Most people don’t like to be criticized. Even delivering helpful and useful feedback to others can backfire. If not done correctly, the recipient can easily get defensive and become even more ingrained in his or her errant ways.
Organizational psychologists study the optimal way that managers should deliver feedback in the workplace. Educational psychologists research the most effective way that teachers or administrators provide feedback to students or colleagues. Therapists often work with individuals, couples, and families to learn how to provide useful feedback to friends or family members.
While there are several components to effective feedback delivery, two of the most essential ideas that cut across these different fields is that the person providing the feedback needs to be sensitive to both what is communicated and how it is communicated.
On the heels of victory against the Egyptians and a newfound freedom, Moshe finds himself spending his days adjudicating disputes and informing the people of the laws and teachings of G-d. Moshe’s father-in-law, Yitro, hears about the miracles and wonders that G-d performed for Bnei Yisrael in saving them from the Egyptians and comes to visit Moshe.
After witnessing Moshe spending morning until evening answering the people’s questions, Yitro criticizes his approach. While Moshe’s receptivity to the criticism is a testament to his humility, the commentators point out several nuances within Yitro’s approach to criticizing Moshe that made it more likely that it would be successfully received.
One of the most important factors in delivering and receiving feedback is the relationship between the giver and the recipient. The better the relationship and the more the recipient believes that the giver of the criticism is not biased and has the benefit of the recipient in mind, the more likely the feedback will work.
Yitro’s critique of Moshe’s system comes only after the Torah highlights the warm and positive relationship they enjoyed. The critique works because Moshe knows how much Yitro respects and appreciates him.
In terms of the content of the feedback, it is more effective when it’s specific and not communicated as a criticism of the entire individual. When the person providing the feedback exaggerates and generalizes, saying the equivalent of “You always do this,” the person receiving the feedback will likely get defensive.
The verse that communicates the imperative to provide religious feedback reads, “You shall surely rebuke your fellow and do not bear (lo tisa) a sin because of him” (Vayikra 19:17). This is generally understood as a directive not to embarrass the person while rebuking him or her. However, Rabbi Gedaliah Shor provides an additional layer of meaning to the text, suggesting that “lo tisa” can also be interpreted as “do not lift” – meaning, when you criticize someone, do not lift the sin above him or her.
Do not blow it out of proportion and generalize to all circumstances. Focus specifically on the issue and criticize the action or the problem, not the person. This is exactly what Yitro does when he critiques Moshe. He is very specific in identifying the problem when he says, “This thing that you are doing is not effective” (Shemot 18:18). He emphasizes the problematic action, not the person.
Finally, feedback is more effective when it’s followed by practical advice for improvement. Rashi, based on the midrash, writes that Yitro had seven names, one of which is Yeter, meaning “to add,” because a section was added to the Torah in his merit. What’s interesting is that while Yitro’s critique starts in verse 14, the part that’s considered added in his merit is where he begins to offer advice on how to fix the problem in verse 21 (“ve’atah techeze”).
Rabbi Avraham Pam explains that anyone can complain and criticize. In fact, even without Yitro, Bnei Yisrael would have eventually complained about the flaws in the judicial system, so the critique would have been in the Torah regardless of Yitro. The legacy of Yitro is that he balanced his critique with constructive advice on how to correct the issue.
Whether in personal or professional settings, knowing how to provide feedback in an effective manner is a difficult but essential skill to develop. From Yitro’s critique of Moshe, we learn the importance of having a good relationship, being targeted and specific in one’s feedback, and offering advice on how to fix the problem.