Tag Archives: decision making

Fear and facts in decision-making

In talking about making difficult decisions (when Rachel Muers and I ran a Woodbrooke course on this recently), one of the things we talked about repeatedly was that difficult decisions are sometimes only partly difficult decisions – they are very often decisions which involve difficult relationships. And when a decision which needs to be made makes a relationship difficult, we identified fear as a frequent component in the problem.

I want to start by saying that I don’t think it’s bad to feel fear. When I was a school fear was something one could be bullied for – being a scaredy-cat, being timid, being shy – and the pressure not to show fear came strongly from adults as well as a children. (In fact, it’s embedded in that classic and often ineffective coping-with-bullying advice, “ignore them and they’ll go away”. Not showing fear or any other emotion is integral to that strategy.) I think this is probably a mistake. Fear, like other emotions, gives us information – not necessarily about the situation itself, because our assessment may be mistaken, but about our assessment of it. “Feel the fear and do it anyway”, as in the book title, may be a more helpful approach. Perhaps, more precisely, “Feel your fear and use it as part of a wider consideration of whether or not the thing is worth your while doing it”. I don’t think that’ll catch on as a self-help book title, though!

Thinking about the decisions which might need to be made in a Quaker community specifically, we considered a situation in which a meeting might want to make a policy about what food is acceptable at shared meals. Sometimes this is obvious – a local ban on ingredients to which someone in the community has a life-threatening allergy. Sometimes this can be a matter of compromise – aim to bring things which meet most people’s dietary needs, even if not everyone can eat everything. Fear around those questions might focus on fear of being or making someone ill unnecessarily, fear of upsetting and excluding, or fear of making a mistake.

This issue can also touch on questions which go beyond the practical to matters of principle and livelihood. For example, some in the community might be committed to making food choices based on sustainability. This comes to affect the community when they eat together. They might have different understandings of what eating sustainably actually means or what should be the top priority – vegan? local? organic? There might be fear around the topic of climate change, both for those who have made such commitments and those who haven’t or have focused their work on the issue somewhere else. There might be an existential threat, the fear that a change attacks the very core of your way of living: this can happen anyway with food, and even more so if people in the community are involved in food production. (In the story we used for teaching, we made this especially dramatic by imagining that a member of the meeting was a dairy farmer – it might not always be that obvious, but lots of us are invested, financially or emotionally, in the current systems of food production.) For some, changing eating patterns have health implications, and those interactions can be intensely complicated. Food is also cultural; changing ways of eating can mean letting go of traditional dishes and childhood meals, and while this might be welcome, easy, or at least possible for some people at some times, it’s inappropriate, difficult, or impossible for others.

So far, so dismal! Fear is real and important and needs to be addressed. What can we do? In conflict and emotion avoidant cultures, there is a strong tendency to ignore it – to try and put off the decision, or talk around the topic in terms sufficiently vague or abstract that nobody has to discuss their real feelings, or to be dismissive. In particular, I sometimes see people who have made a specific dramatic lifestyle change dismissing those who haven’t or can’t as lazy or ignorant. I don’t think this is helpful; it might be better to acknowledge both that there may be other factors which aren’t being discussed (like emotions and personal circumstances) and that we can just disagree. Faced with the same set of facts, people may have come to different conclusions.

If that’s what is happening, repeating the same facts won’t change any minds, and making people feel guilty or annoyed won’t help either. In a community setting, it might be possible to check that everyone is working from the same set of facts – sharing and testing the sources you are working from – and to get into the deeper levels of the issue, too. This takes time and effort (in our discussions of process, we also talked about cases where it might not be possible to do this work and it’s better to say so rather than do it badly). How do we share the facts we think are important? It’s tempting to circulate lots of information in a written form, but this doesn’t always reach people or explain¬†why some people identify one fact as important or striking and others don’t find it relevant or as significant. Within a Quaker community, can we find ways to share facts and their practical and emotional impact? There are lots of possibilities, and this is one of the purposes of a threshing meeting.

