Decisions Quakers Reviews

Book Review: Beyond Majority Rule

Beyond Majority Rule: voteless decisions in the Religious Society of Friends is the publication of Michael J. Sheeran’s doctoral work in the Dept. of Politics at Princeton University. He spent two years (1973—75) conducting interviews, reading, and observing the actual decision-making of the Quakers. Sheeran is convinced that the Quakers “have something of first importance to share in their technique of reaching a viable resolution of their own problems” (p. ix).

Knowing, respecting, and trusting each other
A prerequisite is “having a group of limited size who know and respect and trust each other” (p. ix). The members of this group must “be willing to listen to each other with open minds, to learn from each other and be willing to feel into the shaping of a decision” (p. ix). Among common blockages are having “a fixed and unchangeable mind as to the outcome”, the unwillingness “to lay aside pressure tactics to force an early decision”, and not following the Quaker caution “to use as few words as possible and as many as are necessary” (p. x).

The Presence in the midst
Central to the Quaker understanding of unity-based decision making is the idea that there is “that of God in every one” (p. 3). Quakers do not begin with a theory. They begin with an event in which, ideally, “the presence of God is experienced by each person as part of a group experience” (p. 5). A meeting is “covered” or “gathered into the Life”, when the group is aware of “the Presence in the midst” (p. 6). Richard Vann wrote already in 1683 that “even one person out of harmony with the meeting could prevent it from accomplishing anything” (p. 6).

Advice rather than regulation
Friends are chary of “binding the spirit” by regulations (p. 47). Instead, they provide “advice rather than regulation” (p. 47). Meetings always “begins with silence and closes in silence” (p. 49). If the meeting is properly carried through, there may emerge an “openness not to my wishes and my designs and my surface preferences but [an] openness to the deeper levels … where the problem may be resolved in quite a different way than had ever occurred to me” (p. 50).

Decision-making principles
There are “a number of factors which seem characteristic of Quaker decision making” (p. 51):

  1. unanimous decisions—no voting;
  2. silent periods—at start of meeting and when conflict arises;
  3. moratorium—when agreement cannot be reached;
  4. participation by all with ideas on the subject;
  5. learning to listen—not going to meeting with mind made up;
  6. absence of leaders—the clerk steers but does not dominate;
  7. nobody outranks anybody;
  8. factual-focus—emotions kept to a minimum; and
  9. small meetings—typically limited numbers.

These factors, or principles, are explored in the book in an attempt to bring the reader beyond a “superficial comprehension” (p. 51). While doing so, Michael J. Sheeran puts the focus on “two central and subtle matters: the nature of unity in a decision and the systems of belief which seem to underlie successful use of the method” (p. 52).

Group searching together
A point of pride about Quaker decisions is that they “occasion the emergence of … a higher synthesis of individual ideas” (p. 53). The goals of Quaker decision making are “different from those of majority rule” (p. 54). The proposals made at the beginning of a discussion are “usually seen … as starting points, not as finished products unsusceptible to modification” (p. 54). In Quaker decision making, it is not only presumed “that each participant seeks the best solution”, but it is also presumed “that the group, by searching together, can reach such a … solution” (p. 55). Attitudes contrary to this searching together suffers “subtle but sharp sanctions” (p. 55). The attitudes demanded of Friends is one of “openness to one another’s ideas —the ability to put aside pet notions in favor of the next person’s insight” (p. 55).

Release from fear and reluctance to express one’s ideas
Michael J. Sheeran emphasizes that “those who dread the effects of candour in a Meeting are not giving that Meeting the opportunity which it needs to realize all the possibilities of its group life” (p. 55). “Release from fear, from shyness, from reluctance to express one’s ideas” is given high priority by the Friends (p. 55). Opinions should always be expressed “humbly and tentatively in the realization that no one person sees the whole truth and that the whole meeting can see more of Truth than can any part of it” (p. 56). “Tentativeness and an artless willingness to face the weaknesses in one’s position rather than to paper them over with distracting allusions” are equally important, and “sanctions against unacceptable rhetoric are subtle but effective” (p. 56). Friends “emphasize the importance of encouraging every participant in a meeting to feel that his or her contribution will be received with appreciation” (p. 57).

