Listen Before You Speak

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein  |  September 20, 2016

Elderly man flipping through a book while he's about to walk outside.

To answer before listening—
    that is folly and shame.
— Proverbs 18:13

Perhaps this has happened to you — you have spoken your mind only to realize afterward that you completely misunderstood the situation and your words were way out of line. Certainly it’s true for most of us that we’ve probably spoken out of turn a few times.

Often, in our desire to be heard, we speak too soon. Other times in our need to be right, we speak wrongly. Speaking too quickly — before we truly understand what is going on — is never a good idea, no matter how tempted we might be to “correct” the situation.

The following story illustrates this idea: A father and son were once traveling on a train. The son, in his early 20s, looked out the window with childlike enthusiasm. “Look, Dad! The trees are going behind us,” the young man exclaimed as the train zoomed by. A couple sitting across the aisle gave the father a pitiful look. Clearly there was something wrong with his son.

Next the boy yelled out, “Look Dad! The clouds are following us.” The father nodded and smiled lovingly at his son. This was just too much for the couple looking on. They couldn’t hold back and said to the father in a condescending tone, “You know, there is something wrong with your son. You really should take him to see a good doctor.”

The father gently responded, “I just did. We have just come from one of the finest doctors in the world. My son was born blind. This is the first day that he can see!”

In the book of Proverbs we read: “To answer before listening—that is folly and shame.” The Jewish sages explain that in this context the verse isn’t just referring to hearing something, although that is also an important skill we all must develop. “Listening” in this context means understanding.

To speak before we understand the situation at hand is unwise. It will make us look foolish and, at times, bring shame upon us. Instead, we must first listen fully and understand deeply before we dare pass judgment and make our opinion known.

One way to lift people up in our lives is by speaking words of encouragement and inspiration. But another way to serve others in our lives is simply to listen to them in a non-judgmental manner. In this way, we allow people to be heard and to feel heard. Moreover, we can respond better in any situation when we have taken the time to truly listen.

This week, let’s resolve to listen more and speak less. Let’s love more and judge less. Every person has a story and a struggle that we know nothing about. Let’s give each other the benefit of the doubt and hear what others have to say before we utter a word.

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