Tell your story, ask a question, interpret generously

The response from visitors to my blog has for the most part been cordial, affirming and enriching. But a couple of recent incidents have told me it’s time to make clear how I endeavor to conduct myself here and what I expect from guests in return.

My friend Willem Larsen of the College of Mythic Cartography has developed a set of guidelines for some forums he moderates. The way I hear it, he got so fed up with the choice between pages of nitpicky rules and nebulous “commonsense” standards of niceness, that he boiled down the behavior he was looking for to three simple directives. I find they sum up beautifully how I’d like to interact with people here or anywhere:

Tell your story. Relate your experience, describe your feelings, share your personal knowledge. Instead of responding to others off the cuff with whatever instinctive reaction or opinion comes to mind, dig deep into your own experience that causes you to think or feel that way. Share that. Your story is valuable, and so is everyone else’s. When we share on that level, we can empathize more fully and discover each other’s value.

Ask a Question. If there’s something you don’t understand about someone else’s story, if there’s some detail you think might be relevant, if you think you might have some experience in common…ask. Don’t assume you know what someone “really” meant unless they’ve said it directly. This dovetails nicely with the first guideline–if you can’t understand where someone is coming from, you can always ask, “what experience have you had that led you to that conclusion?” We want to hear each other’s stories, and questions are great for teasing those out and finding common ground.

Interpret Generously. If someone’s statement sounds ridiculous to you, or someone seems to be advocating a reprehensible position, assume for a moment that they’re not. Assume that what they’re saying makes sense, is reasonable, and has value. Try to imagine how that could be. Ask questions to clarify, until you are sure you understand where the person is coming from. ANd if you still find you have differences, you can part ways politely, without anyone being compared to Hitler.

I find this way of communicating to be more human and life-affirming than a lot of modes I’ve tried in person or online. And while it’s a challenge to to break out of old patterns, there’s something freeing in following a simple set of principles instead of having to guess, by gut feeling, whether you’re being “nice,” or “a dick,” or whatever.

Is there room for disagreement under this philosophy? Absolutely, we can disagree quite freely. The only thing we lose is the ability to argue or “debate” in a juvenile, “uh-HUH!” “Nuh-UH!” fashion. Our disagreement is expressed through our experiences and we can be certain that even in our differences we can be truly heard.

That’s the call by which I invite yo all into the hospitality of my space. That’s the standard I’ll expect of you as guests. When there are hiccups and challenges, we’ll work it out through discussion and hopefully continue on in goodwill. If any of us (yes, me too!) stumble and someone points it out, it’s not a “punishment” or a label of “bad person.” Only in persisting in a disruptive behavior might a guest outgrow my hospitality. In the meantime, Welcome. Come and tell your story!


4 Responses to “Tell your story, ask a question, interpret generously”

  1. 1 timeLESS
    November 19, 2009 at 1:50 pm

    I recognized Willems guidelines immediately in your topic and would like to say that the forum that ran these guidelines (which is no longer active) was the nicest most understanding forum i ever spend my days on. Im happy to see it resurface on your blog, which i follow lurkingly. Make this a page to refer your readers to and it might just avoid a load of troublesome interactions.

    If i would want to ever add to this set of directions i would make it as follows :

    -take a breather
    -tell your story
    -ask a question
    -interpret generously

  2. 2 storybythethroat
    November 19, 2009 at 2:37 pm

    Cool, TL. Glad to hear another Three Guidelines success story. I like “take a breather.” I probably won’t add it to the official list, but it’ll be a good discussion tool to keep in mind when collars get hot.

    I do indeed intend to make this a special section after it leaves the front page. It’ll go where “(guidelines)” are now.

  3. November 25, 2009 at 5:39 pm

    When I remember to think in these terms, I find the world becomes much more human, the various people I interact with become much more human, and I become much more human.

    It’s especially helpful for me in the context of work (I’m a community support worker). 80% of my job is professional compassion, and 20% supporting skill development. To remember that I don’t need to contradict someone else’s story in order to share my compassion and support… ah, what a joy. I can acknowledge their story, share my own, ask questions about the differences, and give them the space they need to be themselves and connect the stories on their own.


  4. 4 storybythethroat
    November 26, 2009 at 12:13 pm

    Right on, Joe.

    One thing I like about the guidelines is how easy they are! I mean, they take discipline and focus, but they’re dead simple to apply. I don’t have to agonize, “Oh, dear me, what would be the most human way to respond in this emotionally charged situation?” I just respond, practically automatically, with these guidelines, and it just happens. I can then spend my energy in the conversation sharing as much of my humanity as possible through that framework.

    Like any simple concept, it takes some effort and practice to master the nuances. But (just like, dare I say it, Fluency Play), you get to start right off doing it, rather than going through a long and arduous process of learning to be human, someday. In my experience, at least.

    That’s a great professional background to approach the Guidelines, too. I imagine Willem, as a professional facilitator/mediator, came to the concept from a similar place. We could do with MORE professions grounded in compassion and empathy, I think.


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