The Power of Conversation
One of the striking ideas in Jewish thought is that the capacity for speech is the most God-like attribute with which humans are endowed. This idea is expressed vividly by Targum Onkelos at the beginning of Genesis. Onkelos translates the phrase וַיְהִי הָאָדָם לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה (Bereishit 2:7), usually translated as “and man became a living spirit,” as וַהֲוַת בְּאָדָם לְרוּחַ מְמַלְלָא, “and man became a speaking spirit.” Koach hadibbur, the power of speech, is what it means to be human. On a metaphysical level, Judaism believes that the world was created through speech and that speech has the power to create or destroy worlds. On a practical and interpersonal level, speech is at the center of all of our relationships, with ourselves, others and even with God. In Jewish day schools, numerous programs address different aspects of koach hadibbur. They often underscore the importance of kind words, telling the truth, prayer, and the abstention from defamatory words and slander.
A few years ago, while participating in the YOUlead fellowship, I was introduced to the work of Susan Scott, founder and CEO of Fierce, Inc., and author of Fierce Conversations and Fierce Leadership. The key idea of her approach is that any single conversation can change the trajectory of any relationship. Scott identified different kinds of conversations, and for each, she developed templates for how to frame and have them. She includes techniques for decision making, collaborating, team conversations and providing feedback.
One of the Fierce frameworks addresses difficult conversations, those that center around one person confronting another about his/her behavior. Imagine for a moment a student who wants to confront a teacher about something that he or she thinks the teacher has done wrong, or a faculty member who wants to address a difficult issue with an administrator. Often these confrontations are avoided at any cost. When they do occur, they often have profound and negative outcomes and move the parties further apart.
One type of confrontation conversation was articulated by Nachmanides. In his interpretation of the prohibition not to “hate your brother in your heart” (Vayikra 19:17), he explains that one is obligated to confront someone and ask, “Why did you do this to me?” While that seems pretty sensible, it is far easier said than done. How does someone navigate a difficult conversation like this? How can we expect our students and children to do this when we as adults have so much difficulty doing it?
While Nachmanides does not provide the answer, Scott does. She includes the following ingredients for difficult conversations: the confronting party identifies and clarifies the issue, describes the current impact and future implications, expresses his or her own contribution to the issue, describes the ideal outcome and a commitment to action. While having such a framework does not automatically improve such a conversation, it does provide a map to follow.
This approach resonated deeply with me, as I considered seminal conversations that I or my colleagues participated in which had a profound impact on our relationships and our school. In addition to developing a framework for adults, Fierce developed a program for students entitled FITS (Fierce in The Schools), to equip them with similar tools to navigate all kinds of conversations and relationships. (Our school, the Hebrew Academy in Miami Beach, is implementing this program, thanks to a grant from our federation.) This is especially vital for students in today’s world in which genuine conversations and discourse have too often been replaced by monologues and rabid disagreements.