November/December 2010 Everyday Intention
Forming Your Own Clearness Committee
by Eileen Flanagan
How often have you approached a decision and found that churning it over and over with your logical mind wasn’t getting you anywhere?
One tool that can shift your perspective is a clearness committee. This process was designed by Quakers, who believe that each person has access to divine guidance, though sometimes you may need help paying attention. The purpose of this small group is not to give advice or tell you what to do, but to draw out the truth already inside you through thoughtful questions and deep listening.
You don’t need to be a Quaker to use this process. All you need is three or four supportive people willing to meet with you for a few hours, when no one is in a hurry. Ask those whom you consider to be spiritually grounded and who have your best interests at heart, not those with a vested interest in your decision. A spouse who wishes you were making more money, for example, will not be objective. Participants must be motivated only by a desire to support you, whatever you decide.
It’s very helpful to write a letter ahead of time outlining your dilemma and giving your group relevant background information. For one thing, it saves time in your session. More importantly, writing the letter can help you clarify the issues for yourself. You may notice the feelings evoked when describing the different possibilities you are considering.
When you actually get to the meeting, it’s good to have a quiet, comfortable meeting place and a facilitator designated who can set the tone and remind everyone that they are there to ask questions, not to give advice. Not giving advice is often the hardest part of serving on a clearness committee, but it’s important for your listeners to resist the temptation to tell you all about what they did when they had a similar problem. By saving their stories for your next visit to the coffee shop together, the listeners make space for your own deepest wisdom to emerge.
After you, the focus person, reviews the process, begin the meeting with a period of prayerful silence so each person can center and open to their own inner guidance. You then break the silence when you feel ready by recapping the major dilemma you are facing, and sharing any new insights that have come since writing the letter. The committee listens, and as they feel moved, raises questions, not out of curiosity, but following their intuitions about what questions need to be raised.
If someone asks a question that seems too personal or irrelevant, you always have the right not to answer, though it can be helpful to pay attention to a question that makes you uncomfortable because that may signal an issue that needs to be explored. Leaving silence between the questions may help both the questions and answers to bubble up from a deeper place than just your rational minds.
Sometimes your deep truth reveals itself through body language or an unconscious word choice, which your committee can reflect back to you. As the gathering starts to wind down, someone might say, “I noticed you looked really animated when you talked about teaching, but your shoulders slumped when you talked about your administrative responsibilities.”
Or “I noticed you got tears in your eyes when you said it was hard for you to ask for more money.” These types of observations can be helpful in uncovering the unconscious emotions or assumptions that are holding you back. At the end of the time, you can spend a few minutes sharing any new insights or questions you want to consider further.
For some, the committee meeting might end with a dramatic insight — a moment when your future course suddenly becomes clear — but don’t count on it. Often the meeting leaves you with clearer questions and a few next steps. In some cases, a group may decide to meet a second or even a third time. It may be weeks before you see how an insight that came out of the clearness process has shifted your perspective and opened you to new possibilities.
This process can be used for any variety of decisions. Quakers always appoint a clearness committee when someone has applied for membership or asked to be married in the community. Committees have also helped people with a wide range of decisions, such as whether to change careers, adopt a child, divorce, take on new volunteer work or pursue a certain course of medical treatment. In general, clearness committees are most effective when someone is facing a specific dilemma, not when they have a vague question like, “What should I do with my life?”
Sometimes the solution that grows out of a clearness committee is not one the person had even thought of beforehand. For example, one woman felt torn between a prestigious new job offer with an increased work load and the current job which allowed her the flexibility to attend her son’s soccer games. She feared that she had to choose between what would be good for her and what would be good for her children.
A clearness committee helped her realize that the new job offer gave her leverage to negotiate for the things she wanted in her current job. Instead of an either / or choice, she was given a solution that was good for everyone, one hallmark of decisions that come from true wisdom.
Eileen Flanagan is the author of The Wisdom to Know the Difference: When to Make a Change — and When to Let Go, which explores how the Serenity Prayer can be applied to every day life. Visit www.eileenflanagan.com.