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Yisro: A Critical Difference

One of the most harmful myths that many of us buy into is that criticism is an effective form of motivation for change. All too often, bosses, supervisors, teachers, or parents will point out what their employees, students, or children are doing wrong in the hopes to correct their behavior. It is fair to assume that in the best of cases, these folks mean well - we want those we are teaching and overseeing to grow, and it is painful to watch them engage in behaviors that get in the way of that growth, or make mistakes that can easily be rectified. Similarly, we can fall into this trap as our own worst critics of ourselves. We call ourselves stupid (or worse) and ruminate about what we should have done differently or better. We may think that by being hard on ourselves, we have a better chance of changing or fixing our ineffective ways of functioning, but in reality, self-criticism is often much more paralyzing than it is activating, and can be markedly harmful, rather than helpful.

In DBT, patients and therapists alike are asked to be mindful of judgments, including statements containing the words “should” or “shouldn’t,” since these terms imply that there is one way things must be done and often lead to a significant amount of ineffective guilt and shame. Recently, a patient of mine questioned this premise. Isn’t it helpful, he wondered, to notice your mistakes and push yourself to improve? This sincere questioning led to a fruitful discussion of the ways in which “should” thoughts, intended to be motivating and encouraging, can actually be crippling and debilitating. Together, we came up with the plan to try to replace “should” thoughts with more open curiosity and helpful, compassionate suggestions. Instead of saying, “I really should stop putting myself last all the time,” my patient would try to say to himself, “I really would love to take more time for myself; I wonder why it’s so hard for me to put myself first, and how I could go about changing this.”

This week, the world mourned the passing of Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Tweski z”l, a giant in Torah, mental health, and Torah and mental health. R’ Dr. Twerski was a renowned Rav and psychiatrist who possessed a keen insight into the human condition coupled with remarkable Torah wisdom. Clinically, R’ Dr. Twerski specialized in substance addiction and recovery, and wrote and spoke frequently about the importance of healthy self-esteem. In the substance use world and beyond, balancing effective self-awareness, which can foster growth and change, with a healthy dose of self-esteem and self-efficacy is often a struggle. Many people who struggle with addictions have been told that their behavior is unacceptable; they know full well what they should do, and in their most lucid moments can beat themselves up about their mistakes better than anyone. Yet this does not help them to change. Actually, as R’ Twerski noted in an article[1] about the Twelve Step Program and its relevance for Jewish individuals, “unalleviated guilt is a frequent cause of relapse.”

This same line of thinking used to modify our inner critic can also be quite effective when we seek to help others. Even when we have the best and most helpful insights, even when we’re right that the way someone is doing something is ineffective, or harmful, the way we deliver this feedback is (pun intended) critical.

In this week’s Parsha, we meet a truly unique and incredible character, Moshe’s father-in-law, Yisro. Prior to joining the Jewish people in the desert, Yisro was the chief Pagan priest of Midyan. Yisro was also a truth seeker; the Mechilta describes that Yisro worshipped many different idols throughout his life in search of authentic spirituality and sustainable religious experience, but always felt that something was lacking. Yisro had a knack for uncovering the flaws in a system, and was determined to find the best, most foolproof religion that existed. One day, he heard about the miracles God performed for the Jewish people, and for their leader Moshe, his son-in-law, from the splitting of the sea to the miraculous defeat of Amalek (Rashi 18:1). Yisro came to join the Jewish people and the name Chovav was added as another of his seven names, “she’chibev es HaTorah,” because he loved the Torah (Mechilta D’Rebbe Yishmael 18:1:2). So deep and sincere was Yisro’s love for Torah that the entire Parsha, in which the first set of the Ten Commandments is written, is named after him. In Torah Judaism, Yisro finally found the truth he was seeking.

