The Power of Listening

I recently watched Worth, the biopic about DC attorney Kenneth Feinberg and his administration of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund. I first met Ken through his wife, Dede Feinberg, former president of Federation and a longtime Jewish communal leader locally, nationally, and overseas.

When Worth was released, I was eager to see Hollywood’s take on how Ken approached an unthinkable task: determining the worth of a life in order to distribute compensation to 9/11 survivors and the families of those who lost their lives that day.

I found the challenge faced by Ken and his team gut-wrenching and their eventual response inspiring. On screen, Ken, a fact-based mediator believing in the inherent rationality of each person, becomes an empathic listener, recognizing each person must be seen as, and engaged with, as a unique person facing singular circumstances. I watched as Ken set aside a predefined formula, and instead, tailored the response to the individual and their family.

Throughout this process, what I marveled at most was how Ken changed his core assumptions and beliefs; how he realized the long-held ideas leading to his prior successes did not work in this particularly sensitive situation. In listening to people who challenged his views, including close colleagues and those he met for the first time during this period, Ken internalized how much was at stake—what failure in this scenario would mean. In doing so, Ken reassessed and reshaped his own perspectives in ways he never had before.

As I watched the film, I wondered how the rest of us can open our minds and hearts to new ideas. How do we challenge deep-rooted beliefs and old ways of doing things that may no longer serve us or our community? Particularly during times of significant change, what can we do individually or collectively to remain open to crucial questions and other ways of thinking?

I wish I had easy answers to these questions, but I don’t. I believe, however, that a core part of our growth, as individuals and as a community, lies in enriching our relationships. When we trust others and have confidence in their intentions, even if we don’t always agree with them on meaningful issues, I believe we will find ourselves open to new possibilities. And, like Ken and Dede have shown me both onscreen and off, these new possibilities just might lead us to incredible solutions and successes.

My takeaway? Listening, compromise, and empathy can move mountains—and, perhaps, communities too.

Shabbat Shalom,