A man has a wife and a concubine. The concubine is fertile; the wife is not. The concubine bears a son. Conflict with the wife ensues. After the wife finally has a boy, she prevails on her husband to send the concubine and her son away. He reluctantly agrees.
We know this story and its protagonists: Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac. We read it on Rosh Hashanah. Our new mahzor points out something we seldom notice. Sarah never talks to Hagar.
A couple has twins. The elder is rough and crude, the younger is gentle and clever. The mother knows that the younger is destined to supplant the elder. She sees the elder sons defects clearly, in ways that her husband does not. But Rebecca never talks about it with Isaac. Instead she takes matters into her own hands.
A couple have very different ideas about household neatness. They do talk about it, but in the form of periodic outbursts and accusations from the neatnik and defensiveness and anger from the slob.
What do these stories have in common? What causes conflicts every day, in families, communities, workplaces and congregations? People need to have a difficult conversation, and they avoid it. Afraid of emotion, shying from anger, ducking confrontation, we let matters build to a crisis or an emotional explosion.
This issue seems particularly urgent during the High Holy Days, when we are actually required to have a difficult conversation—seeking forgiveness from those whom we wronged and facing those who have hurt us.
A wonderful book called Difficult Conversations by a team from the Harvard Negotiation Project, and the wisdom of our tradition, have helped me to understand these interactions.
What makes a conversation difficult? The Harvard writers tell us, “Any time we feel vulnerable or our self-esteem is implicated, when the issues at stake are important and the outcome uncertain, when we care deeply about what is being discussed or about the people with whom we are discussing it, there is potential to experience the conversation as difficult.”
There are further complications. We often have divergent takes on the situation under discussion. People have different information, past experiences, and assumptions. Furthermore, difficult conversations are by definition emotional, for one or both of the parties. Feelings, often imperfectly understood, get stirred into the brew. Sometimes, our very self-understanding, our identity is challenged. For example, criticism can trigger our insecurities.
We face difficult conversations in every aspect of our lives. Anyone who has ever had to deliver or receive a performance review at work knows this. By the way, you could say that Jonah ran away in order to avoid giving a negative review to Nineveh. Tonight/today I want to focus on difficult conversations in our personal lives.
Many elements come into play in difficult conversations. The Harvard authors would say that there are actually three conversations: The “What Happened?” conversation, the feelings conversation, and the identity conversation.
The “What Happened?” part of the conversation carries many assumption traps. First, we think that we know exactly what happened. Second, we think we know what the other person intended. Third, we think that we are right and the other person is wrong!
We read an example of the first problem in the Torah reading on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Abraham and Abimelech conclude a treaty. Then Abraham reproached Abimelech for the well of water which the servants of Abimelech had seized. But Abimelech said, “I do not know who did this; you did not tell me, nor have I heard of it until today.”
Each of them has a completely different take on what happened. Abraham thinks that because Abimelech’s servants grabbed the well, Abimelech must have known or even ordered it. Yet, it’s all news to an astonished Abimelech.
Through actually talking about it, they were able to sort things out and reconcile. As the new mahzor commentary puts it, “Abimelech responds defensively to Abraham’s accusation. When Abimelech critiqued Abraham’s behavior earlier in Genesis, Abraham reacted with similarly self-justifying words. Yet somehow they soon proceed to settle their differences. Perhaps each one suddenly perceives his own defensiveness as mirrored by the other—a mutual recognition that enables them to forge a covenant.”
In other words, even though the conversation didn’t begin well, they actually listened to each other’s stories and then worked together to sort out what happened.
The Harvard authors summarize the second trap.
“We assume we know the intentions of others when we don’t. Worse still, when we are unsure about someone’s intentions, we too often decide that they are bad.”
The solution here is simple: Never assume that we know or can know what is going on in someone else’s head. I can only know what I intended, and how the other person’s actions affected me. So in conversation, my goal is to share the impact on me—with I statements, not accusations—and try to learn what the other person was thinking.
