Were you ever in an important conversation and you felt like you weren't getting your point across? You started shouting: "Do you hear what I'm saying? You're not paying attention. Do you hear me!?"

Everyone is guilty of this. How many times do we think we're listening to the other person, only to find out later that our mind was somewhere else? Before you decide whether to accept or reject an idea, before you argue, before you make statements, before you decry – first make sure you're being objective. Otherwise, you're expressing an emotional prejudice – not an intelligent opinion.

Shmi'at b'ozen literally means "listen with your ears." When the Torah uses the word Shema – as in "Hear O Israel" – it implies a deeper level listening – focusing, paying attention, understanding, and putting into action. Zero in on just what is being said and let the message penetrate your thoughts.

Effective listening means:

  1. Hearing the words.
  2. Understanding the message.
  3. Putting it into action.

Define Your Terms

I was once talking to a tourist on his first visit to Israel. He seemed disenchanted.

"They call this the Holy Land," he said. "But I've been up north, down south, to Jerusalem, Masada, all over – and there's nothing holy about this place."
So I asked him: "Tell me, are you a bafoofstik?"
"What's that?"
"Just answer the question: Are you a bafoofstik or not?"
"How can I answer when I don't even know what you're talking about?!"
"Aha," I stopped him. "And holiness? Is it angels flapping their wings down the street, in rainbows of color and light, swirling in and out of rocks?"

We throw around concepts, but often our thoughts are vague and unsubstantial. Without an objective definition, we can't begin any intellectual process.

"Are you a good person?"
"Of course, I'm good! What kind of an insulting question is that?"
"So tell me, what is the definition of a good person?"

If you really desire to be a good person, you need more than feelings to determine whether you're reaching your goal or not. You'll need a clear way of measuring it. Otherwise people can do whatever they feel like doing and paint themselves "good." Even Hitler presumably had a goal of "doing good" – ridding the world of Jewish vermin. But somewhere, something went wrong.

Once you have an objective definition, then you can determine if your life is consistent with that definition. It's true, a person can twist anything. But the more clarity you've got, the harder it is to twist.

THE "I-YOU-HE" GAME

The 48 Ways has a concept called the "I-You-He" game. It's based on the premise that we usually describe people on three levels. When we refer to ourselves, we paint the best picture possible. With others, we don't want be insulting to their face, so we paint them gray. And when someone is not around to defend himself, we paint him black. "I" am white. "You" are gray. "He" is black.

You're the passenger in a car careening 90 miles an hour down a winding mountain road. As you grip the dashboard in fear for your life, you turn to the driver and say, "Aren't you being a bit foolhardy?"
"Me? Oh, no. I'm brave. I'm not afraid of anything!"
If you're lucky enough to live to tell about it, you say, "That guy's a reckless idiot!"

The driver refers to himself as "brave." To his face, you call him "foolhardy." To a third party, he's a "reckless idiot."

Which one is the reality?

By working through objective definitions, we can assess the situation without personal feelings getting in the way:

  1. "Brave" = taking a necessary risk for a worthwhile purpose (e.g. rushing into a burning building to save the children trapped inside).
  2. "Foolhardy" = taking an unnecessary risk, yet with a noble purpose (e.g. rushing in to save the children, but without any protective gear).
  3. "A Reckless Idiot" = taking an unnecessary risk, for no worthwhile purpose (e.g. rushing in just to watch the beams fall down).

Back to the car on the mountain road.

You turn to the driver and say, "Why are we risking our lives? What is the worthwhile purpose?"
The driver will have to agree he's being a reckless idiot.

That's being an intellectual. Leading with your head, rather than muddling through life based on feelings alone. Otherwise, you're always stuck on the level of: "I'm brave, he's a reckless idiot."

Back to Basics

To get your definitions straight, start with the basics. Think of concepts you use all the time, fundamentals upon which you've built your life. Don't use words until you have a definition. You'll be surprised how much you've assumed about a particular idea, and how that assumption has guided your life.

You believe in "tolerance." What do you mean by it? You believe in justice? Truth? Love? Freedom? Fairness? Ask yourself: "What do these ideas really mean?" If it's a basic idea that shapes your world outlook, you had better know what it means!

Take the example of free will. Judaism says that free will is the decision between what you "want" to do, and what you "feel like" doing. For example, if you harmed someone, you know that you "want" to apologize. Sure, it's the right thing to do and will make peace. But you don't "feel like" doing it because it may be embarrassing and unpleasant.

With rare exception, no one consciously chooses evil in the sense of "evil, oooooh, I want to be bad and inflict suffering." No. We choose evil because in the short term, it's a less painful way of dealing with a difficult situation. We do what we "feel like" doing because it's easy.

