Quakers: Afraid of Conflict?

Recently a friend said to me, “Quaker meetings attract conflict-averse people. Quakers are afraid of conflict.

The short reply is, no, Quakers are not afraid of conflict. In fact, there is quite a bit of conflict when a new, major meeting minute (recording of a decision by the meeting as a whole) is being considered; and the conflict can last literally for years, because discernment on these major minutes can take years.

However, conflict does not equal confrontation. In my experience, most Friends are not necessarily “conflict averse,” but are most definitely “confrontation averse.” We tend to seek ways to prevent conflict or to resolve issues quickly so that conflict doesn’t degenerate into confrontational charges and counter-charges. The latter doesn’t get a conflict any closer to being resolved; it escalates a source of
disagreement to an argument that is unlikely to lead to any of those involved feeling any resolution– regardless of the outcome. It’s the nature of Quaker meetings to try to resolve conflict instead of allowing confrontation.

My friend observed a pattern in her meeting:  If A has a grievance and raises it with Elders and Oversight, they don’t leave the statement of the grievance as A has stated it. They edit it so that specific individuals against whom there is a complaint are not identified by name, even if they were identified in the original complaint.

But in my home meeting, a problem brought by one person (A) about another, specific, person (B) is dealt with privately. Overseers might speak privately to (B) about the problem or they might arrange a clearness meeting for both to attend. Most of these issues are resolved privately between (A) and (B) with mediation by Overseers.

If a problem concerns the meeting community as a whole, Overseers encourage (A) and (B) to bring it to a Clearness Committee. This step then acknowledges the issue, because the committee must be appointed by Nominating Committee and approved at Meeting for Business. The process is there, and it is followed carefully.

Another “conflict avoidance” practice: In describing conflicts, conflict-averse people tend to use the neuter and the passive rather than the personal and the active. Thus “A and B have refused to attend a Meeting for Clearness” is rendered as “it has not been possible to arrange a Meeting for Clearness”. At best this is a lack of transparency. At worst I have known it to result in outright lies.

My experience, is that this is basic Quaker process. The intention is to avoid blame, which tends not to produce progress but rather makes the blamed person dig in heels deeper, so to speak. Confrontation tends to lead to entrenchment; mediation tends to lead at least to talking over the issue which gives hope of resolving it.

If confrontation is necessary, which it is in some situations, the best strategy is for (A) to confront (B) in the presence of a disinterested witness. The witness is vital, because someone with no bone to pick will be able to look at the exchange and verify who said what without rancor.

But in Quaker meetings, confrontation is avoided at all costs, as, no doubt, we all know.

6 thoughts on “Quakers: Afraid of Conflict?

  1. Mmm. I agree that it’s more accurate to describe us as “confrontation averse” rather than “conflict averse.” I’ve noted in my meeting, though, sometimes our avoidance of confrontation tends to perpetuate conflict, as when A and B refuse to actually talk it out, and therefore the issue subsides into simmering resentment . . . It’s been a struggle for us!

  2. I probably started all this with a Pendle Hill student presentation (which attracted some interest) back in 2003: http://www.sneezingflower.blogspot.com/2006/09/pamphlet-of-few-years-ago.html

    Since then I’ve thought about it some… and I don’t think we’re really more adverse to conflict, or worse at addressing it, than other organizations, especially religious ones. The emphasis on being ‘peaceful’ and ‘Quakerly’ probably adds some reluctance to ‘confront’ each other — which I think is a mistake, in that ‘facing’ some person (or facing our disagreement with them) does not have to imply hostility. Hostility and/or a determination to ‘win’ a conflict can render it completely fruitless, which can make confronting each other a useless aggravation. But not necessarily so.

    But so far as we’re reluctant to address our disagreements… to that extent, aren’t we holding each other at arms’ length?

    • No, you didn’t start it. This is a long-standing perennial problem among Friends. Here in Britain Yearly Meeting, it seems even more entrenched than in American meetings, possibly because the latter split over a century ago into two main groups with different visions of apostolic faith. In any case, Quaker process relies on openness, willingness and discretion– a tall order for anyone with a grievance.

  3. I had an example of this at my own Meeting this weekend. It was Meeting for Worship for Business. I was prevented (Sciatica…ouch!). I have recently been working in a small group on an important task for the Meeting. One of the members of said group (who had actually insisted the group be set up in the first place) suddenly decided to withdraw. She was angry about a perceived slight upon her by the Meeting and wrote to me and the Clerks in no uncertain terms to say she was opting out forthwith…and outlining the reasons in a very clear and critical manner!

    The Minute recording this yesterday said ‘X has asked to lay down Y’. No such request was made! In fact she had unilaterally withdrawn from a task she had been appointed to by the Meeting. The MInute also included praise for the work she had put in. The subtext of all this is that the Clerks and other Friends wish to protect this Friend form adverse criticism from the Meeting (she has already been at the centre of some very serious conflicts which most Friends in the Meeting are not even aware of). This is in the context of a bigger ongoing issue involving said Friend which conflict at this stage could make even more difficult than it already is. The Friend in question is very emotional and verbally confrontational.

    Here a no doubt well meaning euphemism is seriously misleading the Meeting. I had written to the Clerks beforehand saying that I felt it should be made clear the Friend had ‘withdrawn’ albeit in a neutral factual way. (There need be no mention of the problems this has caused for the remaining three of us in the group). Also to give the reasons why, outlining the said Friend’s grievances. The Meeting had specifically asked at a previous Business Meeting for transparency with regard to this particular Friend. .

    This is not just a criticism of said Friend but that the concealing of her communication actually falsified what she herself wanted to communicate. The Friend in question has also expressed on a number of occasions that she feels very sidelined and unheard by the Meeting.

    A clear statement to the Meeting and an accurate Minute would be more fair on the Friend and also enable the Meeting to do something constructive about it. These are dear, good Spirit-led people who are doing their absolute best.

    The problem for me is that I now have to go away and deal with my own resentment. But I do this in the context of accepting the discernment of the Meeting in the hope that it may prove to have a positive effect in the long run. Such things have happened in my past experience!


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