Finding the Sense of a Meeting


Friends Meeting, Buckingham, Pa.
                Friends Meeting, Buckingham, Pa.

Applying Quaker principles to even secular discussions sometimes means withholding a final decision until there is agreement on what to do.

If you should find yourself in a meeting that is chaired by a Quaker the odds are pretty good  that you will not be steamrolled. One of the features of working with members of the Society of Friends is that they usually prefer to withhold making a group decision if there is no emerging consensus on the best action to take.  No 3/4 split decisions here. The group can wait until everyone is more or less on board.  This is democracy at the grassroots, and–quite often–democracy with a heart.

As a tract from a British group describes the process, “So rather than stop at an arbitrary point and take a vote, the meeting continues the consideration of the matter until such time as the whole meeting agrees on the decision to be taken.” 1

The theological justification for delay is that some members have perhaps not “seen the Light.”  God has not given them a clear solution to the problem at hand.  Quakers also follow norms of the faith that place added value patience and silence.  In time both may produce a better decision.  Patience always seems to be in short supply, and an attribute that can allow us to hear more than what impatience usually allows.  As for saying less: sometimes it means that we don’t have to find a way around verbal potholes of our own creation.

Then there’s the problem of the traditional “majority rules” outcome.  A badly split group can make dissenters feel like they have less of a stake in a final decision. A meeting that ends in a perceived defeat for some and triumph for others is not very helpful to a community that must remain cohesive.

My experience with a Quaker Chairperson in a work setting was mostly positive.  Academics in particular can spend an afternoon debating what color of Number 2 pencils to buy.  As the cliche goes, the debating  is so intense because the stakes are so small.  But after a rousing discussion with lots of different viewpoints–eight faculty members can usually be counted on to produce eight different ideas–it was not uncommon for our leader to postpone a decision rather than force a vote that would split the group.

Delay provides time to find essential values or principles that everyone in the group wants to honor.

The choice to not to decide can have useful effects. From a social functions perspective, meetings are mostly about expression and recognition. Members want the chance to be heard, and look for evidence that their views are respected. This expressive function of communication is usually its own reward: reason enough to consume large amounts of time.  So tabling a decision can have the effect of avoiding the loss of face that comes when vocal members are defeated by the majority.  Once the ardor of a meeting has cooled, it is often easier to reach agreement at the next gathering.  Finding common ground can be facilitated when members have more time to mull over options that have the advantage of standing alone  as ideas, without the complicating effects of their association with distinct advocates. Delay also gives everyone time to find essential values or principles that the group feels duty-bound to fulfill.

My impression is that we exercise this choice of seeking full consensus less and less. Organizations often seem anxious to register a final action, even a questionable one, and even when the decision leaves some in the group feeling disenfranchised.