How to Reach People
By Simon Jacobson
A young but dynamic speaker once called me frantically. He was about to deliver a lecture on a certain topic and he had an attack of ‘stage fright.’ “How can I get up there and speak with authority to an educated audience about subjects that they may know more about than I do?” he asked. “I feel like a fraud,” he continued, “totally inadequate talking about science and history to scientists and historians.”
Before I share our conversation with you, let us learn from the greatest communicator of all how to speak to others.
In this week’s Torah portion (Shmot) Moses is chosen by G-d to redeem the Jewish people from their oppression under Pharaoh and the Egyptians. In his classical dialogue with G-d – a fascinating dialogue that teaches us volumes about establishing a relationship with G-d –
Moses resists becoming G-d’s messenger. Among his arguments he says to G-d: “I am not a man of words…my speech is difficult and my tongue is difficult” (Exodus 4:10). I find it difficult to speak and find the right language. To which G-d replies with a resounding statement: “Who gave man a mouth … Is it not I, G-d? Now go, and I will be your mouth” (4:11-12).
What happens? Moses approaches Pharaoh and gets G-d’s message across; he succeeds in freeing the Jews from Egypt. Moses then becomes the supreme teacher and communicator. Moshe Rabeinu. Moses receives the Torah at Sinai and proceeds to teach it to the people. This man of ‘no words’ becomes the source of Divine words for all of time. An entire book of the Torah is even named “Devorim” – “these are the words that Moses spoke.” It is the words of Moses, the ‘man of no words,’ that are remembered forever. Is there anyone else in history whose every word is known and analyzed as those of Moses in the Bible? How many books and commentaries have been written to understand every utterance that came out Moses’ mouth?
Why? Because true communication is not about brilliant ideas, eloquent oratory skills, compelling presentations; it is about ‘bittul,’ about recognizing that you are a channel – a transparent conduit – to convey a truth that is greater than yourself. And the more transparent you are, the better your communication will be. Conversely, the more your ego is in the way, the less resonance your message will have. When your personality stands between your message and the listeners then your personality dilutes (distorts?) the message.
Moses was the greatest communicator because he had the deepest self suspension (bittul). G-d chose Moses precisely because he didn’t want the ‘job.’ G-d didn’t want someone who was enamored with themselves and their speaking abilities. He didn’t want a leader who was interested in emanating great light and energy (ohr); He wanted someone who would excel at absorbing Higher wisdom, Divine knowledge, and someone who would therefore appreciate the containers (keilim) more than the lights. Because as great as your own light can be, it still (and always) remains your light, and is defined and limited as such. However, when you become an absorber, you can then retain and convey knowledge and light much greater than yourself.
And this is what I told my dear friend: True speaking is listening. It is not about you (the speaker and teacher); it is about the truth, the knowledge, and about the people you are speaking to. Before you get up to speak, as yourself this question: “Are the words I am about to say important for the audience to hear?” “Is the next hour (or whatever time your talk will take) the single most important thing that the audience (and you, the lecturer) can be doing?
If your answer is no, then you shouldn’t be giving this talk. It means that you don’t respect your audience and also yourself. Why should they be spending their precious time and energy listening to you now and not do more important things? The only right you have to speak to others – including those more educated, refined and experienced than yourself – is because you are not sharing your own thoughts and ideas; you are sharing wisdom and truth that you have heard and absorbed, coming from a higher place.
Preface your lecture by saying just that. Your only right to speak is because you have listened – listened to teachers and masters, who in turn listened to their masters, all links in an unbroken chain of listeners (not ‘chachomim,’ but ‘talmidei chachomim,’ pupils of wise ones), going back to the first listener – and thus, speaker – Moses.
Communication is about trust. About opening up channels between you and your listeners, so that they are receptive to hear your words. The only way to help an audience get beyond stereotypes and others psychological blocks, is to get out of the way and allow the higher and inner truth resonate. The more you are into yourself, the less you are invested in the message and the audience. And your listeners will know – they will feel it. They will be able to sense the truth of the message – and get beyond their own resistance – only if you allow them to by getting your own personality out of the way. Words from the heart enter the heart, our sages teach us. Words that come only from the mouth or even the mind, enter one ear and out the other.
True, there are speakers we listen to for their brilliance, for their advice on medical, financial, or other issues. Though they may be arrogant speakers, we still listen to what they have to say, because we want their information. In exchange for their ‘goods’ we may be willing to tolerate their egos and even obnoxiousness (not for long, and sometimes not even for a moment). But even then, no true communication has taken place; only (at best) a transactional imparting of information.
This may be true regarding cold facts and hard information. But when it comes to communicating truth, emotional and spiritual tools to help people live better lives, then ego, arrogance and the likes, all block the way for healthy communication.
This was the gist of the conversation between myself and my friend about the nature of communication – a discussion, mind you, that is part of my own ongoing struggle as a writer and a teacher.
And may I add that my friend has since become a world famous lecturer, mesmerizing audiences everywhere. Not due to our conversation alone, but to his own evolution and maturation process, which will surely continue to grow.
~ Is my talk or class the most important thing that the listeners can be doing during this time?
~ Do I respect my audience? Am I sincerely interested in their welfare?
~ Am I conveying a truth greater than my own?
~ Do my listeners trust me? And if not, how will I establish trust?
~ Are my words coming from the heart?
The same is true about communication between friends, spouses and any close relationships. Communication is not about being right, getting your point across, persuasion and convincing others in the validity of your message. All those aspects may be important and the end result of good communication. But the root of excellent communication we learn from Moses:
Be first a person of ‘no words,’ then your words will be worth listening to.