04/15/2013 03:06 pm ET Updated Jun 15, 2013

How to Speak Like a Mensch

Between Oct. 3 and 22 last year the nation was treated to four debates between the presidential contenders. Many viewers, myself included, thought they had an enhanced drama quotient this time around -- sharp exchanges, intense body-language and the usual mélange of content disconnect. What struck me most at the time was the general failure of all the parties involved (though some more than others) in base-line decency of communication. Though it has become popular in our culture for (many) people of influence to project supreme confidence, speak in dismissive and sarcastic tones and dominate the "conversation," Jewish tradition (Pirke Avot 5:9) teaches that there are "seven traits that characterize a cultivated individual" -- they all have to do with how we communicate.

The first is that a cultivated person does not begin speaking before someone who is greater in wisdom or years. Can you imagine the stony silence that would ensue after each question from the moderator as each candidate graciously assumed the superior wisdom of the other? "Ya know Jim, I'm gonna let the president field that one first as he obviously has a lot more experience with it than I do." How refreshing would that be? How might it improve our own communication? Far too many of us are overconfident in our level of knowledge and intelligence. If we listened more and opined less we would all be better off.

The second trait is not interrupting. It's a basic courtesy to let someone finish what they're saying before you begin your witty retort. Sadly, this one is a staple of modern debating. Protests of "that's not accurate!" "he's gone over his time limit," and the like may score tough-guy points with some viewers, but it's in poor taste and is just plain rude. Eye-rolling and contemptuous snorting would also fall into this category. Anyone besides me experience this one in their own interpersonal relationships? There are few verbal gestures as dismissive as simply not allowing your interlocutor to speak. Stephen Covey had it right when he suggested that we should "seek first to understand, then be understood." It's the way of a dignified communicator.

Number three is to not answer impetuously. This one is partially responsible for those embarrassing "gotcha" moments when the candidate inadvertently goes on record saying precisely the opposite of what he said at an earlier juncture. Closer to home, how often do we get asked for advice on weighty topics which we consider for all of 30 seconds before answering? "Do you think I should break up with Brad?" "Ummm, yeah. Never liked him much anyway." Meanwhile, we may have irrevocably altered someone's life -- and not necessarily for the better. One of the things that Jews atone for on Yom Kippur is giving bad advice. Cultivated individuals should take it very seriously.

Number four says that we should "question with relevance to the subject and answer accurately." I doubt that there has ever been a debate that didn't feature a failure on this front. When one of them doesn't want to talk about a question he's been asked he simply begins answering a question that wasn't posed -- something he does want to discuss. Besides being generally out of line and specifically rude to the questioner, it also robs the viewers of their desire to know the honest sentiments of those who are asking to be hired by us. How should we be expected to fairly decide on a candidate if we're not privy to their true and complete positions? This trait also surfaces in normal conversations as well -- especially during arguments. If you ever find yourself unfurling your laundry list of grievances during a row with your spouse for instance -- things that occurred years ago and have no bearing on the topic at hand -- then this applies to you. One of the secrets to having a great marriage is to keep it on topic during a disagreement. It's a sign of an emotionally mature (and intellectually honest) person.

Number five is to discuss "first things first and last things last." When someone asks a series of questions, it's appropriate to assume a relevance to the order and to carefully answer in kind. This shows a) that you paid attention and b) that you care about what was asked.

Number six tells us that "about something which you have not heard" you should say "I have not heard." Sounds simple enough but oh, how uncommon this trait is. The Talmud instructs us that we should "teach our mouths to say 'I don't know.'" Most people are extremely uncomfortable having no information on a topic and thus no opinion to offer. As such, we all have personal experience with folks who feel perfectly at liberty to pontificate on every and any topic -- wholly unburdened by the fear of humiliation in as much as they seem to possess the totality of human knowledge. Presidents are expected to be intellectual jacks of all trades and so can easily fall victim to this one as well.

Number seven is to "acknowledge the truth." In a disagreement, especially after a great deal of emotional energy has been expended defending a position, it's very tough to own up to being wrong. That's why we so often find ourselves, knowing full well that the other person is correct, vociferously defending our position as doggedly as the Allies at the Siege of Bastogne. It's a sign of great humility -- and so of great character -- to admit one's error and move on, which is why it's as rare as it is impressive. Can you recall any recent political discourse (of any sort) where a full and open mea culpa was offered after a tangible and effective demonstration by the other side? Me neither, but it seems clear to me that we as individuals -- and the world at large -- would all be better off absorbing and enacting more of these principles.