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Practicing Generosity of Interpretation

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Cultivating patience, empathy, and understanding

Dear collaborative discussion friends,

This week we are highlighting an activity that helps participants practice patience and generosity during a challenging discussion. Participants develop principles that can help them create a psychologically safe space for collaboration. This activity also introduces mental techniques to humanize others, especially those whom they have trouble engaging in a conversation with.

This activity is contributed by Shannon Wheatley Hartman, Vice President of the Interactivity Foundation, and is one of the many activities in the Critical Collaboration Module.

If you missed the previous newsletter, Awareness of Context, Bias, & Assumptions, you can access it and our other weekly newsletters by subscribing below.


This week’s activity:

Activity 3.7 – Practicing Generosity of Interpretation

Developing and using methods to create greater connection, empathy and understanding in difficult conversations

This activity helps participants approach a discussion with people they find challenging or about a controversial topic from a place of generosity, patience and empathy. It introduces guidelines and methods to help them be patient and see the humanity in others. This activity also encourages participants to develop their own strategies. Participants then practice intentionally using these principles and mental tricks while engaging in a discussion around a challenging topic.

Activity 3.7 – Practicing Generosity of Interpretation

Develop Patience Principles

Begin this activity by crafting Patience Principles. Invite participants to think of what practices, concepts or ways of thinking will help them be patient with each other during a difficult discussion. Provide a few examples to help spark ideas, such as:

  • Language is imperfect and we are all imperfect speakers.
  • What is said and what is heard are not always aligned.
  • Focus on the idea, not the person.
  • Inarticulate means to struggle with big ideas.
  • Innovative or “breakthrough” ideas are often misunderstood at first.
  • Look for the “nuggets of truth” in all statements.
  • Never aim to embarrass or humiliate.

Collect the principles generated in a shared document, Jamboard or surface visible to everyone (like a flipchart or whiteboard) for participants to refer to later in the activity.

Introduce and Develop Humanization Mind Tricks

Next, introduce a few cognitive techniques that will help participants humanize each other. Explain to participants that these mental tricks are not intended to be disrespectful, patronizing or condescending. Instead, these methods are meant to be genuine attempts at humanizing those with a different viewpoint compared to their own. During a difficult conversation, if someone says something that seems to be:

  • Uninformed or elementary, imagine them as a much younger kid who is trying to learn.
  • Unaware or technologically backward, imagine them as your beloved grandparent who just needs a little more information.
  • Culturally insensitive, imagine them as a visitor from a distant region who needs to be gently introduced to current custom.
  • Factually inaccurate, imagine them as the overzealous uncle who needs to be respectfully engaged with evidence.
  • Hostile or angry, imagine them as a person going through a very difficult life experience.

Also, remind participants that the concept behind using these methods is not to bow down to or agree with bad ideas or people acting in bad faith. Rather, it is to treat those in the discussion with the same patience, generosity and respect as you would someone you love or look up to.

After introducing some examples, invite participants to create a few of their own mind tricks that will help them see the humanity in others. Once again, collect the ideas generated in a shared document or surface visible to everyone.

Select a Topic

Select a complex or controversial topic that is important to your discussion group. As preparation for this activity, consider Activity 5.1 Identifying Your Civic Passion.

Break into Small Groups and Engage in an Exploratory Discussion

Invite participants to break into small groups (4-6 ppl). Ask them to discuss the chosen topic, while using the Patience Principles and humanizing mental techniques displayed on the shared document, flipchart or whiteboard. Encourage them to explore various facets of the topic by referring to the Surround the Topic diagram from Activity 3.5 Seeking Divergent Thinking and Perspectives. They can also use this Identifying Stakeholders worksheet from Activity 5.2 Developing an Awareness of Stakeholders to think of the different viewpoints of the many people and entities related to the issue being discussed.

Debrief as a Full Group

Come back together as a full group and discuss:

  • How did your participation in the discussion change?
  • Without revealing specifics, which principle was most helpful?
  • Which mind trick was most useful?
  • What might you add to these two lists?

In addition to these debriefing questions, the full description of Activity 3.7 Practicing Generosity of Interpretation includes reflection questions, a practice journal prompt, and additional resources to help participants dive deeper.

If you try out this activity, please share with us what you think:

Rate Activity 3.7

We hope this toolkit activity helps participants engage in difficult conversations while practicing generosity and patience with each other to create a safe space where everyone feels comfortable sharing their different ideas and perspectives.

Upcoming Events

  • The Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University is hosting Frontiers of Democracy 2023: Religious Pluralism and Robust Democracy in Multiracial Societies, from July 13 (5 – 7 PM) to July 15 (noon) at the Joyce Cummings Center (177 College Ave, Medford, MA). The cost is $240 for a standard ticket. Discounts are available for students and community partners. Learn more here. Registration ends on July 9, 2023. All are welcome! Register and purchase tickets here.
  • We are now accepting applications for our Pilot Coach Training for Undergraduate Students which will take place this fall. Space will be limited. The dates for this training have been updated. It will now begin on September 26, 2023. Visit our website to learn more and view the complete list of dates and times, which are also shown on the application. The application deadline has also been extended to September 10, 2023. All undergraduate students who are interested can apply here or you can share this link with students who might be interested.

Looking forward to collaborating,

Ritu Thomas & the Collaborative Discussion Team