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Judaism posits that “the Torah is acquired through 48 virtues” (Pirkei Avot 6:6), known as the 48 middot. One of these middot, sh’miat haozen, is the virtue that literally tells us to have “a listening ear.” We can follow this virtue, in part, by practicing “active listening” – and in doing so, we better position ourselves to build and maintain the sacred partnerships that are so central to the work of sacred leadership.
Allison Daniel of Clemson University’s Pearce Center for Professional Communication explains,
"Hearing is simply registering the words being said, while listening is paying close attention to what is being said and processing it. This type of listening is often referred to as ‘active listening,’ which means you are listening with the intent to understand.”
As Jewish leaders, we are tasked with improving our congregations and communities for everyone within them; listening to our members’ feedback, requests, and concerns, with the intent of understanding them, is the first step in the process of making improvements. By creating a space of trust and open-mindedness for the sake of others, we also fulfill the mitzvah of g’milut chasadim (acts of lovingkindness) – and we do it with our undivided attention, simply by saying little and doing much.
Here are a few tips to make sure your community members’ concerns are fully heard and processed.
Above all else, it is important to establish comfort with the person you’re listening to, which is best done by establishing a “safe space.” CBC columnist Lara Rae defines such spaces as those “where a promise is made to individuals who face bigotry…that harassment of individuals, based on attributes over which they have no agency (i.e. their race, their physical body, their mental health and abilities, etc.), is sternly prohibited.”
Making your space a safe one is as simple as keeping this promise to those who entrust you with their thoughts, feelings, and concerns. Establish from the beginning that these individuals are welcome as they are, that everything said in your shared safe space will be taken seriously, and that unless they request otherwise, your discussions will remain confidential.
Have you ever had a conversation in which you knew the other person was ignoring everything you said, even though they were doing a lot of nodding and saying “Mmm-hmm”? Do you remember how it felt to be listened to but not truly heard?
This may not have been purposeful. Perhaps the person with whom you were attempting to hold a conversation had pressing preoccupations – but nonetheless, they did not honor the conversation happening in that moment.
When conversing with our community members, it’s important that we, as leaders, give them our complete focus and remove any and all distractions (i.e. silence your cell phone, lock your computer screen, etc.). This conveys our respect for them and says we’re truly absorbing their words.
When listening, be sure to provide verbal cues that you’re actively listening to what they’re saying – not just hearing it. This might mean repeating a paraphrased version of their statement back, just to make sure you heard everything correctly, or asking clarifying questions.
This is the hard part. Often, we associate leadership with solving problems quickly and efficiently. However, our best intentions can prompt us to offer unsolicited advice at times when the other person simply needs to address an issue, be heard, or receive validation for their experience. As Moses Ibn Ezra wisely said, “If speech is silver, silence is gold.”
In these moments, instead of going into problem-solving mode, assure the other person that you are taking their concerns seriously, and ask how they would like the situation to be handled. If they specifically ask for your counsel or for you to fix an issue, that’s a different story – but sometimes, the act of simply being present and engaged is more than enough.
Writer and keynote speaker Connor Beaton defines “holding space” as “the process of witnessing and validating someone else's emotional state while simultaneously being present to your own.” This is the true spiritual core of active listening: creating a two-way street in which someone shares with you their burdens, anxieties, and questions, and in which you return support, compassion, and understanding.
The definition of sacred partnership begins with this text: When two people sit together and there are words of Torah (wisdom, goodness) between them, the Shekhinah (Divine Presence) dwells among them (Pirkei Avot 3:2). When we make space to actively listen and honor the feelings and experiences of those we serve, we can find the Divine Presence in those moments as well.
Chris Harrison is the writer and editor for Audacious Hospitality at the Union for Reform Judaism and a fellow in the 2018 JewV’Nation Fellowship’s Jews of Color Leadership Cohort. Deborah Niederman, RJE, serves as the associate director of the URJ Leadership Institute. She lives in Dallas, TX, with her family.