The third trap is the most treacherous. We know that we are right and the other person is wrong. We know that they are to blame and we are completely innocent. So our goal is to convince the other person that they are wrong, so they will accept the blame. Have you ever tried to do that? How well did that work for you? Usually the other person becomes, angry, defensive and accusatory. It’s a great way to make a difficult conversation impossible, and to prolong conflict.
The Harvard authors suggest that despite our own sense of flawless virtue, in most cases both parties have contributed to the problem, wittingly or unwittingly. It’s far more useful to examine the situation together and see how each of you might have been a factor in the problem.
There’s another kind of difficult conversation: an argument over ideas, beliefs, or politics. These are terrible times for public discourse. People shout at each other. They call each other names, calling the other not just wrong, but bad. This doesn’t just happen on television. Many people have told me about lost friendships and estranged family relationships after such arguments. Or else we avoid whole topics, because we fear conflict.
The Harvard authors put it well. Whether we are arguing over who should have done the dishes or over political philosophy, we think that they are the problem and they think that we are the problem.
So they ask, “Why is it always the other person who is naïve or selfish or irrational or controlling? Why is it that we never think that we are the problem?” It’s simple: what we think seems obvious to us, and therefore correct. Guess what? The other person thinks the same thing. To end this impasse, we must acknowledge and listen to the other person.
I’ll give you an example from last year when I spoke about arguments over Israeli policy. For some of us, the story is “Israel is a beleaguered state surrounded by enemies who want to destroy it. Therefore it must be tough and unyielding. The most important way to assure Israel’s survival is security.” For others, the story is, “Israel was founded to be a Jewish state. Therefore it must embody the highest Jewish values in the way it treats Palestinians. The most important thing to assure Israel’s survival is that it be just.”
Both sides love Israel and want it to exist and flourish. But they have very different stories about the nature of Israel and its challenges.
So whether it’s politics or family chores, we operate from different information, from divergent ideas about what is important, from individual interpretations based on our past experiences. We think our viewpoint is right, and we all want is that the other person concede that they are wrong.
In all these confusions and misunderstandings, one thing is missing: listening. The Harvard writers call it moving from certainty to curiosity. Instead of asking, “How can they think that?” Ask, “What do they know that I don’t?” Instead of asking, “How can they be so irrational?” ask, “How do they see the world?”
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield’s book’s title says it all, “You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right.” We tend to argue with people using the preposition “but,” as in, “I hear what you’re saying, but…” Instead, we need to say, “and,” as in “I grew up in a chaotic, messy home. I associate mess with neglect, so I have a need to be in an orderly space” and “You grew up with a compulsively neat mother who covered all the furniture and would only let you play in your room. For you, neatness equals control, so you don’t like to be told to clean up.”
Once you hear each other’s stories, and discover the other person’s experiences, interpretations and intentions, you can have a more constructive conversation.
These are only some of the elements of a successful difficult conversation, but they are a good start: Don’t assume you know the other person’s intentions, and don’t assume that they are bad. Good people can differ on the facts of a situation. Listening and inquiry are much better than accusation and argument. And when it comes to discussions of religion and politics, “You don’t have to be wrong for me to be right.”
Let’s return to Sarah and Hagar. They didn’t talk, but instead triangulated Abraham into their dispute, and Sarah used her higher status to get Hagar and Ishmael out of the way. Author Rosellen Brown imagined an alternate story, a midrash. What if the women had talked and listened with empathy and understanding. What if they refused to see their conflict as an either-or proposition, but instead made it an “and” conversation? In her version
[Abraham] cohabited with Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was overcome with sorrow mixed with joy, for her husband’s house was thereby strengthened without her.
Now Sarai would not express her pain, but Hagar came to her and said “How is it with you? Was it not your wish that your house and your husband’s house increase through me?” And Sarai wept that her handmaid should supplant her in the eyes of her husband and become the mother of generations by the Lord’s hand. But Hagar embraced her mistress and swore loyalty to her house, saying, “You also shall be as a mother to this child.”
