This weekend, I was asked twice by different people to explain the Quaker business method/Quaker decision-making, and I thought the written version of my response might interest some folks here, so here it is, copied and pasted from a comment I made elsewhere.
The Quaker business method is an example of compassionate, co-operative discernment.
Quaker decision-making usually happens with people meeting in person, but most of the principles can be transferred to an online context and some decisions are made this way.
Essentially, it’s based on an intention to find the best way forward, rather than the way I prefer or the way you prefer; in traditional Quaker language it is ‘seeking the will of God’, but some non-theist Quakers prefer to describe it in different ways.
A clerk (kind of secretary-cum-chair) introduces the agenda item to be discussed, giving as much information as they can either in writing in advance or in a spoken introduction (or often both).
There is a period of silent consideration, and then people can add information or thoughts that might bring the meeting closer to a decision. One person speaks at a time, and there’s a period of silent consideration after each contribution. It’s not adversarial: if I disagree with something a previous contributor has said, I will structure my contribution around what I feel is the right way forward, not what’s wrong with what the previous person said.
Contributions are addressed to the clerk rather than to other people present.
Participants are encouraged to try to find the truth in each other’s words and to trust in each other’s good intentions even when there is disagreement.
When it seems as though there may have been enough contributions, the clerk (usually with at least one assistant clerk) writes a draft minute to record ‘the sense of the meeting’ – jargon term – the jist of what’s been said and the decision that the contributions have moved towards, if that has happened. The minute might record that the meeting has been unable to find unity on the decision. The clerk reads the draft minute, and there may be further contributions to refine what has been recorded, after which a revised draft would be read. The clerk asks ‘is this minute acceptable’, and when it is, the people present say ‘I hope so’ (because any one individual can’t speak for the whole meeting).
There’s no voting, and it’s not exactly consensus decision-making either.
The aim is to write a minute that records what the meeting has discerned in relation to the agenda item, rather than the aim being to reach a decision no matter who gets hurt along the way.
I’ve experienced this method in meetings ranging from five people to a thousand people, and seen decisions made on big and controversial topics. It works as long as those present are willing to approach the process in a spirit of co-operation and compassion, and to trust the meeting as a whole to make a good decision, even if it isn’t the one they would have preferred.
One of my friends from Meeting has just posted a link to this article on Quaker decision-making, which is interesting to me partly because it’s written by a non-Quaker.