In recent weeks, I’ve been troubled by numerous attempts in the media to silence others’ points of view in two directions. In some instances, the complaining party contends that certain statements are insensitive and should be censored or softened. On other end of the spectrum, we hear complaints that our culture has become too sensitive and has allowed political correctness to trump honest “straight talk.” I believe that both of these arguments miss the larger picture, and getting lost in such debate only brings us farther from what should be the primary goal of our discourse.
This past Friday night, I was pleased to host a parent-child learning program in my home where we studied the topic of “Admitting Mistakes.” To facilitate our learning, we use a “Shabbat Table Discussions” source sheet put out by Yeshiva University on this topic. One of the sources that we studied is a familiar one, but is one that always bothered me.
A passage in Avot D’Rabbi Natan 12:2 relates how Aharon would make peace between two disputing parties. “[If there were] two people who had a dispute, Aharon would sit with one of them and tell him, “My son, see what your friend is saying. He is beating his heart, tearing his clothes and saying ‘Woe unto me, how can I even look at my friend, I am embarrassed from him because I am the one who wronged him’.” Aharon would sit with him until the jealousy is removed from heart. He would then go and sit with the other and day, ‘My son, see what your friend is saying etc.’ And when the two would meet, they would hug and kiss one another. “
Aharon obviously felt that it was okay to lie for the sake of peace, but I always found it surprising that such an approach would even be effective. What if the two individuals discovered that Aharon had tricked them? Wouldn’t his plan actually backfire?
This year, I’ve had the privilege of participating in an educational fellowship called YOU Lead, which is a project sponsored by the PRIZMAH Center for Jewish Day Schools. Yehudi Meschaninov, a team coach and leadership consultant, led a number of sessions on reflective leadership. One premise of reflective leadership is that most of the time we operate based on our own individual sense of truth, rather than the full truth. This is inherently a skewed perspective. If we want to see the fuller picture, or the full truth, we must begin seeing others not as problems to be solved, but as “sense makers,” whose actions flow from their own mental models and points of view. By sharing our data with others and then trying to understand their position before making a decision, we not only arrive at a fuller truth, but we allow others to provide input, increasing everyone’s ownership and buy-in to whatever decision is ultimately made. When all perspectives are truly heard, more valuable information is shared and everyone feels more committed to the final outcome.
Perhaps this is what Aharon was trying to accomplish. Perhaps he understood that the way to find peace between two people is to first remove the emotional barriers that are making it impossible for them to truly see one another. Aharon’s message to each party diffused the anger that each man felt toward the other. And with the anger gone, each was able to finally really see where the other was coming from. They were able to see each other not as problems but as sense makers, with differing views that stemmed only from differing perspectives.
We live in a climate of extremes today. One person complains that I am insensitive, another person complains that I am too politically correct. Perhaps the best way to navigate the toxic political environment in which we find ourselves is to try to achieve what Aharon did and engage in reflective leadership. More important than being on the correct side of the argument is being able to say that we don’t merely understand, but we appreciate both sides of the argument.
It takes a strong person to try to see his adversary as a sense maker. We must resist the urge to simply write off ideas or people with whom we disagree, and instead remind ourselves that opposing perspectives are simply different from our own. It takes a strong person to do this, but the reward for our efforts is so great. Let’s commit ourselves to discourse in the spirit of Aharon, and may we all understand the fullest truth.