Quaker A-Z: L is for Listening

Listening is a vital skill for anyone hoping to run a meeting of any type. In a Quaker Meeting for Worship for Business (MfWfB) there is an agreed agenda and the clerk will have planned the order to allow time for reflective silence. These spaces are scheduled between spoken presentations, contributions or questions. That silence allows everyone to listen attentively, and have time to think carefully rather than responding immediately.
It takes discipline to sit and listen expectantly, with ‘heart and mind prepared’ rather than sit and plan your own important piece of ministry.
Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash
I find it helpful to remind people that this Business Meeting is more properly called a Meeting for Worship for Business. Therefore the same care and attention should be given to the urge to speak as they would during any worship.
I also direct people to Chapter 3 of the current Book of Discipline. It has so much to say about listening and preparing to listen.

Making space to listen deeper

In a gathered MfWfB there is a deep stillness in which you can feel people listening attentively and actively – considering the matter before them and waiting to see where the Spirit will take the matter.

From this expectant worshipful silence, will come carefully discerned words and decisions. There can be slow careful discernment, and then occasionally the Spirit will move and the meeting will find itself making decisions or changing the direction of the discussion. Or the realisation that they need to pause for some time and come back to this matter at a later date.

This happened at Yearly Meeting – when the clerks felt that a couple of items were not at a point of unity and so were put to one side for later. This can be later in the same meeting if the MfWfB goes over several days, or can be until the next time that group meet. Clerks will write a holding minute (for more details about the types of minutes visit the Guide to Quaker Clerking at Woodbrooke).

But to be able to do this the clerks must be listening, alert to the body language and underlying currents of sound and feelings through the room.

Listening as a Spiritual Practice

It can be hard to explain the difference between a secular meeting where people are standing their ground, or coming to the meeting with their own agenda and expectations. A Quaker Meeting is where participants have put aside their egos and are instead listening as part of worship.

In the September 2020 edition of Friends Journal was an article entitled, ‘Listening as a Spiritual Practice‘ which quoted Baltimore Yearly Meeting as follows:

"Friends approach the meeting for worship confidently, believing that God speaks directly to us, revealing Divine Will and guiding those who listen. Each worshiper becomes a listener ready to receive God’s message, which may come in the silence or in spoken words."

The author Alexandra Bell went on to say,

‘Speak as if God is listening. Listen as if God is speaking. Speak as if Spirit is speaking through you. Listen as if Spirit is listening through you.’

Good words for anyone as they prepare to either clerk or attend a Quaker Meeting for Worship for Business!

The Science of Listening

Peter Cheng is a Professor of Cognitive Sciences. He gave a fascinating series of lectures on the Quaker Business Method: A tool kit for decision-making in meetings. In this, he shows the science embedded within the business method.
I found the idea of during a MfWfB stopping and going back to the testimonies – ‘what would Peace require of us?’ etc. such a good reminder that this process is grounded in our faith and not in the process itself.
This is the first video in a series from the day organised by Quakers and Business back in 2019.

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