Is anyone listening? Sometimes I feel everyone is talking, but no one is listening. I sort my friends into those that I find myself talking to; who listen to me, and those to whom I tend to listen. Who talk happily, stop for a moment to ask “Oh, and what about you?” and as I draw breath to answer, leap back into the next chapter of their dramatic life.
Being listened to, being heard, is like an oasis in a desert, refreshment for an all-consuming thirst. Sometimes we need structure to help us listen, to help overcome a natural desire to defend ourselves, bounce back criticism or compliments. I love structured listening of any form, but the structure I have found most supportive and transformative is a mini-version of the Quaker Clearness Committee.
In January I was in London, enjoying the winter sunlight through the safety of double-glazed windows and central heating, with a group of people, most of whom I had never met before. We reflected on learning from the year past, and what was important in 2024. Then we moved into triads, guided by a Tibetan-bowl-ringing-facilitator, to try out a mini-Clearness Committee.
As we sat together, a stillness pervaded the room, stirred gently by the quiet words emerging from each group. I was with Jo and Mark*, both new to me, and new to Clearness Committees. When it was my turn to speak, I used my three minutes to outline the overwhelm I felt in my life. The bowl sounded, then a silence, and then after another instruction from the timekeeper, Jo and Mark started reflecting on what they had heard. I kept quiet and allowed myself to absorb their questions and comments.
“it sounds like you are busy being a wonderful parent to everyone else, but who is mothering you?” Jo was spot on with this one. I smiled defensively and acknowledged, silently, the truth of her question, and my reluctance to go there.
But she was good, despite her lack of experience, and trusting her intuition she continued: “It feels like something in your life is like a giant, grinding stone, a huge weight that you have to keep pushing, on and on, without any end in sight.”
Her words went right inside me, bringing a vivid image of this huge load pressing down on me. She was so right. As she named this weight, and I accepted this, my body relaxed slightly. A person I was working with professionally walked across my minds-eye, and I realised that they were part of this burden, alongside the parts I was more aware of. I knew I had to do something about this.
At the end of the reflections and questions I felt understood, held, really seen by these two strangers. We completed the process with a blessing and a song.
This mini-Clearness Committee had clear timings to last 20 minutes, allowing a well-organised triad to complete three in an hour. The first time I experienced this, in a taster session for the Salem Institute Soul of Leadership course, I was blown away by its intensity and richness, and how close and helpful strangers could be in such a short space of time.
The structure starts with a minute of silence, to help everyone settle. The focus person then speaks without interruption, usually three or five minutes in this mini-version. Then follows a minute for factual questions, if listeners need clarification. Another minute of silence allows further settling, then the reflection period opens. In this intense mini-version, the focus person listens and absorbs the questions, neither speaking now answering, letting themselves sink into their deeper wisdom.
The challenge for the listeners is to be curious, to reflect, to allow their minds to wander, allowing images and metaphors to emerge, sinking into their deeper wisdom as well. This requires attention to the focus person, rather than feeling anxious about asking the right question, “fixing” the problem or giving advice. The listeners’ job is to hold the focus person in their presence, and share whatever comes up for them. Sometimes holding back the “why don’t you….” or “haven’t you thought of….” is hard. It can be helpful to ask yourself as the listener, “what does this person or situation need right now?”, or, “what images emerge as I hold this person in my heart?”
At the end of the reflection period (8 to 15 minutes in the mini-version), the focus person asks the listeners for whatever will help them, such as a blessing, a prayer, a song, a dance, or even advice…. This is an important part, taking two minutes: a heartfelt sharing, with humour and joy. Then the committee is finished and the focus person can reflect on the experience. Often people feel warmed and nurtured by the experience of receiving so much attention and being held in love.
Excited by my first experience of this structure, I wanted to share it with everyone, and started with my own local Meeting. People enjoyed our trial session and found it interesting but it wasn’t the success I hoped it would be. Possibly a generational thing, we met three obstacles. Some found it hard to share with people they had known for years, or didn’t feel they had anything to talk about. When listening, it seemed we had an endemic culture of fixing and sorting so people worried that they couldn’t be helpful. And, predictably, there was a complaint that this was not a proper Clearness Committee.
A proper Clearness Committee would normally go on for a couple of hours. It usually has about five listeners, appointed partly by the focus person, and partly due to their Quaker credentials. The reflection period is more of a deep conversation, with listeners asking questions, and the focus person considering and answering, letting each question settle back into silence before another appears.
We like to think that listening structures such as Clearness Committees are uniquely Quaker. But neither Jo or Mark were Quakers, nor are most of the people I share Clearness Committees with. Similar structures appear in action learning sets, family therapy reflecting teams, and Native American listening practices, where the focus is on deep, generative listening. Clearness Committees are a form of spiritual practice for me, and whether I am listening or being listened to I always find myself shifting and growing. I feel proud that they have a Quaker origin: it’s a great gift to the world, particularly in this accessible and time limited form.
The heavy grinding stone shifted in some rather surprising ways. Over the week that followed I lurched from one crisis to another, each time shedding a responsibility, asking for help and learning how to cope with an issue in a different way. At times I thought I was totally losing it. But by Saturday I felt great; energised and ready to start the New Year. Somehow we are at our best when we stop. And when we allow ourselves to listen.
*All names have been changed