Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Improving Business: Threshing

At least here in Britain, it is commonplace that Friends are concerned about the quality of their business method. Contributions being focussed ministry, rather than personal commentary; sufficient time before contributions for reflection; ministry remaining sufficiently on-topic. The reasons for concern are manifold.
It is my experience that one of the major causes of poorly-run business is poor preparation. An item may be presented poorly, so that the meeting isn't clear what decision it is being asked to make, or doesn't have information vital to making that decision. Friends may be overloaded with information, more than they can take it being presented all at once; if the information had been provided in advance of the meeting, and they had read it, it would be more readily digested and understood, to be utilised in discernment. Perhaps an item is presented my multiple Friends, and they are inconsistent between them about the nature or detail of the matter before the meeting.
There are times, however, when the preparation that is needed is not in terms of presentation or absorption of information. Sometimes, a Meeting – made up of individuals – needs to be prepared in a deeper sense. On a complex or contentious issue, it is hard for a meeting to come to a decision readily even with all of the information available and understood. If there are too many options, it is easy for ministry to become bogged down and not show a clear path between them – though I have witnessed meetings where there was such an open question, and ministry did quickly show a clear path, I have witnessed far more where ministry meandered and no decision was recorded.
It is understandable and unavoidable that there are issues where many people have strong opinions, and wish to express them and to know they have been heard. This is important; Quakers are human, and we should not attempt to deny such human needs in pursuit of unattainable dispassionate spiritual perfection. Passions are part of what makes us who we are, and to attempt to utterly ignore them will lead to conflict and, not to put to find a point on it, ruin. It's all very well for people to be able to tell one another their thoughts over coffee, or write for their local newsletter; sometimes it's important not just that people are able to speak, but to have some assurance that they have been heard. Living with a decision you disagree with is much easier when you have been heard.
As understandable and unavoidable as this tendency might be, it can be terrible for business discipline. If the only chance to speak and be heard by the meeting is in business session, it is hard to blame people for doing so when they feel strongly, even if – by proper business discipline – they shouldn't. This slows down business and makes it harder for clerks to get a true sense of the meeting, based on ministry rather than expressions of opinion. Indeed, it makes it hard for everyone, because these expressions of opinion do materially alter the background of the question they are seeking to answer. How Friends feel about a matter is something that can and should be considered when making decisions, it just shouldn't, ideally, be something expressed directly while making decisions by the Quaker business method.
There are a number of strategies to address this. You can use formal or informal consultation, worship sharing sessions, surveys, all sorts of things. One strategy, however, that I feel is worthy of promotion at this time, particularly among Friends in Britain Yearly Meeting, is threshing.
Threshing meetings, or at least the term, began as meetings aimed at convincement of those outside the Society; they were to be “threshed” away from the world. Nowadays, in British practice, the term refers to meetings where a range of views can be “openly, and sometimes forcefully, expressed” (Quaker faith & practice 12.16). QF&P goes on to say that these are often to “defuse a situation before a later meeting for worship for business”, but I have found them to be usefully employed not only when there is a situation to defuse, but simply a situation that is complex and emotive. These are situations that can lead to difficult business sessions, and threshing can help prevent that.
So what happens in a threshing meeting? We could simply say that the matter in question is threshed, but that doesn't really tell you anything unless you already know. What does it mean to thresh some matter? This is not a subject which enjoys such a long-standing consensus as the business method itself. I can't talk about what the received wisdom of generations of Quakers is here. What I can talk about is my experience, what that experience has told me can work.
To me, threshing a matter means to air thoughts about it, to ensure that they are all heard, respectfully, and that people have the ability to respond to them, also respectfully. That people can freely point out the problems with ideas, take apart different options in detail, and develop their own – and everyone else's – understanding of them. It allows people to be emotional, without being confrontational, and to express what is important to them in relation to the matter, without any expectation that they speak only as led by the Spirit. It also allows all these things to be done safely.
The question then is, how can this be achieved? It isn't easy, that much is sure. It requires a skilled and thoughtful facilitator. I'd like to say experienced, but that may be self-defeating – the practice is not sufficiently common among British Friends that people experienced at facilitating it are easy to come by. Say instead a facilitator is who is experienced in similar things, well-grounded in Quaker practices, balanced in regards to the matter in question, and confident – but aware of the difficulties they might face. Where the matter is very emotive within the community in question, it may be helpful for the facilitator to come from outside the Meeting or community involved.
It also isn't a single thing with a clear recipe – there are a few patterns and guidelines that are helpful, but the exact shape has to be determined in part by the nature, temperament and feelings of those involved, and by the matter to be considered. Threshing a complex technical issue, with limited emotional importance, is very different from threshing an issue which is largely personal, emotional and/or spiritual, with intense emotional significance. Both are good occasions for threshing, but the meeting must and will look different.
The first thing to consider is the “who”. Who should be present? Obviously, the facilitator will be there, and if there are to be multiple sessions of threshing, it is helpful to have a consistent facilitator throughout – though as always, there may be exceptions where this is not ideal, and of course there may have to be exceptions depending on the availability of suitable Friends. It may also be useful to ensure the presence of those with relevant expertise, whether they be from within the same community or outside of it – and outside may be advisable in some cases, for much the same reasons as it may be so for facilitators. If the meeting is concerned with options for renovating a meeting house or other property, an architect or surveyor may be of help. If it is to do with involvement in some area that could be considered political, someone with a good grounding in the relevant sections of charity law might be wisely included. You get the general idea.
