Tag Archives: threshing

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.

Reading Qf&p: chapter 12

Most of chapter 12, ‘Caring for one another’, looks at the formalised ways we use ‘eldership’ and ‘oversight’ to take care of the spiritual and practical needs of a Quaker meeting. However, tucked away at the end of the chapter there are also a few fascinating snippets called ‘small groups’, and it’s these I’d like to talk about today.

One part within this looks at creative listening and worship sharing. It’s a fairly full description, compared with some of the others, and if you read it and then walked into a group who were going to engage in one of these practices, you’d have a fair idea what was going on. You might even be able to run one with little more than what is in here – having tried it yourself, or some specific guidance, might be useful, but it’s probably not completely necessary. If you do need it, there’s a line which directs you to Quaker Life for more information. (A good place to start would be the ‘ways of working’ section of the joint Quaker Life/Woodbrooke project Being Friends Together, which includes resources on most of the things mentioned in this post and many more besides.)

Another section deals with Meetings for Clearness (scroll down to find 12:22-25). When I asked for a Meeting for Clearness, I did find this section useful; but there was also a lot it didn’t say, and the experience of other Friends in my meeting who had used the process for big personal decisions was invaluable. Meetings for Clearness need to be tailored to the question and the asker as well as the gifts of those involved as facilitators and listeners, so perhaps this will always be the case. I don’t think that my experience of a Meeting for Clearness would have been at all the same if I didn’t already have trusting relationships with those who came to participate in it, but I can see that this will not always be possible. Perhaps there are other ways to produce the atmosphere of loving support and challenge which I experienced – a process of meeting more than once might be able to create this from a group who didn’t previously know one another, for example.

At the very end, a section deals with support groups. Of these I have no direct knowledge, but maybe they have some of the aspects of the repeated Meeting for Clearness process.

There is also one paragraph which describes threshing meetings. I spent quite a long time with this paragraph last year when I was involved in a piece of research about the use of threshing meetings, and although it’s all true, it doesn’t seem to be adequate to the complexity of the current situation. It would not, I think, be possible to read this and then run a threshing meeting, although it might give you an idea about whether it would be a useful process for your meeting at this time. Much more specific guidelines can be found in the Quaker Life leaflet about threshing – if anything, I’d say that these go too far the other way. In being specific, they cut down the possible flexibility of the process, which can adapt to meet a range of needs. What’s important about it is that it creates a boundary space, held in worship but without the drive towards an answer produced by the need to write a minute, within which issues can be explored from all relevant perspectives. You can read more about this idea if you download our report on the research.

(You can also – advert! – attend a Woodbrooke course in June 2016 in which we will explore threshing, Meetings for Clearness, and other discernment processes.)

Overall, I like the fact that there is a section about meeting together in small groups, and I agree that it belongs with other aspects of ‘caring for one another’. Over the years, small groups of these kinds, including study and discussion groups, have been very important to my development as a Quaker. The other kind of small group, dealt with much more extensively elsewhere in Qf&p but which has also nurtured me in these ways, is the committee or working group. Doing something together is often a powerful way to bond people together, to get to know one another and to explore different perspectives. When we use the Quaker business method for committee meetings, it’s very closely related to worship sharing as well as to threshing. We can explore opposing views, listen to one another deeply, and be held in the Light as we move towards a discerned answer. Does ‘small groups’ deserve a cross-reference to ‘nominations’ or ‘forms of service’?

D is for Discourse

Although I don’t call the kind of analysis of language I do “discourse analysis” – it arises from different sources to the academic practice known technically by that name – as a method, it has a lot in common and I do end up identifying some ‘discourses’ around the topics which interest me. You can read the Wikipedia article about discourse or the University of Strathclyde’s piece about discourse analysis, but these get technical quite quickly. Rather than using the term discourse, I might talk about the way in which an issue is framed, or how some terms are expected to appear together – so often, sometimes, that it can seem natural or even inevitable, although language isn’t really either of those things.

For example, much of my work focusses on religious language, and specifically on ways of talking about – or the discourse around – God (or the Light, or the Spirit, or whatever you call it: regular readers of this blog will know this song by now!). In this work, I’ve identified the use of lists as a key feature of some ways of approaching the problem. They work in several ways: pointing out and making explicit the diversity of the community’s theological views; demonstrating the value the community places on both inclusion (all these perspectives are included in our list); and potentially directing us back towards a negative theology in which we cannot say anything about God by saying too much, overwhelming us with words. Here, talking about the discourse around naming the Divine directs our attention towards the way that language is used in a particular social context to construct a community with particular features (one which values both diversity and inclusivity, for example).

In other situations, the discourse around a term might tell us how people understand that word or phrase – looking at how they use it and what else comes to mind when they think about it can tell us a lot about what the term means to them. This is part of what I’ll be doing in my current research project about ‘threshing’ as a Quaker concept. I don’t want to say much about this yet, because it’s still in progress (you could help by filling in the survey or coming to the workshop). However, the questions we are asking in that work could be described in part as looking at the discourse around threshing.

The concept of discourse has been used in all sorts of contexts to look more deeply into the ways which people talk about things. Everything from the way we talk about health to the way the media talks about political figures can be addressed by looking at discourse which surrounds a concept – usually there turn out to be overriding ideas present in popular discourse around a topic (for example: ‘health’ looks a certain way and can be measured by weight and other numbers; ‘politicians’ are described using a particular set of verbs and adjectives). Recently, I’ve been paying attention to the Quaker discourse around nominations, and realising that the words paired with the term ‘nominations’ can be subtly weighted: ‘nominations committee’, ‘nominations business’, ‘nominations process’ and ‘the Friend nominated’ but also ‘accepting nomination’, ‘considering nominations’, ‘nominated and appointed’, etc. Perhaps some of the significance of these becomes clear when you consider possible alternative discourses: what if, instead of ‘accepting nomination’, Friends ‘welcomed nomination’ or ‘submitted to nomination’? It’s clear to me that these terms feel very different and that in choosing the term ‘accept’ the community is saying something about what it is like to be asked to be nominated and to say ‘yes’ to that. (I’m still working on exactly what it says, suggestions for further discourse analysis in this area are welcome!)

Threshing

Quakers today use the word ‘threshing’ to describe a process of exploring the range of opinions in a group, usually as a preparation for considering an contentious issue in a Meeting for Worship for Business. This is described, although hardly at length, in Quaker Faith and Practice 12:26. I’ve been thinking about writing about our process of threshing recently, perhaps even doing some academic work on the topic, and it prompted me to ask: where has this metaphor come from? What did threshing originally look like?

I knew that threshing was what you did before winnowing, and that the key idea was to separate the grains of wheat (or barley, or something similar) from the chaff, the bit they grew in but which you don’t want to eat, and I knew that it was now done by machines, and that in the Bible ‘threshing floors’ get mentioned sometimes. A bit of looking-up (not quite research!) online suggests that there are two main methods: either hit it with something, like a flail, or stamp on it, either using the feet of animals or people.

I found some YouTube videos which helped me understand the process. In this first one, there’s a fairly comprehensive explanation of the flail process and how it’s done:

while this one provides some different angles:

and this brief clip gives a good idea of how several people can work together using this method:

The alternative, using oxen, is less common or at least less commonly documented, but can be seen in this video: