Avoiding difficult conversations can lead to disaster

A talmudic story linked to Tishah b’Av shows why it’s better to face problems head on


Boss denying something saying no with a finger gesture to an upset employee in her office

I find that one of the hardest things to do is to have a difficult conversation in which one party is forced to tell the other something uncomfortable. This is one of the most regrettable things that managers sometimes have to do with their subordinates, or teachers with their students.

These talks could be about how the employee or student could improve their performance or expose a flaw in their behaviour. These conversations could often be potentially embarrassing, and more importantly they can be very confrontational, which can be difficult for both the provider and the receiver of the feedback.

Yet, these conversations are not always had. Chris Argyris, a prominent management theorist, talked about how senior executives in organisations never really talk about the difficult internal issues which affect their productivity, out of a fear of causing embarrassment.

They “dance around” the issue. It never gets properly communicated and the organisation continues to lie in a malaise without the deep issues ever being discussed. This is what Argyris calls “skilled incompetence”.

The Talmud explores the spiritual cause of the loss of the Second Temple (Gittin 55b). A man by mistake invited his enemy Bar Kamtza, realised his mistake and when his enemy arrived at his home, had him frogmarched out of his home.

Bar Kamtza was affronted, not only by the host, but also by the sages who remained quiet and yet did nothing to protest this action. He then decided to gain his revenge on the entire Jewish people by telling the Romans to bring a sacrifice to the Temple.

He placed a blemish on the sacrifice, which invalidated it, and the Jews were in a quandary. Should the sacrifice be brought in the name of peace, or should it not be brought because it was unfit?

Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkelus argued for the sacrifice not to be brought, because people would then say that blemished animals are brought as a sacrifice. He also argued against killing this enemy of the Jews for informing on them, because then people would say that those who bring an animal with a taint should be punished with death.

The sacrifice was ultimately not brought and this raised the ire of the Romans who then went on to siege and later destroy Jerusalem.

This tragic story has many sad elements in it, mainly the antagonism between the host and the guest, which was rife within the Jewish community.

We are told that one of the contributing factors to the destruction of Jerusalem was baseless hatred. However, what is fascinating is that the leading sage of the time, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, believed that it was not the baseless hatred which destroyed the Temple, but rather the decision not to bring the sacrifice out of a fear of what people might say. He believed the main problem was the fear that Rabbi Zecharia had of confronting the existential threat faced by the Jewish people head on

When considering Rabbi Zecharia’s arguments, one can see the effects of fear in his decision- making.

Rabbi Zecharia argued that the sacrifice should not be brought because people would think that sacrifices which had blemishes could be brought to the Temple.

What he failed to consider was the longer view: not bringing the sacrifice would bring down the anger of Rome on the Temple and in such circumstances, there would be no sacrifices brought at all! In fact, we are told clearly that for the sake of peace, one is permitted to bring a sacrifice with a blemish. He clearly gave up on the deeper solution. His myopathy destroyed the Temple.

This idea is something that is discussed in organisational theory. When problems occur in organisations, the knee jerk reaction is to “put a bandage” on to the problem, without looking into the deeper causes.

If one can examine things on a deeper level, it can become clear that what was thought to be a cause is just an effect of something far deeper; and that something can be deeply uncomfortable to discuss, because it may challenge many tenets that are taken for granted. Not looking into the deeper causes can be the undoing of many an undertaking.

It is clear that these hard conversations need to be had. Sometimes not having those conversations could prove to be disastrous. That doesn’t mean that when the conversation is had that it is done in a vindictive and hard way.

We are told that the way of Torah is pleasant and all its paths are peaceful. Empathy and concern, as well as a focus towards a positive future should always be the goal rather than allocating blame.

The emotional intelligence in giving and receiving such feedback needs to be of the highest quality. One thing is certain: conversations which are so serious must be had. Not having them is not a way to maintain a relationship but, as was the case in the Temple, leads to destruction.

Steven Dansky is rabbi of Cranbrook United Synagogue

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