Thursday, April 10, 2014

On Do What Worked for Our Ancestors in Egypt—4 Lessons from the Exodus

Dear Friends,

This week the OU published an article of mine. If you did not catch the blog post of this article, here is the link to it on the OU's website:

Do What Worked for Our Ancestors in Egypt—4 Lessons from the Exodus

Have a Shabbat Shalom and a Happy Passover (Chag kasher vesameach),


Sunday, April 6, 2014

On 6 Ways to Deal with Hypercritical People

Dear Friends,

This week Aish published an article of mine. It is an abridged and modified version of my post discussing how to deal with criticism from family members.

You can access the article by clicking on this link:

 If you have a Facebook account and like the article, please consider clicking on the "Like" link.

Thank you,


Wednesday, April 2, 2014

6 Ways to Deal with Critical Family Members

Spending the holidays with family can bring up mixed feelings. While we are excited to be spending this special time together, we may dread the critical relative.

Here are six ways to not let their criticisms mar the joy of the holidays.

(While the following six strategies are focused on family members, they can also be used to deal with criticism from other sources.)

1. Don’t take it personally. Some people are overly critical; it is a flaw they have to work on. Remind yourself that it is their issue, not yours. Knowing that this is the way they currently are, ask yourself, “Are the benefits of being with my family worth the downsides?” If you decide to go, remind yourself why you came and enjoy your time with the family as best you can.

Generally, family members criticize us because they want the best for us and are afraid we will make a mistake and suffer the consequences; it is their way of expressing concern and love. Feel compassion for their fears, and try to see past their surface remarks to the underlying love.

When you do not take people’s criticisms personally, you will be able to step back and be more objective. This will help you let criticisms roll off your back; you may even be able to see the humor in the situation and think to yourself, “There they go again.” (But make sure not to roll your eyes.)

2. Be proactive. Relatives usually say the same criticisms each time we see them; this is a good thing because then you can come prepared. You can have pat phrases you say in response to critical comments; use the broken record technique and repeat your pat phrase until they get the message. For example, a relative tells you, “You have to get a PhD because then you can leave your dead-end job and earn more money.” In response, you can say any of the following: “Good point. Thanks for your concern,” “Thanks for sharing that. I'll think about it,” or, “I hear. Let's talk about something else.” Make a note of the pat phrase you will use if need be.

Stay away from touchy subjects and have conversation topics you can use if sensitive ones come up; one good topic is asking about family history. Keep busy: Read a book, go to a lecture, help out in the kitchen or play with the kids. If things get heated or even if they don’t, occasionally go outside for a breather and some downtime.

3. Inoculate yourself with positive feedback. We all need positive comments – praise and expressions of appreciation. They help us handle negative feedback. If you are not receiving enough positive feedback, try the following four tips:

First, each day, give others lots of positive feedback; compliments and thank-yous are contagious. Try this strategy and you will be amazed how effective it is.

Second, if someone is miserly in giving positive feedback, let them know that you would appreciate it if they would point out the things you do well or that were helpful to them.

Third, spend time with people who are complimentary. For example, visit friendly senior citizens; they generally are very appreciative of your company and will sing your praises.

Forth, do not depend on others for positive feedback – give it to yourself instead. Search for the good in you. Appreciate and be thankful for your positive qualities and talents; praise yourself for your achievements and for how far you have come.

4. Let go of wanting approval. Part of the reason we often cringe at criticism is because we want others to approve of us and we view their critical remark as a sign that we have lost their approval. We have to remind ourselves that just because someone finds fault in a specific behavior of ours does not mean they think poorly of us; it just means we are human.

The sooner we admit that it is OK to make mistakes, the sooner we will be able to accept criticism without becoming defensive. Ironically, accepting criticism gracefully will make people think more highly of us, not less.

On a deeper level, we have to realize that we only need approval from God. As long as we do the right thing, it does not matter what others think of us; there will always be people who think we are wrong. As far as we are concerned, even the whole world can think we are crazy; they did about our Forefather Abraham, and we are here today because of what he stood for.

