The wise King Solomon taught: "There is a time to be silent and a time to speak." The challenge in implementing this clever advice is to know when to do what. It isn't always easy to know when to speak and when to be quiet. Is there a guiding principle that teaches us when to open our mouth and when not to?

Let us examine two opposite pieces of conversation advice taught in the Talmud:

  1. "Always be the first to greet every person." When you see someone, it is considered praiseworthy to initiate the greeting. Elsewhere the sages teach that "he who rushes to say 'Shalom' to his friend is blessed with long life."
  2. "It is forbidden to start speaking until the mourner initiates the conversation." This rule teaches how to fulfil the mitzvah of Nichum Aveilim, comforting mourners. When someone has lost a loved one, it is important to offer words of comfort. But we are advised not to say anything until the bereaved has spoken first.

The basis of any conversation must consider the needs of the one whom we are talking toIf we examine the goal of communication, we will appreciate that it is the same principle that lies at the root of both of these instructions. Speech is not just about broadcasting what is hidden in our thoughts. Communication is about the ability to connect to another human being. It is about bringing two worlds closer to each other, creating a stronger and deeper bond. Speech is about sharing emotions, explaining concepts and strengthening relationships.

The basis of any conversation, therefore, must consider the needs of the one whom we are talking to. Any time we speak, we must be sensitive to the other person's situation and feelings, to ensure that the conversation will indeed bring us closer together and make the relationship stronger.

Rushing to say hello is a way of saying that I am happy to see you. In this case, rushing to speak makes the other person feel valuable. It suggests that you matter to me and your presence has made my day brighter. This idea can only bring people closer together.

When we visit someone who has lost a loved one, we want them to know that we are there for them—to comfort them and to give them strength. The best way we can express that is by being silent in order to be guided by their needs. We need the mourner to tell us what is best for them at that moment. They may not want to talk at all. They may want to talk about their loss or they might want to be distracted by discussing the weather. Waiting for them to speak first sets the tone of the conversation. In this case, it is silence that will make the other person feel respected, and will strengthen the relationship.

With this in mind, we can implement King Solomon's advice with relative ease. Before you speak, ask yourself one question:

What will bring me and the person I am talking to closer together—speech or silence?

If you can answer the question you will know what to do.