There’s an adage that says; “Every good conversation starts with good listening”. Many attribute this quote to author and HR management expert, Tom Haak. It’s a powerful concept and one connected to this week’s parasha. It should be noted that Tom Haak didn’t construct or create that saying, a point he makes on hrtrendinstitute.com in an article on the subject. Haak himself doesn’t know where that saying comes from, but he acknowledges that it has been attributed to him, citing many versions of images on the internet containing the quote and attributing it to him. It’s amazing, possibly even ironic, how such a widely attributed statement about listening didn’t even originate where so many believe it to have.
Let’s leave that quandary there, and get back to the parasha. Joseph finds himself in a pivotal moment in his own story, one that will solidify his transformation from a comparatively immature and haughty player to a respected leader and advisor. We learn that it’s not his abilities that have made the difference, but rather his attitude and concern for others. Toward the end of last week’s parasha, Joseph is condemned to prison, where he meets two of Pharaoh’s servants. It’s at this point that he starts this transformation, and he interprets the contrasting dreams of the two servants. Shortly thereafter, Joseph’s interpretations of the dreams become reality, and even though the chief cupbearer (whose fate worked out in his favour) didn’t immediately mention Joseph to Pharaoh, he does so when Pharaoh had puzzling dreams of his own.
Of course, Pharaoh sends for Joseph and asks him to interpret his dreams. Even though Joseph had mentioned to the two servants he was in prison with that it was God who would be interpreting the dreams, he immediately corrected Pharaoh when asked to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, stating; “Not I! God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare” (Genesis 41:16).
Joseph listens intently to Pharaoh’s recollection of his dreams, and then he provides the necessary interpretation and advice. From there, Pharaoh puts Joseph in charge of the plan to “famine-proof” Egypt for the future years, elevating him to second-in-charge of the entire region, answerable only to Pharaoh.
Joseph has gone from the arrogant youth who (amongst other odd behaviour) told his brothers, and more importantly, his parents that he had a dream where all of them would bow down to him, to a responsible and caring contributor, seeking to help those around him.
It’s not something that happened overnight, and even the final stage of the transformation took more than two years, as mentioned at the beginning of this week’s parasha. Joseph’s behaviour required him to be attentive and listen intently to what he was hearing, so that he could use all of the information to help determine an outcome and offer advice on what to do. He did not interrupt the servants nor Pharaoh when they spoke, but rather he took the time to internalise what he was being told.
We could learn a valuable lesson from Joseph’s approach in these instances. Listening requires us to fully process what we hear, to not interrupt the other, and to be willing to take some time, whether it’s a few minutes or a few days, to be able to offer our opinion, guidance, or other comments. At the same time, listening allows us to be present, not distracted, and be there for others.
In the spirit of attributing quotes, there are many sources listed for this teaching, but it’s a fitting motto for us to be guided by; “God gave us two ears and one mouth, let’s use them in those proportions”.
Like Joseph, our approach and attitude when we seek to be present for others will help determine their path as well as ours. May every good conversation truly start with good listening.
Rabbi Sam Zwarenstein