William Hamilton

Making it Personal

“Part of my mission as a social scientist is to replace false beliefs with better ones,” Adam Grant recently said to memoirist Tara Westover. He was taking responsibility for the frustration he feels when he fails to be persuasive. Adam wants to tell people that he believes they’re smart enough to appreciate what he’s got to say. But instead he realizes his listeners end up hearing him say the opposite, “I think you’re stupid.” 

Tara’s response is helpful. She says, “I think it’s that talking down thing that becomes kind of difficult.” At stake is people’s dignity, not their IQ points. She recalls a pivotal conversation from Grad School with someone who brought a much more agreeable approach to his disagreements with her. He’d say things like: “To me this is how these ideas seem, but you don’t seem that way.” Tara goes on to add that even when she’s fairly certain about something, she tries hard to recall that the person she’s talking to may still be wise in ways that she’s not as wise.

We tend to favor the people we like. We defend those we feel warmly toward. So instead of trying to win an argument against somebody, consider first trying to dignify them. Dignify their tastes, their instincts, perhaps even their best claim. Most of all, dignify their feelings. Then watch what happens to the win-loss record of your arguments. 

This week’s prophetic passage tells of the most impressive person-to-person friendship in the Bible, between David and Jonathan. Their mutual affection is palpable when they weep together over how Jonathan’s father, the current Monarch, King Saul, is so threatened by young David’s success, that he’s driven to an obsessive determination to take David’s life. When they share a loving embrace as Jonathan helps David escape danger, we read that “David wept longer” (I Sam: 20:41). The Hebrew wording, ad david hig’dil, can also mean “until David’s emotional-intensity enlarged his spirit.” That is, their bond made his dignity more spacious. 

David will go on to establish Jerusalem’s centrality 3,000 years ago. On this historic date back in 1967, which recalls the restoration of Jerusalem, may goodness-loving people of any and all faiths, humbly gather and gratefully rejoice in how “Instruction comes forth from Zion, and God’s glowing words emit from Jerusalem” (Is. 2:4). This verse leads directly into a more globally familiar ideal, “And they beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, they shall never again know war”(Is. 2:5).

Focus on the person, first, second, and last. It will not only forge more mutually trusting relationships, it will do wonders for the lifespan of the claims you cherish. 

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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