Winning Words: The Communication Dance

The legacy of Aharon Hakohen is that he was a rodef shalom (Pirkei Avos 1:12). He loved peace and would make sure to create it whenever he could. The well-known example is that he would tell one person that the other person felt bad about their machlokes and wanted to make up, and then he would go to the second person and tell them that the first person felt bad and wanted to make amends. The result is that each person would apologize to the other and thus bring an end to the original machlokes.

Keeping the peace can sometimes be challenging. Often, this is not because we are dealing with challenging people but because communicating with others can be a delicate dance between conveying the message but doing so in a kind and sensitive way.

Saying something one way can be hurtful, while using different words to relay the same idea won’t cause any hard feelings at all.

Ruchama was annoyed at her friend Gitty. It seemed like Gitty would always borrow her pens but never return them. One day, Ruchama had a really special, expensive pen on her desk. Gitty approached her and said, “This is just the kind of pen I need for writing my poem. Can I borrow it for a sec?” Ruchama’s response was immediate: “No, you never return my pens, and then I have to go scrounging for new ones. This is an expensive pen, so I can’t let you use it.”

Needless to say, Gitty was very hurt.

Ruchama’s point was valid, but there is another way she could have conveyed her message. She could have said, “Gitty, it’s frustrating for me when my things aren’t returned. This is an expensive pen, and I’m really looking forward to using it for notetaking today. If you borrow it now, can you be sure to put it back on my desk before class starts?”

Do you hear the difference? Instead of accusing Gitty and getting personal, Ruchama can simply and clearly relay her needs. Gitty will get the message without any damage to their relationship.

Our natural reaction would probably be to speak as Ruchama did in the first example. But if we want to emulate Aharon Hakohen and promote peace, we need to be aware not only of what we say — but how we say it!

Sometimes keeping the peace means remaining silent. Other times, it means expressing yourself. It’s okay to tell someone if their actions are hurting you. It’s okay to share your preference, even if the person you’re talking to might have a different one. But it takes skill to express yourself calmly, without anger and without blaming other people. It also requires good middos and strength of character. Sometimes those middos and that gevurah are what enable you to just remain silent. Either way, it’s an avodah — and not an easy one.

I had a few situations recently where I had to draw on all my reserves of strength to properly communicate, and then, once I said what was necessary, to let it go. My nature is to have the last word.   Often, I feel that if someone doesn’t understand my line of reasoning, it means I didn’t explain myself clearly. So I try again. I explain it this way and that way until the other person gets it. Except that often, they don’t get it because they don’t want to get it. And that’s when I need to just keep quiet.

This past Shabbos, I was feeling down. Why are all these situations happening to me? Is learning to communicate properly part of my avodas Hashem? It was time to discuss it with someone. So I paid a surprise visit to a friend of mine. I told her my stories. And she explained to me that not responding impulsively, keeping quiet when I really want to talk, talking only after thinking things through and relaying my message kindly help build character refinement. When I really look at a whole situation and think before speaking, it helps me become a better person.

No one said this effort is easy, but I’m grateful to have this awareness. It’s a first step in the right direction.

A few weeks ago, I innocently returned a phone call only to be yelled at after introducing myself. It was upsetting and hurtful. But after thinking about what happened for some time, I realized that this woman was lacking proper control over her emotions or proper communications skills. And more than aggravating, that is so sad.

Let me explain. I am involved in a project that required a specific kind of writer. I reached out to a few people who do this kind of work. I asked them if they would be interested in sending us a sample and how much they would charge for their work. That Motzoei Shabbos, instead of sending a sample, one prospective writer completed the full project. I thanked her for her efforts and told her that I would need some time until we could seriously work on this project.

 A few weeks later, I made that return phone call and was shocked by the writer’s response, “Where is my paycheck already? You told me you need time, but it has been way too long!” I sincerely apologized and explained that all we had asked for was a sample. We weren’t sure yet if we were going ahead with the project or if she would be the writer we would hire. At that, she lost control. She was clearly livid and began screaming at me about yashrus. I tried to explain that this wasn’t a yashrus issue, this was a misunderstanding — yet there was no reasoning with her. A few weeks later, she called my boss and screamed at him too.

As I said, communicating with others can be a delicate dance between conveying the message but doing so in a kind and sensitive way. I can truly empathize with this woman. I know what it’s like to be waiting for money and I’m sorry that she’s so angry. But as much as I want to call her back and try again to explain that this was an unfortunate misunderstanding, I know she doesn’t want to hear it. I need to just let it go.

But there’s another part to the picture, and that is that she harmed herself in the way she communicated her feelings. She could have explained her frustration without losing control. She could have listened to me instead of interrupting me every time I tried to talk. She might have given us a masterpiece. But how can we possibly work with her if we cannot communicate effectively? If and when we are ready to go ahead with the project, it won’t be with her work.

Communicating what we need and relaying our feelings in a respectful way creates shalom — strong, everlasting, loving relationships and peace within ourselves.

It is a way of emulating Aharon Hakohen.

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