I wrote this post a couple of days ago and have hesitated over whether to publish it now. There is a lot of fear around at the moment about the coronavirus. People are sharing facts and their reactions to facts – and governments around the world are trying to take decisions which are difficult in just these ways, affecting relationships, involving some necessary but difficult changes in order to avoid other tragic effects, with all the options likely to harm people and their livelihoods in complex ways, and all under a lot of time pressure. Not everyone can be involved in the decision making, so we have to trust those who are – which is harder when they have been elected in a competitive system and are consequently the disliked ‘other lot’ to a whole section of the community. I’ll be thinking of all those affected, by the virus directly and by the measures against it, and those doing the research and taking the decisions.

Difficult Quaker Decisions

I’m gearing up to teach a course on Making Difficult Decisions (with Rachel Muers at the beginning of March) and naturally that’s got me thinking about difficult decisions I’ve been involved in making. In Quaker meeting for worship for business as practised in Britain Yearly Meeting, if you are in the meeting, you’re participating in the decision, and although we know that not everyone will always agree, there’s no provision for standing aside from the decision. If you think a wrong answer is being reached, it’s your responsibility to either speak up about it, or try and see why the decision is being reached and accept it – maybe both. I once presented the report and recommendations of a review group to a large Quaker meeting, who promptly rejected everything the review group had recommended. I felt that they were placing too much emphasis on a few powerful voices, and not hearing what I was sharing from people who had spoken to the review group in confidence. But I also had to accept that the group were not ready to hear this, not ready for change for lots of reasons – some of them strong reasons – and once I had explained my perspective, my work was done. After that, it was my job to accept the situation and let it go. (I’m not saying I found that easy to do! But I had to try.)

That decision was difficult because of the conflicting interests involved and the complexity of the situation. Others might seem relatively simple for a Quaker group to make but hard to carry out or hard to embrace because of their effects on other people. I was at Meeting for Sufferings when the decision was made to boycott goods from Israeli settlements, and I have often wondered since whether that was the right decision (I still don’t know). At the time it felt clear and we heard from people with direct experience of the situation that it would be helpful. On the other hand, it was probably easier for us to say than for people to put into practice (not least because a boycott of certain settlements too easily turns into a general boycott of Israel, which some Quakers took up personally but was not what we were aiming for collectively). It also had serious consequences for our relationship with the Jewish community, for obvious reasons. The difficulty here lies, I think, in understanding and assessing – from a faith perspective and not necessarily a logical or worldly one – what the consequences might be and whether it’s right for us to take those risks. Sometimes we are called to disagree with others, but discerning when and how to do that can be complex.

Sometimes we make a decision more difficult, especially if we are struggling to work out what the question actually is. One of the times when Quaker meetings for worship for business surprise their clerks – or everyone – is when a question which appears to be straightforward or practical turns out to have hidden depths. A classic example of this is when the meeting owns a building and it’s time for it to be refurbished. All buildings need work from time to time, and some decisions can feel obvious, but deciding on the nature and extent of changes to a major resource which belongs to a whole community often brings up all sorts of associated stuff – memories and emotions, different ideas about the purpose of the building, and sometimes conflicting needs or desires. This doesn’t have to take us by surprise, of course, but it still can, even when the pattern is familiar. What seems obviously needed to me can be obviously a waste of time or money to someone else!

There are also cases when a decision which seemed obvious to some people hits a bump in the road and needs to go through a much more extensive consideration – and ends up feeling obvious to many more people. In an ideal case, the Quaker way of making decisions tries to take the whole community along, with everyone understanding the decision and okay with it even if they wish it could have been otherwise. Something like this happened with Britain Yearly Meeting’s decision to revise our book of discipline. Meeting for Sufferings had consulted Area Meetings, and discerned that the revision needed doing. But when the recommendation to revise was taken to Yearly Meeting, people expressed doubts and hesitations, and there wasn’t time to explore them properly. Instead, a Revision Preparation Group – already planned by Meeting for Sufferings but expected to serve for perhaps a year, while the Revision Committee got ready, rather than several years – conducted an extensive process, and four years later the question was brought back to Yearly Meeting and given extensive session time. By then, some people wondered why we needed to spend so long on it! The need for the revision was agreed by the whole community, anxieties were named and addressed, and the process is now underway.

