Monday, 9 June 2008

Quakers and internal conflict

An observation that emerged from my recent membership visitation was that the Quaker business model requires us to deal with and transcend personal conflicts. Yet all too often, Quakers shy away from this: it's much easier, and, to outward appearances, "Quakerly" (aren't we good peacemakers?), to sweep personal conflicts under the rug. But anger that has been pushed into shadow has a way of sneaking out and sabotaging our ostensibly peaceful intentions.

I'd like to offer some tools for dealing with personal conflict, which I've learned of through my involvement in the Mankind Project, an organisation of men's groups (see, or (People with counselling or conflict resolution experience may find this old hat: I encourage you to take anything that seems new or useful and leave the rest.) I will first describe some MKP processes and groundrules, and then point out what I see as their applicability to life in the Quaker commmunity, particularly business meetings, and their consonance with Quaker faith and testimonies.

In MKP, we try to create safe space for men to discover and speak their own personal truths, to work out their own missions of service to the world, to identify and work on obstacles to those missions, and to support each other in this work. We've learned that, to create this safe, supportive space, personal conflicts within the group -- even trivial ones -- must be taken seriously, and directly dealt with. To this end, we do "clearing" processes between a "clearer," a man holding some emotional charge (usually anger) towards another man in the group, the "clearee," which might keep the clearer from fully supporting the clearee in his work. The clearing is an opportunity for the clearer to state his feelings and judgements about the clearee to his face, bringing them out of shadow and into consciousness.

The crucial assumption is that the clearing is all about the clearer. The clearer's charge may be prompted by some real, present harm that the clearee did to him, or the clearee may simply trigger some strong emotional memory in the clearer. Either way, the point is for the clearer to "own" the feelings and judgements going on inside himself, not to establish the rightness of his position. Nor does the clearer have to apologise for his feelings and judgements: he just has to recognise them as his own. The clearee has no obligation to respond to anything the clearer says, though if the clearing brings up a charge in the clearee, he can then proceed to do his own clearing, switching roles. To the extent that the clearing process focusses on the clearer's discovery of deeper personal truth, rather than argumentation, it resembles that of a Quaker clearness committee.

The process begins with the clearer saying, "I am not clear with ___." The clearer chooses a facilitator, who invites the clearee to participate (the clearee may say no). The facilitator then prompts the clearer to state to the clearee:
1) the relevant, objective facts (e.g. "You were 30 minutes late") (keeping feelings and judgements separate. If the clearee can't agree to the facts as stated by the clearer, the clearing stops).
2) feelings (basic emotions: glad, sad, mad, scared, ashamed -- no stories here).
3) judgements (e.g. "I judge that you're self-centred. I judge that you don't give a **** whether other people have to wait around for you.")
The facilitator then asks "Whose behaviour does this remind you of?" This invites the clearer to consider whether the charge is, at least in part, a projection of, e.g., unresolved anger towards a parent, or perhaps anger at the clearer himself (often I am triggered by behvaviour in others that reminds me of shadow traits that I dislike about myself). If so, the facilitator then invites the clearer to withdraw this projection from the clearee (this by the way does not mean conceding that the original judgements were necessarily wrong). If the clearer's shadow traits are involved ("How is this like your life? Are you ever self-centred?"), he is invited to consider the consequences of these shadows for himself and those around him. Finally, the clearer is asked, "Now that you see this more clearly, what do you want for yourself? What do you want for your relationship with the clearee (which you might not get)? Are you now clear?"

Paradoxically, in my experience as a clearee, I feel closer and more trusting toward a man who has the courage to speak directly to me about his negative feelings and judgements of me. I know that this man is showing his authentic self to me; that he cares enough about supporting me to risk incurring my (or the whole group's) disapproval; that he's aware of what's going on inside himself, not unthinkingly projecting his issues onto me. The clearing process is thus a form of confrontation that actually strengthens the personal bonds within the group.

I believe the values underlying the MKP clearing process are entirely consonant with the Quaker way. In Quaker meetings for worship for business, as in MKP -- but unlike most other organisations -- the primary goal is not to get through the agenda and reach decisions with maximum efficiency, but to be "led into unity" (A&Q 14). This means we must view our relationships with each other as being at least as important as any decision that the meeting might make. If our "emotions, attitudes and prejudices" are getting in the way of "reconciliation between individuals, groups and nations," we are advised to not to hide them, but to "bring [them] into God's light" (A&Q 32). Historically, Quaker "plain speech" was not merely about thee and thou-ing: it was about dropping superficial conventions of politeness that got in the way of true Friendship. It was about speaking bluntly. "Do you cherish your friendships, so that they grow in depth and understanding and mutual respect? In close relationships we may risk pain as well as finding joy" (A&Q 21). This risking of pain to find joy in friendships is precisely what the clearing process is about.

Here, I would like to tentatively suggest some ways the clearing process might be adapted to the needs of a Quaker business meeting (bearing in mind that I'm going back to Canada very soon and so I won't be involved in implementing any of this in Sheffield.) Let's assume there's some issue of contention on the business meeting agenda. If a Friend feels some personal charge towards another Friend in connection with this issue, perhaps the two parties could seek out a third Friend to facilitate a clearing between them, along the lines of the MKP clearing process described above. Ideally, the clearing should be done before the meeting starts. But if the charge comes up unexpectedly, or for some other reason the parties haven't had an opportunity to clear, and the meeting's discernment is getting snarled up with individual Friends' charges towards other Friends, one of the parties might request a clearing on the floor. Indeed, it might even be within the province of the Clerk to suggest a clearing if the discussion seems fraught with personal charge.

I am not suggesting here that there's anything wrong with bringing strong feeling into a business meeting. The goal is not dispassionate discussion of the issues. Rather, the passion should be about the issues themselves, not about the personalities of the proponents or opponents.


Anonymous said...

That sounds a workable way to deal with inevitable interpersonal stuff Robert. I like the cooling language of "I am not clear with ...."; puts it on the right footing from the start. Before I read your blog I'd been pondering how to name a similar kind of housekeeping I do - had come up with metaphor of cleaning an eye which keeps getting mucus in it. Clearing is so much better. Thanks Robert. Ruth McIlroy

Simon Heywood said...

Good stuff. Conflict is an inevitable and positive process, but I do feel held back by the shortage of positive ways to express and transform it, which can lead to a kind of false or superficial consensus. It's a matter of habit and culture as much as anything else. I've just been reading about Marshall Rosenberg's NVC, which seems very interesting and useful and not unlike the process Robert describes.

Anonymous said...

Bravo, what excellent message