Emotions are difficult
Friends sometimes have difficulties in revealing “their own inner feelings or to seek out ways of speaking which will let people know—in a non-rhetorical manner—the depth of their feelings” (p. 57). As a result, “the emotional dimensions of topics sometimes do not get the frank attention they deserve” (p. 57). However, it’s important to remember that Friends are “not opposed to emotions, [and] not opposed to their having an important bearing on decisions” (p. 58).

Being face-to-face, acceptance and mutual respect
The need for “openness” has some direct corollaries. The method is “harmstrung whenever participants cannot be face-to-face” (p. 60). Another corollary is that the topics which a group can successfully deal with are “normally limited by the strength of the bonds of respect for one another” within the group (pp. 60—61). The emphasis is on “acceptance of one another, mutual respect, avoidance of the manipulative conduct …, and one’s dependence on searching together with the group for better conclusions than anyone alone could have attained” (p. 61).

Unity is not unanimity or consensus
One major difficulty is that “no conventional term adequately expresses the phenomenon of decisional agreement in a Quaker meeting” (p. 63). Some describe all decisions as “unanimous on the grounds that any objecting member could prevent action”, but this is misleading since it “implies that all participants are satisfied when a decision is reached—a point hardly true of many Quaker decisions” (p. 63). Other speak of “consensus, thereby underscoring that the bulk of those present agree even if one or two objectors remain”, but this is misleading too (p. 63). Michael J. Sheeran emphasizes that “Quakers are simply not satisfied to know that even the overwhelming majority are in agreement” (p. 63). Given this verbal difficulty, the term used by the Friends is “unity” rather than “unanimity” or “consensus” (p. 63). Another early Quaker term used was “concord” (p. 63), which is Sheeran’s preferred term.

At least two stages of discussion
There are at least two stages of discussion in the decision-making. The “preliminary stage follows initial presentation of both the problem and its possible solutions” (p. 64). At this point, “participants often ask questions of the person who has made the presentation, offer tentative alternatives to the proposal, and even find themselves more in the posture of brainstorming than of making serious judgments” (p. 64). Remarks contrary to the proposal “are taken to be exploratory” (p. 64). The transition from “the preliminary to the serious phase” is normally informal (p. 64). An individual will “offer a suggestion—perhaps a rejection of the basic proposal for a novel reason—and then sit back to see what response the idea draws from the group” (p. 64). Such a statement “does not involve personal commitment to the idea”, but is “a testing of the waters” (p. 64). The ability to “differentiate tentative from serious and ambiguous remarks” is important for all participants, and especially for the clerk, whose “duty it is to read the group and decide whether there is serious objection to the general direction in which discussion is moving” (p. 64).

The tide may or may not build
As Friends begin “to speak their serious conclusions, the tide will build” (p. 64). Listeners who find a speaker’s remarks match their own will follow his or her words with “I agree” or “I can unite with that” or “that speaks my mind” (p. 65). Sometimes “several currents are running in the tide, pulling the meeting in two or more directions”, and sometimes there may be “no tide or current at all” (p. 65). In either of these situations, the discussion continues until a conclusion emerges, at the “suggestion of the clerk or some other participant”, or that “there is agreement that no conclusion can be reached for now” (p. 65). If the tide is running in a particular direction, the clerk is expected “to make a judgment that the group is now ready for agreement and to propose a tentative minute … as the clerk understands it from listening to the discussion”.

Objections to a proposal
Each group member has “two quite different questions to ask” when the clerk proposes a minute (p. 65). First, does the proposed minute catch the tide of the discussion? If the answer is no, then this opinion is expected to be raised. Discussions follows such an objection, with various Friends “stating how they respond to the minute as an expression of the group’s will” (p. 65). Then, the clerk “rephrases or withdraws the minute if necessary” (p. 65). Michael J. Sheeran observes that “it is often the case that one person’s statement of misgivings leads others to reassess their judgments, giving more prominence to matters they had initially dismissed” (p. 66). If a person still can’t agree, the group is unable to proceed. However, Sheeran also observes that “the realities, fortunately, are much more subtly adapted to the complexities of human disagreement” (p. 66)

A whole spectrum of objections
There’s actually a “whole spectrum of dissent available” in Quaker decision making (pp. 66—72):

  • I disagree but do not wish to stand in the way
  • Please minute me as opposed
  • I am unable to unite with the proposal
  • Absence

