance, facial expression, tone of voice, etc. This lesson shows how to listen effectively even when using these mediums.
Lesson Three: If Sticks and Stones Can Break Bones, Words Are Atom Bombs
"A word is worth one coin; silence is worth two." This lesson explores the use of discretion and proper timing in speech. The lesson begins with a discussion of the therapeutic value of communicating feelings and issues with family, friends, and professional counselors. However, when is the best time, and what is the most appropriate setting? We discuss the futility of speaking in the heat of the moment and the efficacy of a scheduled discussion. What should be aired and what should remain confidential? How does the Jewish value of modesty impact what we speak about and with whom? What are the possible negative ramifications of gossip, and what are the Jewish ethical guidelines of when it is inappropriate, permissible, or required to share confidences or personal information about another?
The lesson will conclude with a review of the professional rules of confidentiality for mental health counselors.
Lesson Four: Context Matters
"The words of the wise are heard when spoken with gentleness" (King Solomon). Having set the stage in previous lessons for understanding the appropriate times and places to express thoughts and feelings, this lesson outlines the skills for communicating successfully. In this lesson we will review: What are basic tools of healthy and effective expression? How does one craft "whole messages" that are focused, complete, and uncontaminated? What are the responsibilities of the message sender when communicating? What techniques help put the listener at ease and more receptive to the message? In this lesson, we also review the Jewish ethical parameters of honesty and discuss when and how to balance our responsibility to the truth with maintaining peaceful, functional families and communities.
Lesson Five: Influence
"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." (Chinese Proverb) At times, we are called upon to influence, guide, teach, or lead others. If communication skills are important in general, they are especially crucial in this context. Our choice of words can be the difference between instilling valuable wisdom to last a lifetime or alienating the listener and exacerbating the situation. Lesson Five explores the art of motivating and inspiring others. What is the proper time and setting for such communication? What are unique challenges faced when trying to influence parents, spouses, and children?
Lesson Six: Conflict Resolution
"Peace is not absence of conflict, it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means." (Ronald Reagan). Disagreements that are handled properly can facilitate growth and deepen bonds. Debate between the greatest Jewish sages gave birth to the Talmud, Judaism's largest scholastic work. This lesson explores how conflict and diversity of opinions and temperaments can be channeled so that instead of being detrimental, they can instigate richer and more meaningful relationships. This lesson reviews the behaviors that lead to toxic exchanges and provides techniques for resolving conflict, including: fostering respect, when to withdraw and when to engage, dealing with grudges, not speaking out of anger, and how to ask for forgiveness.
1. Mishlei, Chapter 18.
2. Noam Chomsky, "The 'Chomskyan Era' (excerpted from The Architecture
of Language)". Chomsky.info. Retrieved June 30, 2017.
3. Shelley D. Lane, PhD, Interpersonal Communication: Competence
and Contexts, Chapter 3: "The Self Concept and Communication," [University
of Texas at Dallas, 2008].
4. John Gottman, PhD., and Joan Declaire, The Relationship Cure: A
Five-Step Guide for Building Better Connections with Family, Friends, and
Lovers [New York: Crown Publishers, 2001].
6. Harville Hendricks, PhD, IMAGO Relationship Therapy Course 200—
Basic Clinical Training in Imago Relationship Therapy—Training Manual
(New York: Imago Relationships International, 2008).
7. Deborah Tannen, PhD, You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men
in Conversation (New York: Random House Publishers, 1990]
8. Michael P. Nichols, PhD The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to
Listen Can Improve Relationships (New York: Guilford Press, 2009).
9. Sherry Turkel, PhD, The Second Self (MIT Press, 2005).
10. Talmud, Megilah 18a.
11. Matthew McKay, PhD., Martha Davis, PhD., Patrick Fanning. Messages:
The Communication Skills Book(Oakland: New Harbinger Publications,
12. Avot 5:19; Talmud, Bava Metsi'a 107a, Ta'anit 8b; Rabbi Elazar Ezkari,
Sefer Charedim 66:90.
13. Zelig Pliskin, MA, Guard Your Tongue: A Practical Guide (Jerusalem:
Moriah Offset, 1975).
15. Kohelet 9:17.
16. Messages: The Communication Skills Book, op. cit., ch. 3.
17. IMAGO Relationship Therapy Course 200. op. cit., pp. 36–37.
19. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Hakohen Kagan, Chafets Chayim, Hilchot Rechilut
9, Cases 4–6.
20. Rabbi Alfred Cohen, "Privacy: A Jewish Perspective," Journal of
Halachah and Contemporary Society 1:53 (1981), pp. 76–78.
21. Yitzchak Ginsburg, The Art of Education (Jerusalem, Gal Einai, 2005).
22. Robert B. Cialdini, PhD, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Revised
Edition (New York: William R. Murrow, 1993).
23. Judith A. Pauley, PhD and Joseph F. Pauley, Communication: The Key
to Effective Leadership (Milwaukee, Quality Press, 2009).