Monday, February 9, 2009

"So how am I doing?": On Taking and Giving Criticism

Years ago New York City's fabled mayor Ed Koch was known to greet his constituents with the words "so how am I doing?". Mindful of the bluntness of New Yorkers he invited the very critique most of us dread. Yet he knew that criticism was vital to his being effective in his job. And unless he invited it even New Yorkers might be hesitant to share.

At some level all of us know we need to hear criticism. Yet we so flinch from it that others regularly would rather flatter us, even if being untruthful, rather than share with us how they really feel. I remember listening to someone in his mid-forties who accepted to serve as shaliach tzibur on Shabbat. He was horribly off key yet he sung out as if he were a chazan.
I wondered to myself how is it that this man accepts the honor to daven and still more, sings out as if he believes his voice is a gift when in fact its awful on the ears? The answer is that every person, even one with no voice, thinks they sing on key. No one ever told this fellow how he really sounds. No doubt they feared telling him an obvious truth. If only one time he would have asked someone "how do I sing?" in such a way that would have truly invited an honest response this emperor would not be parading the streets with no clothes, or in our case,no voice.

Yitro does Moshe a huge favor in this week's Parsha, he criticizes him. When he saw Moshe taking the judgement of all the people upon himself he says to him "lo tov hadavar asher ata oseh"..."its not good this thing you are doing"...How many people have ever said to us "lo tov hadavar asher ata oseh"...How many people have we made to feel comfortable enough to say that to tell us the truth we needed to hear?

My guess is that the story I told of the man with the awful voice who led the congregation in prayer could be said of each of us in some context or other. We all have blind-spots. Even Moshe had his blind-spot. There is no shame in that. What is a shame is if we have so insulated ourselves from criticism that we make it impossible for others to help us peel away our blind-spots. Rather than ask others "how am I doing", we present to others in such a way as to say "am I not doing great?" and then what can they say?

What made it possible for Yitro to give Moshe the sweetest if most shunned gift, true and honest feed-back. I think we get the answer from the portion's beginning. The Torah tells us that Yitro came to Moshe in the wilderness with Moshe's wife and children that he had abandoned. Clearly this is a situation that many leaders might see as embarrassing. Its Moshe's personal life, part of his past. Now he is a public figure in the ultimate sense . It seems unfair to highlight what he has done and been as a father and husband...after all he has led a nation out of bondage!

Yet Moshe does not avoid Yitro or his family. He himself goes out to the wilderness to greet him/them. He personally welcomes them into the community and into his tent. He does not seek to escape his responsibility, he faces it whatever its consequences.

No wonder Yitro felt he could offer Moshe the critique Moshe needed to hear. He knew his son-in-law was a man who would welcome the gift of a missing perspective. He knew Moshe not only did not flee the truth , he wanted it!

The lessons here for me are quite obvious. I need to invite criticism if I expect others to provide it. If I do not invite it the price I may pay is a life full of self-deception. And there is no fool like the one self-deceived.

So I ask candor..."how am I doing"?
Shabbat Shalom

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