Choosing our Words Carefully and with Kindness: A Conversation with Ronit Ziv-Kreger



The Jewish people are often called the People of the Book. The words, which guide our lives were written down thousands of years ago, and, since then, each generation has been encouraged to ask questions about them and discuss them. Words are some of our most important tools to connect to our heritage, and also to each other. In this conversation, JWRP Director of Education, Dr. Ronit Ziv-Kreger, delves into the power of words, sharing how we can use speech to help our families grow, as well as strategies for expressing ourselves thoughtfully to those around us. 

Why does Judaism place great value on speech?

What characterizes humans and sets us apart from animals is that we are “talking beings.” According to Jewish wisdom, our words can have a tremendous impact. The Torah shares that the universe was created through words, emphasizing words’ ability to create, and at times also to destroy. Judaism guides us to be discerning about our words. We have all seen how words can either lift our spirits or leave us feeling diminished.

How can we praise our children in ways that will help them grow and positively influence their identities?

For generations, people complimented their children’s natural abilities and skills, by saying, for example, “You’re so smart.” But in her research, psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck discovered that while these compliments may make children feel good in the short-term, they often make children less willing to take risks, be creative, and put effort into their work. Children may be reluctant to put effort into things that they were told they were good at, because if they are not successful, their sense of identity may feel at risk. Instead, Dr. Dweck found that when parents compliment their children’s efforts, children continuously worked harder towards their goals. By praising children’s efforts, parents show their appreciation whether or not their children succeed. 

What are some ways that we can demonstrate the power of speech to our children? 

It’s most important to set a good model for our children. Of course, none of us is perfect, but we can even use our shortcomings as opportunities to explain how we missed the mark and then to take responsibility for our behavior by apologizing well. It’s so powerful when we see our children using their words in positive ways, and can share that with them by saying, for example, “I noticed that you helped a friend feel better,” or “I noticed that you chose your words carefully.” It’s wonderful when we can highlight our children’s efforts and can say significantly more positive things than negative things in our communication with them. 

How can one deliver constructive critique in a loving, supportive way so that it is both heard and helpful?

First, it’s important that we choose the time of our critique carefully so that we make sure that we’re coming from a place of love and appreciation. We also need to choose the right context to deliver our critique so that we can ensure that the experience is uplifting and not at all humiliating. One thing that helps with this is to focus on the problem and not on the person and to specifically say what the issue is rather than use generalizations. Saying, “I feel upset when you are late without notice” and adding a concrete request such as, “please be on time or let me know if you expect to be late” is very different than blaming and making blanket statements such as, “you’re always late and don’t care.” It’s always wonderful to incorporate something positive into our critique, for example, by noticing the efforts the person we are speaking to may have made. Finally, ask yourself, “Will the person be receptive to my words?” If you have any doubts, avoid the critique until better opportunities arise.

What are some practical strategies we can use to be more deliberate about the words that we use?

One strategy that works well for me is reflecting on the words that I used that day — either through journaling or speaking aloud to G-d — before I go to bed. I consider when I used my words to uplift someone’s spirits and guide someone with love and care. And I also consider when I fell short and didn’t use words the way I’d like to, and then I plan to make amends the following day. There is a Jewish prayer that we say before going to sleep that invites us to forgive anyone who hurt us that day. I also think that while it’s good to make amends, it’s also good to forgive ourselves for our shortcomings so that we can sleep well. We are always a work in progress. 

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