In this midrash, because Hagar initiates an empathetic conversation with Sarah, God’s angel tells her:
“I will greatly increase your offspring, and they shall be too many to count…Behold, you are pregnant, and shall bear a son; and you shall call his name Ishmael. And he shall be a gentle deer of a man; his hand shall be joined in friendship with everyone, and everyone’s with his; and he shall dwell in the heart of all his kin.”
Touchingly, Hagar invites Sarah to be with her at the birth, her hand on Hagar’s belly. Sarah finally conceives and bears Isaac. At Isaac’s weaning,
Sarah saw Hagar’s son…making sport. Wherefore she upbraided Hagar that she did naught to make him heed. And Hagar said once more, as she had said at the time of his birth, “Let him do nothing that is grievous in your sight. You also shall be as a mother to this child. Go and reprove him and he shall pay heed to you as to a mother.” So Sarah spoke words to Ishmael as if he were her own, now speaking hard words, now gentle. And Ishmael became as the Lord had promised, a man who loved goodness and hated injustice.
Quite stunning, isn’t it? Once someone listens with empathy, and acknowledges the other’s narrative, everything changes. This version continues with Sarah rebuking Abraham for favoring Isaac, saying, “‘There shall be no peace in our house if you divide your love as a loaf of bread, in unequal portions. Since God has opened both our wombs for you, you shall put neither son above the other’…And all their days their sons were not divided, but they shared their portion and lived as brothers…In time, each was father to a multitude which lived in harmony according to their wishes.” 
Unfortunately, it’s fantasy, but it teaches an enduring truth: too many conflicts and estrangements happen because we don’t talk to each other. When we do talk, we don’t listen, we assume the worst about other people’s motives, and we want to win the argument rather than reach an understanding. Instead of saying, “You don’t have to be wrong for me to be right,” we are like the ministers arguing about the best way to do God’s work. Finally, one says to the other, “You and I see differently, and that’s OK. We don’t need to agree. You can do God’s work in your way, and I’ll do God’s work in His way.”
But if someone initiates a dialogue, and listens with empathy, great things can happen. We can discover this in our own lives if we will do the hard work of difficult conversations.
So let’s embrace the “and.” Let’s commit to conducting our difficult conversations with rahamim, compassison, anavah, humility, and kavod, respect. If we do, we’ll need fewer teshuvah conversations, and the ones we have will produce better results.
One more thing: I fear that the angry, scorched earth non-conversations afflicting America might invade Beth David. I am determined to keep our sacred community an island of civil discourse and respectful discussion. We have some issues that we need to talk about as we navigate our “and” of tradition and change—among them outreach to intermarrieds and inclusion of gays and lesbians. Beth David has a good history of conducting disagreements with love and resolving disputes without rancor. To continue this tradition, we must build an iron wall against the clangor of certainty and enmity out there and keep the poison of anger and accusation out of our house. As a community we must be open to each other’s stories and feelings and our own imperfections, listen with humility, and assume the best about others.
The great poet Yehudah Amichai wrote about the perils of self-certainly and the healing power of openness:
|From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the spring.
The place where we are
|But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place where the ruined house
As we consider our own faults, as we gather our courage to offer apologies to others, as we ponder apologies offered to us, let us remember this challenging but true foundation of human relations: we have to talk to each other with doubts and loves, especially the difficult conversations.
- Talk to each other lest anger simmer.
- Talk to each other lest resentment fester.
- Talk to each other lest relationships wither.
- Talk to each other, above all, so that we can bring understanding, reconciliation and healing into our world.
 Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen, p. xv.
 P. 11.
 Adapted from “Hagar and Sarah, Sarah and Hagar,” by Rosellen Brown, in Beginning Anew: A Woman’s Companion to the High Holy Days, edited by Gail Twersky Reimer an Judith A. Kates.