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Wednesday, 23 December 2015

How to get people to value your opinion

Daf Yomi Gittin 9

Among his many voluntary and philanthropic activities, Professor Ron Bercov z”l was a long-serving member of the shul board at Beth Israel.   He was a man of few words who would sit back and mostly listen to the conversation at the meetings.  But after everyone had said their piece, inevitably the board chair would turn to Ron and ask his opinion.  The elder statesman would offer a flash of brilliance and suddenly everyone would wonder what had taken them so long to seek the professor’s advice.

If one deeds all his possessions to his servant, the latter is thereby freed. If, however, he left over any amount of land whatsoever, he is not freed.  Rabbi Shimon says: He is always freed, unless the owner says, ‘All my possessions are hereby given to so-and-so, my servant, except for one ten-thousandth of them.
Rashi explains: When he specifies that he is not releasing all his land, the servant goes free.  But when he does not specify what he is retaining, he might be referring to this individual, and therefore he is not freed.
When this halachic discussion was mentioned before Rabbi Yossi, he declared over Rabbi Shimon the verse in Proverbs, “The lips are pursed to one who responds sensibly.”
Tosfos explains: When a person says something sensible, those around him purse their lips tightly together, meaning that they are silenced, having nothing further to respond.

 Some people have an opinion on everything.  They talk and talk.  Occasionally, they might be offering sensible ideas, but since they’re always talking, they end up drowning themselves out.  It becomes nothing more than background noise.  It’s like the little boy who cried wolf – after a while, people stop listening.

And then there are people who seldom talk.  So when they do, people pay attention.  To such people, the words of King Solomon in Proverbs apply.  They merit the final say, because they only speak when they have a concrete solution. 

The truth is, what really sets such people apart is not their ability to speak, but their listening skills.  You can only offer a cogent opinion if you have truly heard what others have to say.  Armed with all the information, you can weigh both sides of an argument and determine what is missing from the conversation and bring it all together with words of wisdom. 

On the balance of things, are you a talker or a listener?  Do you pay attention when others are speaking and truly weigh their words carefully?  Or do you feel the need to immediately show how knowledgeable and thoughtful you are on every matter being discussed?

It’s not easy to be a listener.  We are trained to believe that the more we speak, the more we demonstrate our worldliness and breadth of knowledge.  But, as Rabbi Akiva teaches in Pirkei Avot, “The fence protecting wisdom is silence.”   

Does Rabbi Akiva mean that you should stand around saying nothing at a party, while everyone else is chit-chatting?  That’s not what he means; people would drift away from you pretty quickly if they found you difficult to make conversation with!

What Rabbi Akiva means is that you don’t need to feel rushed to offer your thoughts and opinions – being a good listener means being a good questioner.   When you ask the right questions of the other person, they feel needed and appreciated.  You get the opportunity to learn something new that you might not have known before, or at least a new way of looking at things.  And as long as you are engaging the other person, the conversation will continue for as long as you choose.

The problem is that we don’t like to sound like fools.  You think to yourself, ‘If I don’t offer an opinion, they’ll think less of me.’  That’s just not true.  Nobody knows everything about everything and unless you ask the right questions, you will continue to wallow in your mediocre wisdom.  You sound more foolish when you offer half-baked opinions than when you ask good questions with the serious desire to listen and learn.

The lips are pursed to one who responds sensibly.  It’s better to say nothing at all than to offer an opinion that is thoughtless and faulty.  Instead of rushing to weigh in on a topic you might have limited knowledge about, learn to ask the right questions.  May your opinion always be well thought out and may the lips of all around become pursed with wonder and appreciation when you speak!  

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