The next time you feel stung by an unjust criticism, ask yourself, “Am I hurt because I want them to think highly of me?” If yes, then tell yourself, “God approves of me and that’s enough.”

5. Look for the nugget of wisdom. If you found a filthy diamond ring on the street, would you pick it up? Similarly, do not dismiss valuable criticism just because it was given in an inappropriate manner. People spend large sums of money for the feedback of others; you just got some for free. Consider, is there anything in their comment of value that you can act upon?

When someone criticizes you, hear them out, thank them for their comment and ask questions if you're not sure what they mean. Then, either agree and take responsibility for the point that has value, or let them know that you will give their comment serious consideration; if needed, use a pat phrase as discussed above. Arguing with them rarely works and often just exacerbates things. At the same time, if they are criticizing you because of a misunderstanding, you may want to clarify the situation.

6. Confront the person. If someone says something hurtful, call them on it. To avoid being judgmental, use “I” statements instead of “You” statements. For example, “I felt hurt when you said…” instead of, “You were insensitive when you said…” Let them know how you would like to be treated and which behaviors are unacceptable. If they are open to changing, you can share with them my article, “6 Ways to Kick the Criticism Habit.

If they don't stop their harmful behavior, walk away when they speak in a hurtful manner and distance yourself from the relationship as much as possible. If you are being subjected to verbal abuse (e.g. a pattern of constant criticism or criticism done in a degrading and hurtful manner), seek professional help; it is often difficult to deal with such a situation on your own.

Handling criticism gracefully is a learned skill; you will improve overtime. To begin, make a list of the critical family members you will soon be spending time with and write down an action plan how you will deal with each one – different people require different approaches. When formulating your plan, keep in mind what worked for you in the past.

Remember, you can handle critical family members. With these tools in mind, come prepared, and pray to God that this year’s visit to the family is an enjoyable one.

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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

How to Give Constructive Feedback without Sounding Critical

Ever notice that when we criticize people, they usually get defensive?

But if they get defensive, they will not benefit from what we have to tell them. So how can we help others improve without butting heads?

One way is to avoid telling them directly that they did the wrong thing. This approach works the majority of the time and I discuss how to do this in, “6 Ways to Kick the Criticism Habit.” But what do you do when that method is ineffective, or for pressing issues that need to be discussed as soon as possible?

In those situations, we have to sit down with the person and give constructive feedback.

6 steps to giving constructive feedback:

Before the conversation:

1. Be humble. Sometimes, we think we know better than others and that only we can set them straight. The truth is that our criticism may be unfounded, our solution ill-advised and God has many messengers to lead people back to the right path. Even if you give the best advice, the person may not follow it. Ask God to help you give proper advice and to give the recipient the strength to make needed changes.

Each of us is filled with flaws and have made many mistakes. We have to acknowledge that, and when we give feedback, to do so humbly; one flawed human being trying to help another. If applicable, when giving feedback, let the person know about an area in which you struggled and overcame.

2. Establish rapport. To be most effective, the person receiving the feedback needs to know that you like and care about them, that you are on their side and want to help them. One way of building rapport is by giving compliments and expressing appreciation, i.e., giving much more positive feedback than negative feedback. If you have lapsed in giving ample positive feedback, either hold off on your negative comments until you do so, or at least start off the conversation with positive feedback.

3. Avoid giving unsolicited feedback; ask first. Speak to the person privately, when you are both calm and in a gentle tone of voice, without edge, frustration or anger. Ask them if they are open to your feedback. You cannot force someone to change; people change only if they want to. If someone is not interested in feedback (or doesn’t think your concern is an issue), there is no point in proceeding; the attempt will only antagonize them and frustrate you. Sometimes though, we still have to let others know what is expected of them and the consequences of not meeting those expectations.

Often, people are willing to discuss the issue, just not when we bring it up; in that case, schedule a specific time for the discussion.


