Destination: Understanding
Leaving Home to Understand your Neighbor

By Rae Ringel

As globalization makes different cultures, customs, religions, ethnicity and traditions more accessible, polarization and insularity have encouraged us to turn inward, focusing on our own cultures. The world is in turmoil and our response has been to circle the wagons. We have stopped listening to the “other.” We have stopped learning from the “other.” This has made me reflect back to a leadership mission I led to Morocco this year, which served as a reminder of the importance of listening and learning to creating a more open society.


Vibrantly bright blues, deep reds, lush golden yellows, Morocco is a place of intense sensory overload, infused with the smells of turmeric and cardamom, and the glorious sights and bright light of this ancient land. This year, I had the privilege to be able to explore Morocco and Spain in the company of 150 bright, thoughtful, committed young Jewish leaders, as scholar-in-residence for the 2018 JFNA National Young Leadership Cabinet.

My role, amidst all this fascinating otherness, was to frame each day, and to impart a bit of leadership-relevant wisdom. Among the many potential topics, I chose to focus on what I consider to be one of the most powerful leadership tools of all – listening. As people, but especially as leaders, we tend to focus on speaking our truth, finding our voice, passionately representing/defending/vocalizing the causes and values we believe in. As a result, we often tend to overlook the importance of listening, effectively and empathically, to others.

By effective, empathic listening I mean the ability to quiet our own voice and our own issues in order to receive someone else’s; to be fully present for that person. It is the ability to turn off that deep desire to advise, to guide, and to problem solve. This is not always so easy to do, because as leaders we place great importance on our ability to advise others, yet it is only when we turn off the busyness in our heads that is distractedly looking for solutions, that we can really hear not only what someone is saying, but also what they are not saying. Listening affirms the value of the person being heard, and the inherent value of listening as a sufficient end. Parker Palmer, an educational activist, said it best when he wrote, “The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed – to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is.”

The Mechanics of Empathetic Listening

Empathy can be said to consist of three elements: knowing another person’s feelings, feeling what another person feels, and responding compassionately. In order to know another’s feelings we must first be physically committed to listening: put your phone away, come out from behind the desk and sit face to face with the person you are talking to, have your posture be open and reflective of your willingness to hear. Listen deeply. Ask powerful questions. Many leaders believe that their job is to answer questions, not ask them. Yet questions are one of the most effective tools available to you in order to understand the person before you. Opt for ‘what’ questions, which are open ended and non-judgmental, rather than ‘why’ questions, which tend to put people on the defensive. The difference between: “Why did you make that choice?” and “What led you to that decision?” is profound. Next, try to relate and connect to what the other person is feeling. If you’ve ever laughed simply because someone else was laughing, or winced at the sight of someone slipping on the ice, than you know what I mean; it’s the ability to identify with their experience. Finally, respond by repeating and mirroring what you heard them say: “So what you’re telling me is that…” Talk about their feelings: “It sounds like you are really happy/ conflicted/anxious.” And voice the values that you have heard them express: “It sounds like doing well is important to you.”

The Benefits of Emphatic Listening

The ability to truly listen to another is a skill that plays out in all of our communal interactions: when we’re trying to find out why someone wants or doesn’t want to engage with our community; when we are trying to understand the potential match between a donor and our organizations; when we seek to help team members grow and succeed. Most of all, when someone is struggling or flailing, emphatic listening enables us to really hear what’s happening to them, and give them the most relevant help we can.

On the mission itself, empathetic listening allowed us to listen across differences to understand the challenges and opportunities that exist, both within the Jewish communities we encountered in Morocco and Spain, and between the Jews and the Muslim and Christian societies in which they live. It allowed us to connect to colleagues on the mission who were seeing the same sites and meeting the same people, but having very different emotional reactions. It is also what enabled us to go beyond language barriers, and to listen deeply and communicate support and connection by looking into people’s eyes, by smiling, and with hugs.

In traveling to the far corners of the globe to connect with other realities and other ways of living Jewishly, the participants created a space within themselves to become leaders who can bridge divides and strengthen our worldwide Jewish community. To travel is to leave one’s comfort zone and open one’s self up to difference; to experience the world, even if just in some small way, empathically – as “others” do.

Rae Ringel is a certified executive coach and founding President of The Ringel Group. She is a faculty member at the Georgetown University Institute for Transformational Leadership and founding director of their certificate program in the Art of Facilitation and Design. She is also adjunct faculty at the University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business.