Even if deliberate absence “signifies deep disagreement with a proposal, it does not necessarily block action” (p. 70). The group is expected “go ahead at once if the objector follows the typical approach of stating his or her unease but affirming a desire not to stand in the way” (p. 71). The same is true “if he or she asks to be minuted as opposed, although it seems that the group will proceed in much more chary fashion” (p. 71). If the individual simply is “unable to unite, the group will normally delay action” (p. 71). Michael J. Sheeran notes that “the group’s willingness to delay is a function of the apparent importance of the objector’s objection” (p. 71). The group’s readiness to delay “also depends on its respect for the objector” (p. 71). A third factor is time. “The more urgent the matter, the more highly regarded the objector needs to be” (p. 71). “The relative significance of each factor depends in each situation upon the entire set of relationships existing at a given moment within the group under consideration” (p. 72).

The religious dimension
The religious dimension of a meeting can run a spectrum “from the merest formality to an extraordinary quality very significant to the decision being taken” (p. 82). “Truly worshipful decisions tend to occur in situations of high risk”, but the occasions “when such dramatic religious depth is called for are not common” (p. 83). The typical meeting oscillates between “a superficial and a rather profound religious tone” depending upon the topic under discussion (p. 84). Michael J. Sheeran observes that “decisions at the religious level … tend to draw greater acceptance from those present” (p. 84). One Friend said that “decisions based on human considerations are fine, but they’re not enough for sacrifices of really important things like family and friends and life goals.” (p. 84).

Same vocabulary with different meanings
Michael J. Sheeran found that Friends language is ambiguous. “Everybody seemed to use the same vocabulary but with different meanings” (p. 85). But, when Sheeran “reflected on the atmosphere and the tone of his interviews instead of the words that were exchanged”, he found that “the experience itself [of the gathered meeting] was what counted” (p. 87).

Strengths of Quaker leadership
Quaker leadership demands “the intertwining of traditional basic leadership skills with a peculiar skill at reading the sense of the meeting” (p. 99). The most important duty of the clerk is “to judge the sense of the meeting” (p. 95). In doing this, “the clerk is likely to consider the general reputation of the leading speakers for each viewpoint, the extent of information and experience each brings to the topic, the apparent conviction beneath a remark, and other intangible factors” (p. 95). “The opportunity to manipulate is obvious” (p. 96), but Sheeran notes that “abuse of power seems curiously rare” (p. 97). “The great caution clerks feel about abuse of power came out frequently in the interviews”, with the most experienced clerks “appearing most chary of abuse” (p. 98). Of fundamental importance is that “Quaker theory sees the clerk or other leader as servant of the meeting, not its director” (p. 100). The clerk’s role, as mentioned previously, is to “articulate the unity which he or she discovers and to facilitate the formation of that unity” (p. 100). The good clerk “knows whether people are saying what they really think” (p. 100). Michael J. Sheeran refers to this phenomenon as the ability to “read” the group (p. 101). He even goes a step further and wonders whether it’s perhaps “a weakness, given our theory that leadership is still needed” (p. 103).

Weaknesses of Quaker leadership
Quaker leadership “provides great support to the goal of reaching unity on divisive questions” (p. 104), but it has weaknesses too. The most obvious problem is that “there is no guarantee that individuals with the ability to read the community accurately will also excel in the basic organizational skills required for running a meeting” (p. 104). Given the “spectrum of possible combinations of strengths and weaknesses” there are “quite different styles and emphases in various Quaker groups using the same fundamental procedures” (p. 104). Another problem is that the individual who can discern the unity “quickly exercises an influence that is subtle and pervasive” (p. 105). Thus, “the person who comes to the meeting with a solution in his back pocket might wait until the group seems ripe for the idea instead of proposing it at the outset” (p. 105). The speaker’s preparations in advance may then be confused with “an inspired reading of the present level of agreement of the assembly” (p. 105). The group has little defense against such manipulation.

In a fundamental sense, Friends decision making “presuppose that participants are in community” (p. 115). Participants need to be willing to say what they really think, listen to each other, and be willing to make decisions work out successfully. Michael J. Sheeran’s book is recommended reading for everyone who is interested in how to move beyond majority rule into group-centered decision-making.

By Jan Höglund

I share my reading, book reviews, and learning in my blog.

3 replies on “Book Review: Beyond Majority Rule”

Hi Jan – very nice summary of a complex subject. I appreciate it. I am Quaker myself and will be sharing this article with several people, including Friends. – John

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