4. Keep it short and sweet. Most people will get the point right away and belaboring the issue will only annoy them. Give the context of what you are talking about and be specific and factual. After stating the facts, explain the effects of their actions from your perspective. To be nonjudgmental, use “I” statements instead of “You” statements. For example, “I was inconvenienced…” instead of, “You were inconsiderate…”

Speak respectfully and talk in a way that preserves their dignity; after all, you are speaking to one of God’s children. Keep the main focus on encouraging them to do better in the future; be specific how they can improve, explain the benefits and express your confidence in them to rise to the challenge.

5. Make it a joint effort. When giving your opinion or view of the situation, make it clear that this is the way you see things. Ask them what their view of the situation is; maybe there is a misunderstanding. It can be helpful to phrase the topic as “our issue” and not “your issue.” This shows that you’re on their side and want to work with them to overcome the difficulty. Get their input on the best way to address the issue; people are more likely to follow through on an idea they think of than one you suggest.

Depending on the situation, you may want to agree on a time to meet again to follow up. In the interim, do not bring up other concerns; people generally do best when they focus on improving one issue at a time.


6. Use positive reinforcement. It is demoralizing when a person tries to improve, only to be told it’s not good enough. Follow Dale Carnegie’s advice in How to Win Friends & Influence People, “Praise the slightest improvement and praise every improvement. Be ‘hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise.’” (He has a number of other helpful tips for giving constructive feedback, some of which I touched upon in this article.)

Giving empowering and effective feedback is a learned skill; you will improve overtime. When done right, you can change people’s lives, helping them overcome weaknesses and develop strengths. You help them transform into the people they were meant to be.

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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Nissan: Spiritual Spring Cleaning

Dear Friends,

This is a post about the Jewish month of Nissan, as it relates to The Chazak Plan: A 12 Month Journey to Spiritual Strength.

Rosh Chodesh Nissan begins on the night of March 31st. Passover begins on the night of April 14th.

On Passover, we commemorate the Exodus from Egypt. It is a time of freedom, when we free ourselves from what brings us down spiritually.

Even today, many of us are still not yet free and are enslaved to our passions, to varying degrees. At the same time, we still maintain some level of moral purity. The goal is to raise a notch the level of moral purity to which we keep, increasing our freedom.

When you prepare for the holiday by removing leaven from your house, also remove spiritual pollution. To whatever extent you’re ready, go through your books, magazines, music and videos, and get rid of those which are filled with profanity, lewdness or vulgarity; they downgrade your spiritually.

An aspect of maintaining your purity is speaking in an elevated manner. Are there any words you choose to remove from your vocabulary, at least for this month, that do not reflect the type of person you are?

Using your checklist, you can check off each day you succeed in speaking in a refined manner and staying away from spiritual pollution.

Readings for the month:

4 Lessons We Can Learn From the Exodus

4 Steps to Safeguarding Your Moral Purity

Take care, have a Happy Passover and may God grant you success in the coming month,


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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Do What Worked for Our Ancestors in Egypt: 4 Lessons from the Exodus

Our rabbis inform us that we are currently in the final stages before the arrival of the Messiah. The Sages teach that the future redemption will parallel the redemption from Egypt (derived from Micah 7:15). By understanding what occurred then, we will gain insight into what is occurring now.

Before the Jews were redeemed from Egypt, the hardships of slavery intensified. The Jews used to take for granted that Pharaoh would provide straw for their bricks, but then he demanded that they find this bonding material themselves.

According to Jewish tradition, what occurs in the physical realm parallels the spiritual realm. For the Jews in Egypt, their need to find their own bonder in the physical realm parallels their need to find their own bonder in the spiritual realm. The Sages teach that before the redemption from Egypt, the Jews did not have sufficient merit to be redeemed. They could not rely on the merit of their Forefathers; they needed to forge their own bond with God. For this reason, God gave them the commandments of circumcision and the Pascal lamb – the slaughtering of the god of the Egyptians – through which they demonstrated their loyalty to God (Rashi, Exodus 12:6).

