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Clerking

My basic premise is that the disciplines of clerking a meeting for worship for business and facilitating a business meeting are similar in many ways. While one hopes for the more direct intervention of God in the former, both of them require building what is called a consensus in the secular world between many different people with many differing views, while the Quaker process is referred to as coming to unity. Because of the similar requirements, I believe that clerks should follow some of the basic principles of facilitation.

Before discussing these principles, it is useful to look at how consensus is developed. It will occur if people believe that their views have been expressed and heard by the group, that their acceptance of the decision is seen as important, and finally, that the decision is an amalgamation of the views expressed in the meeting rather than a selection among them. This is the state a facilitator must be working towards.

The first requirement of this desired state is that people believe that their views have been expressed. One of the quickest ways to kill this is for the facilitator to be seen as biased. The facilitator cannot hold (or at least be seen to hold) any opinion on the issue that is being discussed. This is one of the reasons it might sometimes be difficult to function as clerk. The clerk cannot express any opinion. The practice of “stepping away” from one’s position, in my view, doesn’t work. While it is better than actually remaining in the clerk’s position and giving an opinion, since it reduces the perceived power of the statement, it is still too connected to the running of the session. Whether or not people are consciously aware of it, they expect that if they disagree with the clerk they will not get a fair hearing. Also, whether or not clerks are aware of it, they are likely to be hindering the expression of views contrary to their own. It is the same with facilitation. Even very experienced facilitators have difficulty with keeping their own views from coloring their facilitation of a meeting.

A clerk who has an opinion on an issue must not function as clerk for the discussion, but must ask someone else to do that. One of the best personal tests for clerks is to consider whether or not they could live with the most extreme decision that the meeting could come up with. For example, if we’re talking about the meetinghouse and the clerk has a fondness for it, the question to ask is “Can I keep my mouth shut and actively support the decision if the meeting decides to sell the house?” If the answer is no, find another clerk.

The second requirement for building a consensus is that people feel their opinions have been heard by the meeting. This is an area in which Quaker meetings tend to be weak, though I believe this is one of the intended reasons for having silence between speakers. Either the clerk needs to ensure that these silences occur, or the clerk might want to try one of the facilitator’s techniques for addressing this problem. If speakers are not crystal clear in what they are saying or if they speak at length, a good facilitator will provide a summary of what was said at the end of each speech. This should take the form of a question asking for confirmation of the expressed understanding. In other words, the clerk says something like “If I understand you correctly, you are saying that …” followed by “Have I got that correct?” The clerk must allow for negative answers and for speakers to rephrase their statements. There is a delicate balance here between allowing one person to talk forever and making sure that all have succeeded in bringing their opinions to the table.

The third requirement of consensus is that the decision is seen as an amalgamation of everyone’s point of view rather than a choice among positions. Part of the way to do this is to ensure that no one person talks too often or for too long. The ideal is that everyone talks once, briefly. Obviously, this is difficult to achieve. However, it is perfectly reasonable to say diplomatically to those who have already spoken that they shouldn’t speak again yet because others need to be heard. The other side of this is specifically to ask people to speak. If someone looks uncomfortable, the clerk should invite that person to speak up. The clerk can use phrases like “You look very uncomfortable with this, Mary. Could you let us know what you think?” Although some care must be exercised not to back anyone into a corner, it is the clerk’s responsibility to make sure no one will leave the room after a decision has been made without supporting the decision.

Another technique for making people feel that they have been heard is the repeated use of individual names. The clerk should try to address participants by name all the time. Using someone’s name is the surest indication that you know who someone is.

An additional technique for making sure that the decision is based on an amalgamation of views is for the clerk to highlight the areas of agreement and disagreement when reflecting back what people have said. In other words, saying things like “If I understand you correctly, you are saying that you agree with Fred about the … but have some concerns about.…” Then, as the discussion goes on, people should feel more and more that agreement is growing rather than being imposed.

So how do you deal with disagreements? First, don’t ignore them. If someone vigorously disagrees with what has been said, the clerk should reflect back the same strength of emotion. Don’t say, “You have some concern …” if the more accurate statement is “You strongly disagree.…” In general, it is better to err on the side of expressing the emotion too strongly than not strongly enough. People will be quick to correct you if you have overstated an emotion, but will feel diminished, perhaps silently, if it is understated. And second, highlight the disagreements to the group for resolution. Help the group be clear on points of agreement and disagreement. Then say, “We seem to have two different points of view in this area. Can anyone suggest another way of looking at it, or a compromise position?” The aim is to clarify that the disagreement belongs to the whole group, not only the people who originally raised the question, and that it is the group’s responsibility to resolve it.

Finally, the facilitator or clerk needs to ensure that the discussion does not go on too long. Agreement due to exhaustion is not consensus but defeat. I would suggest that clerks go over the proposed agenda with the meeting and set a time limit for each item. Then during the meeting they can use these limits as guidelines for ending the discussion and postponing items to the next meeting.

Mary McClure is a member of Ottawa (Ont.) Meeting. Reprinted with permission from The Canadian Friend (December 2000).

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