In the Quaker tradition, we actually have lots of ways of approaching these questions. We might use a threshing or listening process, take our time, form a committee to look into something, ask an expert or outside facilitator to help us, and so on. But I think it’s also important to acknowledge that some decisions just are difficult. There may be no single right answer, because of the complexity of the situation or an inability to meet everyone’s needs. We try to get into God’s perspective, but we always miss some things. We try to listen for the guiding Light, but other stuff – our egos, our wants, our haste, our fears – can distract or mislead us. We hope to get better with practice.

Shoes

I need new shoes.

I need them to:
* fit well (on feet which are not the shape of the last they use for ‘normal women’ feet, so to achieve this I need a wide-fit option and/or to buy from the so-called ‘men’s’ range),
* have genuine arch support (so that it passes inspection by doctors and physios),
* be hard-wearing (I walk an average of perhaps two miles a day and hate shoe shopping), and
* be waterproof, and black, and smart enough to wear to work.

Ideally, I want them to be:
* ethically produced
* climate-friendly
* not involving the death of an animal.
I eat mainly vegan and people think I’m a hypocrite when they realise my shoes are leather (although I would also feel like a hypocrite if I had plastic shoes which turned out to have a higher greenhouse gas emission).

Ideally ideally, I’d also have some choice about what kind of gender markers my shoes display, but fit and comfort and ethics all tend to come first.

Usually, in order to fulfil the first list I end up at Clarks again, but obviously this doesn’t meet the requirements of the second list. At the moment I am wearing my old pairs of Clarks shoes to death, but I can see the end coming. People who are interested in the second list mainly seem to buy shoes online, but I suspect I’d spend a lot of money on return postage before I met the first list’s requirements that way. (I don’t mind spending good money for good shoes, but I’d rather spend it on shoes than on returning pairs of shoes that don’t fit!) I have needed new shoes for some time, but I hate making this kind of decision.

Actually, I had written most of this post when, a few days ago, my current shoes seemed particularly worn and I happened to be passing a Clarks shop. I found a pair which looked about right, tried them on, tried them on a wide fit – and said to the person who was serving me, “They still seem a bit narrow,” expecting that I wouldn’t be buying any shoes. But this salesperson said, “We have them in a extra wide fitting.” Extra wide fitting! Wonder of wonders! Shoes which are wide enough and not too long and comfortable and black and even slightly femme! And made of leather and plastic. And from a brand which is reliable and hard-wearing. Needless to say, I bought them, which has staved off this problem for another few years while I wear them out.

I’m not sure whether this was the decision making itself for me in a positive way (shopping always seems to me to contain a fair amount of luck/intuition/space for Spirit), or me defaulting to a bad habit because I haven’t the commitment or imagination to escape, but there it is. Invective about how I hate animals and the planet (and support sexist shoe design and all sorts of other terrible things I’d know about if I subscribed to Ethical Consumer) on a postcard please.

My experience of Meeting for Clearness

I was teaching about Meetings for Clearness the other week – offering people the chance to try it out for themselves using a ‘mini Clearness process’ in which a small group takes it in turns to be the focus person – and that led me to notice and reflect on the extent to which I use my own experience of having a Meeting for Clearness in teaching. In particular, I try and give people the chance to have an experience of the process something like my experience. Even if I don’t, can’t, achieve that, it’s guiding my decisions about how to describe the process and how to introduce people to it.

It also led me to reflect on the fact that I haven’t come across detailed descriptions of individuals’ clearness processes. There are some sets of instructions around, but – perhaps because the process is both relatively unusual, and where it is used in its full form it’s mainly for very personal things, like ‘shall we get married?’ or ‘should I have major surgery?’ – not much in the way of accounts of experience. (If you know of a published account of someone’s Meeting for Clearness, please do let me know in the comments!) That being so, I offer my story here.