Then, there is the rest of the “who” - who from the Meeting or community should be there? For some matters, these meetings should be open, anyone with the slightest interest in the matter encouraged to come. This ensures the maximum possible benefit from the “get it off your chest” angle, reducing the amount of personal opinion likely to arise amid ministry in a later business session. At the other extreme, it may be best to have a very carefully selected group. Though care should be taken not to confuse threshing with a clearness process, there are still cases where threshing in a smaller group may be appropriate, at least as a preparatory stage. For example, there may be a smaller group of Friends who, perhaps by background or appointment, have a particular interest in a matter, but it is too emotive or sensitive to deal with those particular interests with a wider group. Many cases will be in between, perhaps with a carefully selected group strongly encouraged to be present, with all other Friends welcome if they choose to come.
Having considered the “who”, it is time to move on to “how”. First, like most good Quaker processes, the meeting should be grounded in silence. It should start from silence, with the moderator explaining how the meeting will be run, and what the ground rules are. The sensible ground rules will again depend on the topic. For example, it may be appropriate to ask everyone to adhere to full confidentiality, or to Chatham House Rules – or it may be appropriate to allow all to report what happened within, provided they do so honestly; there may be even more complex cases, like permitting those present to talk to others afterwards about what opinions were expressed, but not to reveal any personal history, stories or anecdotes, raised by other participants. Friends should also generally be cautioned from speaking over one another or interrupting, except where necessary for the facilitator or other responsible Friend to maintain order. If a person breaks these rules during the meeting, they should be reminded of them; if they continue to do so, it is reasonable to ask them to leave in most cases – and if they refuse to do so, it may be reasonable to refuse to continue the meeting in their presence.
The facilitator should also make clear what the subject of the meeting is to be. This should be clear, but not necessarily closely prescribed. Threshing may lead to the topic wandering a bit, and this is often fine – exploring a matter thoroughly will often lead to involving related topics, or discovering that there is something else that needs to be covered before it is possible to properly cover the original topic. Even so, there may be some subjects that should be set off-limits, if the facilitator and others organising the event think they are likely to come up, likely to be time-consuming or emotive, and not plausibly really relevant. This may also be vital in securing the participation of some Friends, who will only come if a subject is off-limits. Consider such requests for conditions carefully.
In terms of the conduct of the actual meeting, there is, again, a lot of variation. Continuing the familiar theme of silence, it is good to keep a strong presence of silence during proceedings. Friends should generally speak from silence, and leave silence to allow everyone to absorb what has been said. The idea is to allow views to be expressed that may be contentious, without collapsing into a mass of contention. As such, Friends should especially leave silence before responding to something that prompts a strong reaction in them, contain their first, perhaps angry or hurt, reaction, and let it sit for a moment, trying to see all sides. They may then respond with anger or hurt, but they will not have made that initial knee-jerk, so often lacking in thorough thought.
However, this is not a Meeting for Worship for Business, and people are not speaking only as led. They speak what they wish to speak, when they wish to speak it (subject to ground rules and leaving space). Questions may be asked and responded to, though ideally not responded to immediately, except in the case of a factual response that is clear – such as what something would cost, or when something happened. In this way, it may develop as more of a conversation than should occur in a business session, but always retaining the involvement of silence. Similarly, while we are not taking a show of hands, threshing cannot always hold fast to the principle, as in a business meeting, that participants should not make the same point as someone else has already made; part of the point is to allow everyone to be heard, and people will not always feel that they have been heard just because someone else has said something very similar.
The facilitator should ensure that all can contribute when they wish to, including acting to limit contributions from those who might dominate discussions. This should be done gently, asking them to wait, to give others a chance to speak. However, it is not usually best to limit people to a single contribution on a given subject. Threshing is often, as I have said, a conversation, and a conversation requires multiple contributions from different people.
The facilitator should also act to move a discussion along if it is getting stuck. Asking a question can be a good way to do this, or calling attention to a dimension of the problem that hasn't been discussed yet. Similarly, where the topic has several aspects that need to be covered, the facilitator should make sure that all are given due time and attention – but this need not mean equal time. What is important to the participants may determine the right balance of time.
Threshing should not normally be used to make final decisions. As such, there will often not need to be a clear conclusion or answer at the end of a threshing meeting. There may, however, need to be some sort of record or response. It should be clear how this is being made. Any such record is neither minutes, in the Quaker sense, nor a transcript. It will not generally be much like secular minutes, either. It need not be agreed by all present, and will not normally be ready and complete at the end of the meeting. However, if the record or report is being shared beyond the participants themselves, it is appropriate to share a draft with them all first, and given them the opportunity to make corrections or objections. These need not be applied exactly as given, but any such input should be reflected in the final record – thus potentially reflecting the possibility that different participants have different recollections of what has happened. This report may then be useful to the Meeting as a whole in consideration of related matters subsequent to the threshing meeting – be it soon, or years later.
This is my advice regarding threshing; it is based on my own experience and understanding. It is quite likely that others, with different experience and understanding, will disagree with it, in small or large ways. If that includes you, I'd love to hear about it in the comments – and we'll try not to let any disagreement get too contentious. I'd also love to hear about anyone's experiences, good or bad, of threshing meetings.
Threshing meetings can be incredibly useful, and you will probably have gotten the impression, quite correctly, that I think they can and should be used more. They are not a panacea, however. Think about the problems faced in your meeting, the difficult decisions and the emotive situations, and consider whether such a meeting might help you, but don't jump to use it at every opportunity. It is a lot of work and emotion for those involved, and it won't always help; there are other alternatives that can be used when there is a need to prepare the community for business. But when used appropriately and correctly, it can help cut through difficult issues and defuse difficult situations.
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