Apply this definition of free will to your life. Do you want to be great? Sure! But you don't feel like making the effort. You feel like postponing it, procrastinating it and ducking the issue.

"I don't want to be great, I only want to be average."
"Really? You want mediocrity?"
"Of course not. I want greatness. Just not today!"
"Why not today?"
"Because I just don't feel like it..."

Do you have a goal? You know you can do it. It's just too painful. Make the decision and nothing will stop you. That's using your free will.

Objective Argumentation

Sometimes we don't pay attention. We can talk for hours and not even know what we're arguing about.

Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai are two famous disputants in Talmudic literature. They argued about almost everything and saw the world from nearly opposite perspectives. For example, Beit Hillel says we should light one Chanukah candle the first night, and add one candle each subsequent night. Beit Shammai, on the other hand, says to light eight candles the first night and then decrease one candle each night. Opposite perspectives!

Jewish law follows Beit Hillel. Why? Because in any disagreement, Beit Hillel would always first state the opinion of Beit Shammai, and only then state his own position. In this way, Beit Hillel's position was deemed more objective, reflecting a truth that lay somewhere in between. That's why Jewish law follows Beit Hillel.

The next time you find yourself in an argument, get the picture straight. Don't take any ideas for granted, even if you think you understand what they mean. Listen for the message behind the message. Very often the fight is about something entirely different than you thought it was. Maybe underneath the other person is feeling, "He doesn't respect me," or "He takes me for granted." Get the message, not only the words. Ask: "What is her point? What does she mean? What does she want?"

Don't be busy getting your answer ready while the other person is still talking. Through questioning, you'll find there is always something deeper. Ask the person: "Do you mean to say... Please tell me if I understand you correctly." This way at least you know that you're arguing about the same thing."

Once you think you understand the idea, make the effort to say it over in your own words. Similarly, choosing our own example to illustrate what others are saying forces you to zero in on the essence of that idea. It's a good test to see if you understand the message. And it will help you integrate it and remember it.

Don't Be a Zombie

Laziness is holding us back. Creatures use their best instruments effectively – wings, claws, beaks. But man frequently fails to use his best instrument, his mind. Man will go to any amount of work to avoid thinking. You can read the New York Times for a few hours and then... nothing, blank! It's a great feeling, but what does it mean? What did you learn?

Get into a defining mode. Acquire the habit of analyzing what's happening around you. Anything worth your time – reading the newspaper, a novel, having a conversation, watching a movie, touring – should be productive. Always define your goal ahead of time. What do you want to accomplish?

Then afterwards, articulate what you learned. If you don't, you'll wind up living with intellectual confusion. For example, people who get fired from a job say they've learned a lot: "Now I know that I can't trust employers, that I'm incapable of a successful career, that the business world is hell, and that..."

But that's not what you are supposed to learn. What you should learn is the importance of studying the keys to a successful career before you get a job!

In Judaism, we go a lot deeper. We say "clarity or death." "Death" is the complete absence of consciousness; reduced consciousness is therefore partial death. Either you know what you are living for, you know what you want, you know what your pleasure is – or else you are living like a zombie. That's why we need definitions. It gives us clarity for living.

Torah Wisdom

Proper definitions are especially important when you are learning about our Jewish heritage. Taken at face value, the Torah may appear simplistic. Yet we know from tradition that the deepest concepts are contained within Torah, often encoded in simpler messages. Every word is carefully chosen.

If the Almighty is speaking, you ought to understand exactly what He's saying. When we speak of Torah, we're speaking of God and eternity, forever. We cannot afford mistakes in this area of life. A mistake in understanding Torah is a mistake for eternity. It's like sending a rocket to the moon. If you send it in a general direction – but you're off target by a fraction of a mistake in a logarithm of the arc – then you're lost in space.

Let's take an example. The Torah says there is a commandment to "know there's a God." So ask: "What is a commandment? What does it mean to 'know?' Who is God?" Define your terms in order to get behind the message and discover deeper ideas for life. Decode the key.

There's a crucial final step as well. Always ask yourself: "Now that I understand, what am I going to do about it?"

Why is "Effective Listening" a Way to Wisdom?

  • "Listen" and "silent" have the same letters.
  • Get the picture straight, especially when you are emotionally involved.
  • Don't fall into the trap of the "I-You-He" game.
  • Without definitions, you can fool yourself into thinking you're living "the good life."
  • No one wants to be a bafoofstik.
  • Torah contains powerful tools for living. Make sure you dig out the depth of meaning.
  • There's no use arguing if you don't know what you're arguing about. No use in learning if you don't know what you've learned. No use in taking action if you don't know what you want to achieve.
  • If you use this tool for the rest of your life, you are rich.