After reuniting Moshe with his two sons and his wife and hearing in detail about all the miracles God performed for the Jewish people, Yisro observes Moshe’s leadership routine and recognizes a flaw in his son-in-law’s methodology. Yisro watched as Moshe sat and heard the people’s questions and guided and advised them from morning to night, and he saw how much of the burden of leadership lay solely on Moshe’s shoulders (18:13). His keen truth-seeking eye recognized a flaw in Moshe’s system, and he sought to change it, to help Moshe and Klal Yisrael. Rav Yerucham Levovitz notes in his Sefer Daas Torah that Yisro was a critical person, but was able to use this trait for the good, both to seek out Torah and monotheism as well as to help Moshe set up his system of judges, which ultimately lasted for generations.

Rather than directly criticizing Moshe, however, Yisro approaches thoughtfully and compassionately. He asks Moshe (18:14) “What is this that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand around you from morning to night?” While Moshe, the most humble man who ever lived, would be unlikely to become defensive even if Yisro had directly criticized him, Yisro’s behavior was not just for Moshe’s benefit, but for ours, as well. By forming his observation as a question, Yisro avoided alienating Moshe with his criticism, and thus kept his attention by engaging him in a thoughtful discussion about possible solutions to this problem he noticed. This is an essential component of being able to give feedback to others, and to ourselves. It is part of what makes constructive criticism constructive!

Yet Yisro takes it one step further. Whereupon Moshe explains that he listens to the people’s disputes and judges their cases for them, Yisro is able to respond directly to Moshe’s problem by gently explaining that this method is counterproductive, for it is burdensome to Moshe (18: 15-18). He then does what the best givers of feedback and criticism often do – he makes a useful, pointed suggestion that directly addresses Moshe’s needs. He first qualifies his position by stating that while he will give Moshe an Eitzah, an idea, he also advises that Moshe consult with God regarding his suggestion, to approve of it (Rashi 18:19). He then proceeds to counsel Moshe to involve other capable men in leading the people and to appoint a hierarchical chain of command, which Moshe immediately does (18:24).

Yisro’s actions teach us three main lessons about giving and receiving feedback and using criticism in an effective way.

Firstly, even the most accurate critical eye needs to communicate its observations in a compassionate, thoughtful, and curious manner in order to be well received. It might be true that our way of doing something isn’t working for us, or that a student, employee, friend, or family member is making mistakes that are getting in their own way. And yet, communicating that truth using pejoratives and “should” statements makes it a harder pill to swallow. Making observations, becoming curious, and asking the subject of our criticism or feedback questions about their behavior in a genuine and gentle way can help them to be more receptive to engaging in the conversation and hearing what we have to say.

Secondly, our feedback is far more helpful and useful when it targets something that actually bothers or impacts the other person. Yisro’s suggestion was not just about seeing something ineffective, it was about his concern for Moshe and for Klal Yisrael as a whole, and by making note of the burden on Moshe, Yisro’s advice was far more meaningful.

Finally, the most irritating and debilitating kind of criticism is that which is unaccompanied by any alternative suggestions or solutions. If you’re going to criticize, whether it’s a call out against someone else or a self-criticism, be prepared to problem solve. Yisro did not just tell Moshe what was wrong with his system - he offered a reasonable, effective, and sustainable solution that would outlast both himself and his son-in-law. This is what made Yisro’s feedback valuable and worthy of taking up an entire chapter of space in the Parsha that carries his name.

This week, consider your own critical tendencies. Are you a keen observer of ineffective behavior in others? Do you easily notice when your friends or family are doing things in a way that is dysfunctional or unhelpful? Perhaps your critical eye is trained inward, and you, too, notice yourself having more “should” thoughts than not. Try to be mindful of the way you talk to yourself, or to others, when seeking to change or be helpful. Be curious, rather than directly critical. Wonder out loud about the way things are being done and be genuine in your desire to improve what is happening. Address the problem and its impact, rather than just nit picking at what is “wrong.” And finally, if you’re going to point out the problems, be prepared to offer or brainstorm about some potential solutions. It isn’t always easy to give effective advice, but when we can do this with love and compassion, the difference is critical.

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