I asked for a Meeting for Clearness as part of a wider process of discernment. I was applying for funding to offer my PhD work in Quaker Studies as a workshop which would be free for Quaker Meetings. The funding application called for a ‘market research’ exercise with a Quaker meeting, which I carried out, and for references, which I had; but I felt that this process was a bit thin on its own. The formal demands of the funding application were, for excellent reasons, entirely secular, but the work I wanted to do felt like ministry, so I asked for a Meeting for Clearness in order to bring some spiritual depth to my process of deciding to apply.

I was serving as an elder in my local meeting at the time. I discussed my idea with some other elders – if I remember rightly, this was done informally, and didn’t appear in our minutes. One person agreed to act as a convener (although my impression is that I invited people, double-checked times, etc.). Another offered her house as a venue – my flat was too small, and I was very grateful to be offered hospitality rather than worrying about cups of tea and things on the day! The final group were all people from my local meeting, and included elders, at least one overseer, people with experience of clerking and minute writing, at least one person who had used a Meeting for Clearness for an important decision of her own, and a friend whose similar academic background helped him understand the specifics of the question I was facing. On the day, one person volunteered to write a minute at the end of the process.

I had read up about the process in advance, and talked to some people about it, but in the end we made some adaptions on the day. The one which stands out in my mind is that where much advice suggests that the focus person should listen to but not try to answer open-ended questions which seek to shed light on the issue, I decided to answer them as best I could. We had allowed plenty of time for the process, which made this possible. My answers didn’t lead to a discussion as such (although sometimes there was a bit of back-and-forth), but relieved me of the need to try and remember my responses for later, helped me to find out what I really thought and felt (on the spot responses can be much more revealing than later ones!), and enabled later questions to go deeper rather than working off assumptions about my responses to earlier ones.

We did follow the usual process in other ways. We used silence at the start, at the end, and between contributions. I, as the focus person, explained my question and why I was seeking clearness, uninterrupted. People asked questions which probed my feelings and approach, but didn’t try to relate the issue to their own problems or the needs of others. Perhaps the most powerful part – certainly the part I hope I can reproduce for those who try out ‘mini’ versions of the process – was the feeling of being the centre of attention in a wholly positive way, heard, accepted, lovingly challenged, and supported.

Potential problems and negative feelings were held tenderly rather than glossed over, and, unusually for me, I spoke extensively without going away afterwards thinking ‘I shouldn’t have said that’. (It’s not unusual for me to talk a lot, but I normally spend a lot of time in the middle of the night regretting things I’ve said.) In some ways, it healed wounds from previous Quaker processes where I felt important things had been ignored.

Most of the specific questions have faded with time – this was four years ago now – but one stands out in my memory. Someone (I remember who, I can still see her face) asked what I would do if I applied but didn’t get the funding. I said, roughly, that I would be disappointed, but that I would look for other ways to do the work. I have thought back to that answer many times since then, especially when the work is difficult or frustrating. The final minute says, “we are clear that Rhiannon is led to take this work forward in some way; and we are clear she is the right person to do it”. When I’m stuck with it – even now, well after the end of the funding which prompted the initial process and when the work is taking on new forms – I can come back to this and think: it isn’t just me. Other people, joining with me and paying close attention to pick up even the faintest signals from the Spirit, have seen that there will be a way forward.

As well as producing a minute, the Meeting for Clearness brought me closer to the five Friends who met with me, and offered a support structure for the work in the early stages. I’ve moved away from that local meeting and am no longer in regular contact with all of them, but for some time afterwards people would check in with me: how’s it going? how many workshops have you done? what next? Because they understood that much better what I was doing, they were able to ask more specific and deeper questions, which helped me to feel fully part of that community in a way that routine small talk never seems to achieve.

In Britain Yearly Meeting at the moment, Meeting for Clearness is routinely used in many Area Meetings for couples considering marriage, but rarely for other purposes. I found it so helpful that I think it’s a shame we don’t use it more. What could you benefit from bringing to a Meeting for Clearness? Have you had one before, and if so, was your experience similar or different to mine?