Perhaps a similar dynamic is occurring today. For centuries, Jews took for granted that they would marry within the faith and maintain a connection with their Jewish heritage. Today, skyrocketing assimilation rates and large numbers of off the derech (formerly observant) youth make clear that we can no longer take this connection with Judaism for granted. To maintain our Jewish identity, our generation also needs to forge our own bond with God.

How do we do that?

By following what worked for our ancestors in Egypt. Here are four lessons we can learn from them:

1. Pray. Talking to another deepens the connection. Talking to God will deepen your connection to Him. The Torah says that before God redeemed the Jewish people, He heard their cry (Exodus 2:24). We need to cry out to God, asking Him to bring us closer to Him.

We need to realize that we cannot do anything without God’s help. Speak to Him daily about your struggles, preferably out loud and in your native language. This practice, called Hitbodedut, was popularized by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.

2. Demonstrate your loyalty to your Creator. Just as the Jews in Egypt slaughtered the god of the Egyptians, we also need to show our devotion to our Creator by slaughtering the gods of western society. Examples of modern day gods: The pursuit of money at all costs, the unbridled pursuit of physical pleasure and the pursuit of escapist activities which waste one’s time and often pollute one’s mind. All these are done in the name of, “The pursuit of happiness.” But they don’t deliver.

We slaughter the gods of western society: When we are ethical even when we could have enriched ourselves at another’s expense; when we live moral lives, even when temptations abound; when we make time for Torah study and acts of kindness, even when other activities clamor for our attention.

3. Help God’s other children. The Egyptians appointed Jewish officers over the Jewish slaves. When the slaves were not able to fill their quota of bricks, now that they had to collect their own straw, the Jewish officers could have punished the slaves. Instead, they took the beating themselves. They turned the difficulty of others into their difficulty.

In our lives, when we see others struggling, we also must not turn a blind eye. The Torah cautions (Leviticus 19:16), “…Do not stand aside while the blood of your fellow is shed…” We have to help others; we have to make their challenge our challenge.

Pick at least one charity or person and make assisting them your pet project. Be on the lookout, throughout your day and week, for opportunities to be of service to others.

4. Get and stay inspired. The Jews in Egypt had Moshe Rabbeinu, our greatest leader, to inspire and teach them. Who inspires you? Who teaches you how to come closer to God?

Our Father in Heaven says to us (Proverbs 23:26), “My child, give your heart to Me, and your eyes will desire My ways.” Observance with heart is how Judaism is meant to be lived. Finding inspiration – awakening our hearts – sparks our desire for God’s Torah and mitzvot.

Ask those you respect, which teachers, books and websites provide them with inspiration. Beseech God to lead you to the ones best suited for you. Do not give up. Keep trying and searching, until you find the spiritual lifeline you need to survive as a committed Jew.

Choose one of these four strategies to start with, and strengthen your bond with God. Encourage your family and friends to join you as well.

Just as God did for our ancestors in Egypt, may He use our fortified bond with Him to lift us up from the pit of exile and into His embrace. May it be today.

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Sunday, March 2, 2014

6 Ways to Kick the Criticism Habit

How often are your criticisms effective, with people appreciating the feedback and improving their behavior?

Many times, criticism just antagonizes others and strains relationships. So why do we keep doing it?

It’s much easier to criticize than to take the time to figure out the best way to help someone improve. Criticism can be very risky. When we are overly critical of ourselves, we may give up trying to improve. When we are overly critical of others, we may alienate friends and drive away employees. Countless marriages are marred by hypercritical spouses, and hypercritical parents can leave children with emotional scars.

The good news is that we can become less critical of ourselves and others. For starters, the next time you feel the impulse to criticize, keep your lips together. Then, during a calm moment, decide on the best course of action from the options below.

6 ways to be less critical:

1. Hold off for now. Criticism is often unnecessary. When you forgot to pay your credit card bill or mortgage payment on time, did you really need to berate yourself? What you needed was compassion and understanding for the painful lapse. Before criticizing someone, ask yourself, “Do they realize they made a mistake?” If yes, then just be supportive; they will likely learn on their own from the experience.

