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Most people don’t like to be criticized. Even delivering helpful and useful feedback to others can backfire. If not done correctly, the recipient can easily get defensive and become even more entrenched in his or her errant ways.
Organizational psychologists study the optimal way that managers should deliver feedback in the workplace. Educational psychologists research the most effective way that teachers or administrators provide feedback to students or colleagues. Therapists often work with individuals, couples, and families to learn how to provide useful feedback to friends or family members. While there are several components to effective feedback delivery, we will focus on three themes in the psychological literature that we can glean from an analysis of this week’s Torah portion.
On the heels of victory against the Egyptians and a newfound freedom, Moshe finds himself spending his days adjudicating disputes and informing the people of the laws and teachings of God as it relates to their cases. Moshe’s father in law, Yitro, hears about the miracles and wonders that God performed for the Children of Israel in saving them from the Egyptians and comes to visit Moshe. After witnessing that Moshe was spending morning until evening answering the people’s questions, Yitro criticizes Moshe’s approach. While the fact that Moshe listens to the feedback and adjusts his practices as a result is a testament to Moshe’s humility, the commentators point out several nuances within Yitro’s method of criticizing Moshe that made it more likely to be successfully received.
One of the most important factors in the delivering and receiving of feedback is the relationship between the giver and the recipient. The better the relationship and the more that the recipient believes that the giver of the criticism is not biased and has the benefit of the recipient in mind, the more likely the feedback will work. Yitro’s critique of Moshe’s system comes only after the verses highlight the warm and positive relationship they have with each other. The critique works because Moshe knows how much Yitro respects and appreciates him.
In terms of the content of the feedback, it is more effective when it is specific and not communicated as a criticism of the entire individual. When the person providing the feedback exaggerates and generalizes, saying the equivalent of “you always do this,” the person receiving the feedback will likely get defensive.
The verse that communicates the imperative to provide religious feedback states that “you shall surely rebuke your fellow and do not bear (“lo tisa”) a sin because of him” (Vayikra 19:17). This is generally understood as a directive not to embarrass the person while rebuking him or her. However, Rabbi Gedaliah Schorr provides an additional layer of meaning to the text, suggesting that “lo tisa,” originally translated as do not bear, can also be interpreted as “do not lift,” meaning, when you criticize someone, do not lift the sin above him or her. Do not blow it out of proportion and generalize to all circumstances. Focus specifically on the issue and criticize the action or the problem, not the person. This is exactly what Yitro does when he critiques Moshe. He is very specific in identifying the problem when he says, “this thing that you are doing is not effective” (Shemot 18:18). He emphasizes the problematic action, not the person.
Finally, feedback is more effective when it is followed by practical advice for improvement. Rashi, based on the midrash, writes that Yitro had seven names, one of which is Yeter, meaning “to add,” because a section was added to the Torah in his merit. What’s interesting is that while Yitro’s critique starts in verse 14, the part that is considered added in his merit is where he begins to offer advice on how to fix the problem in verse 21 (“ve-atah techeze”). Rabbi Avraham Pam explains that anyone can complain and criticize. In fact, even without Yitro, the Children of Israel would have eventually complained about the flaws in the judicial system, so the critique would have been in the Torah regardless of Yitro. The legacy of Yitro is that he balanced his critique with constructive advice as to how to correct the issue.
Whether in personal or professional settings, knowing how to provide feedback in an effective manner is a difficult but essential skill to develop. Analyzing Yitro’s critique of Moshe, we can learn the importance of having a good relationship, being targeted and specific in the feedback, and offering advice on how to fix the problem.