Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

28 Nisan 5766 - April 26, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network











Home and Family

TACT — To Walk in Another's Shoes
by Chedva Ofek

Part I

What do you say to a new mother who has just given birth to a baby with Down's syndrome? What kind of Mazel Tov do you give? What do you say to a parent who has just lost a child?

"For good and empathetic communication, we are required to understand the other person — where he is at that moment, according to the messages that he's transmitting: acceptance, introversion, denial, and to go with whatever fits him," professionals explain.

Devorah felt mired in an uncomfortable muddy swamp. The atmosphere around the table at the wedding was heavy and loaded. Next to her sat Mrs. G, who had recently married off her daughter, but the marriage had fallen apart. Devorah wondered whether to mention the younger daughter who had gone through a crisis or to remain silent. There was no other subject the two women had in common. Mrs. G. had older children at home in need of a yeshuah and Devorah was afraid to step on her neighbor's painful corns. So she preferred to remain silent.

And the silence dragged on and on. Mrs. G. was also drawn inside herself. Devorah felt the fish stick in her throat. Better to get up and go home. And so she did. But she didn't feel calm. Perhaps with the right words and attitude, she would have given Mrs. G. encouragement. Who says that keeping silent was the right thing to do?

The Right Words at the Right Time

"It's hard to find a recipe for interpersonal relationships and even harder to find templates for relating and reacting," claims Mrs. Loeberbaum, a clinical psychologist. "There is no one right answer for the situation Devorah found herself in at the wedding when she sat next to Mrs. G. and there is no formula for how to say what and when.

"In every uncomfortable situation, we will relate differently to a friend or neighbor with whom we are in everyday contact, and one who we see only every now and then. Our response also depends on the intimacy of the relationship and under what circumstances we meet them. People's feelings change from situation to situation, from hour to hour and even from moment to moment.

A reaction that might suit one person could certainly not be appropriate for another. There'll be someone who'll want to discuss her problems with someone who understands her, and another who'll want to keep the pain inside. It also depends when you catch her." Loeberbaum emphasizes: in a good empathetic relationship, we are required to get the person at the place where he is at the moment and to flow with his feelings at the time.

We have the tools and sensitivities to understand another according to the signals he is sending out and the way he is broadcasting them — his tone, facial expression, body language. We have to be aware of these messages and know what they're saying: readiness, introversion, denial or rejection.

A friend of mine, whose son drowned in the sea in the summer, told me that her neighbors distanced themselves from her; they crossed the street out of embarrassment, apparently, and not knowing how to react. It hurt her deeply. She expected that they would understand what a terrible loss she had suffered, that they would share in her pain.

On the other hand, another person who helped her later on and who had also been through a crisis, told her that she had wanted people to let her wallow in her pain. That she wanted to heal and overcome it herself.

Communication is about correctly "reading" other people and relating to them appropriately; its aim is to connect people and bring them closer. So how can we learn what to say to another person when the other person isn't made of the same stuff and he himself changes from one time to the next according to his mood?

There is a good simile for a healthy relationship. It's like the fingers of two hands that intertwine with one other. Try to see how you communicate with members of your family. Is your reaction to a certain behavior or feeling of your daughter the same as hers? Let's say, when she's hurt, one time she'll want a good word from you and another time, a look and still another, she'll just want your silence. And another daughter will want a different reaction. In the same way that within your family, you have to invest effort in order to find the right responses, so, too, in your interactions with your environment, especially when dealing with sensitive situations.

Life brings unpleasant situations in which responses don't flow freely in the way we're accustomed. We have to accept our weaknesses and their discomfort, to feel it and in these sensitive situations we can find within ourselves the strength to bring out something very genuine and appropriate for the moment; something that binds and gives strength; and to pray to the Creator of the universe that we will always say what needs to be heard and not the opposite.

To Wear Another's Shoes

Mrs. Loeberbaum gives important guidelines for correct communication during doubtful times: "First, we have to try and understand the other person, to feel for him, to draw closer to him, to understand both the verbal and non-verbal messages he's broadcasting. Also, people don't like pity! We don't like it either. Sincere empathy with respect, yes, but not pity.

"When we `put on the others' shoes,' we have to respect his privacy, not to intrude in his life, not physically and not emotionally, if it isn't clear to us that that's what he wants. There are people for whom it is difficult to be seen when they're ill or weak and it's a delicate question whether to visit them or not, to talk about the sickness, to ignore it, to encourage them. With every good intention, you can also hurt them and the guiding principle is: "You must respect their wishes," to be considerate of the person and to get close to him in the way it's appropriate for him. Many times, he wants us to treat him as if nothing has happened.

When talking to the other person, we have to really listen. True listening is an art and needs to be learned. Why are there people who become someone's "Wailing Wall?" Because they know how to listen, to be there for the other person without criticizing.

The talent of listening is connected to the ability to feel for the other person without trying to solve anything or take action. The listener puts himself at the disposal of the talker as a tool with which he can let out difficult emotions without involving his own reactions and feelings. In contrast, when his feelings become the focus, he isn't able to cope with the feelings or problems of the other person and won't be able to really listen to him.

The conversation has to be with respect for the "me" of the other person — to talk "with" and not to talk "to." Sometimes we need to spill what's in our hearts but when the other person is hurting, it isn't the time. In a positive reciprocal relationship, you need to speak to your friend according to her ability to hear and to receive so that a connection is made; Not to talk about what you feel, but to be aware of the other person — to be understanding and empathetic.

A relative who volunteers visiting the sick at a hospital told me that she witnessed a difficult conversation: One of the patients had a friend visiting and instead of her asking about her condition, she began telling her about the difficulties that she was going through with background, in color and a cast of additional characters. The patient listened quietly the entire time and didn't respond. She looked exhausted, sighed every minute and was waiting for quiet. A passing nurse saved her when she interrupted to treat her."

Who's at the Center — me or you?

"To be tactful with the other person means to be considerate," comments Mrs. Yehudit Shulam, a family counselor, "this is what all the rules about being in the center relate to — me or the other person. A friend of mine told me that during the shivah of her late husband, people chatted about themselves, hardly paying any attention to her. Only at the end did they mouth, "Hamakom yenachem". Talk flowed on education, yeshivos, girls who weren't accepted to seminary: they were all about sad matters, but no one mentioned her sadness on losing her husband.

If the other person is at the center and I want to give of myself, the behaviors called for are: encouraging and constructive comments, giving and true consideration.

There are people who aren't capable of visiting the sick. It makes them feel bad. So what? You're thinking of yourself. You're at the center and until she isn't well, you can't give to her? And what about her desperate need to receive from you as a friend/relative?

When you want to give to someone, you have to think about what they need, what they want, what would make them feel good and not what's good for you. That's called consideration.

The whole art of understanding people without words is built on the foundation of getting out of myself, blocking my ego, opening my eyes and ears well and looking at what I have to say. If I begin a sentence and I see that the other person is blushing, moving away or stammering, I have to understand that I made a mistake. While I'm in the middle of a sentence, I have to be flexible enough and sensitive enough and confident enough to say to her — "Sorry, I didn't mean to embarrass you; I'm sorry that I caused you pain." It's difficult.

Many times, non-verbal communication is more dominant and more significant, and in order to communicate well, I have to ignore my own difficulty and not think — "Oy, now I have nothing to say to her. What a pain," or "What does she want from my life?" but "What can I give her that will make her feel good? I'll try to help her." If I know her, it's easier and if not, I'll try. Hesitation is always good when the situation is unclear.


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