Look for patterns. If the mistake happens two, three times, then it is appropriate to brainstorm with the person ways to address the issue.

2. Be accepting. None of us is perfect. God created each one of us with a unique set of weaknesses and strengths. By overcoming our weaknesses and developing our strengths, we best fulfill our life’s purpose.

We need to accept ourselves the way we are and to accept others the way they are, with all the flaws, failings and imperfections we all have. Trying to fix every weakness – your own or others’ – will lead to frustration and failure. Instead, focus on developing strengths, shoring up key weaknesses which get in the way, and accepting the rest.

3. Look for and praise the good points. Everyone has good qualities. Often, we are quicker to highlight the flaws in ourselves and others than the good points. Is that fair?

We have to praise and compliment ourselves and others much more than criticize. Researchers John Gottman (working with couples) and Marcial Losada and Emily Heaphy (working in the business field) discovered similar findings. The optimal ratio of positive reinforcement (e.g. praise) to negative reinforcement (e.g. criticism) is approximately 5 to 1; in other words, we do best when we receive many times more positive feedback than negative comments.

Think of people of whom you are critical, perhaps your spouse, children, or employees. What is your ratio with them of positive to negative comments? Use that as a starting point upon which to improve. Each day or time you see them, give them at least one sincere and specific compliment or expression of appreciation.

4. Criticize indirectly. Often, the best critiques are those delivered indirectly. If the person doesn’t even realize you’re being critical, even better. This approach takes finesse, but with practice, you’ll get the hang of it.

Here are some ways to criticize indirectly: Mention in passing what has worked for you or others, praise them when they do things right, or email a pertinent article. For example, if you know people who are very critical of themselves or others, email them this article.

For your own weaknesses which get in the way, instead of berating yourself, read self-help articles and books to strengthen the area with which you currently struggle.

5. Be future focused. Instead of saying to yourself or others, “You blew it this time,” which is unhelpful and hurtful, say, “In the future, please…” or, “I would appreciate it if you…” or, “You may want to consider…” By focusing on the future, phrasing it as a request, and/or an option and not a command, your comment will not come across as a personal attack.

This suggestion works best when we phrase the statement in the positive – what to do. Phrasing the statement in the negative – what not to do – is often perceived as a direct criticism and should be used sparingly.

It’s not only what you say, but also how you say it; make the comment sweetly and with a smile.

6. Choose your battles. Often, we criticize to let off steam or get an issue off our chest. But that doesn’t help the other person. If you want the person to actually benefit from what you say, give your feedback sparingly. The same applies to ourselves; focus on improving one issue at a time. When you start criticizing yourself about another topic, remind yourself, “Right now, I’m only focusing on improving X.”

Make a list of the criticisms of others you’d like to make. During a calm moment, look over each one and ask yourself, “Is it really necessary to point this out? Will they actually listen to me?” If the answer to either one is no, then accept the issue for now; give it over to God and ask Him to guide the person to the proper path.

When it makes sense to bring up a topic with someone, pray to God for guidance and ask yourself, “What’s the best way to help him/her improve in this area?” Often, the answer is to wait for an opportune time to make an indirect criticism or a future focused comment. If the person responds ambivalently and it is an important issue, try again in a couple of weeks. Often, when people are given time to think things over, when the issue is brought up again they are more open to making changes.

Sometimes, there are pressing concerns which require a sit-down discussion. For details on how to do that, see the post, “How to Give Constructive Feedback without Sounding Critical.

To help you achieve your goal of becoming less critical of others, share with those you frequently criticize, that you are working on being less critical and more complimentary. Ask them monthly for feedback on how you are doing; see if they have any suggestions, in this area, how you can improve even more. Do not argue with them, just thank them for their feedback and give their comments serious consideration.

Words have incredible power; use them to make people feel good about themselves and to encourage them to reach their highest potential (yourself included).

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