Assuming Goodwill in Others

Today we begin re-reading chapter 3 of the Rule of St Benedict, On Summoning the Brethren for Counsel. I’ve often commented on it before but this morning I was struck by the fact that Benedict assumes goodwill in others. It seems obvious. Day to day, the monastic enterprise is dependent on the goodwill of the community members. How else could it function? But when it comes to policy, to decisions about buildings or work or, whisper it gently, liturgy, there is more scope for less disinterested behaviour — I write as the survivor of many a chapter meeting where I had the feeling that a particular agenda was being pushed.

It is the apparently neutral ground, where we talk about one thing but seem to be busy about another, that makes the assumption of goodwill in others sometimes difficult. The bitter devisions in U.S.A. politics, the never-ending instances of incompetence and cronyism nearer home, are all rightly the subject of discussion and condemnation, but I wonder whether the situation would be as grave as it is were we able to assume goodwill in others.

Why are we reluctant to assume such goodwill? Is it that we fear to be thought naif? Or do we say, a little cynically, that we have been caught out before? As an outsider, I have found the presidential election in the U.S.A. and the reaction of both Republicans and Democrats baffling at times, never more so than when considering the behaviour of President Trump himself. An important element seems to be a reluctance to grant that it is possible for people to act in good faith in ways that we ourselves would not. That applies not just to politics but to most other areas of life as well.

Benedict reminds us that if we are to benefit from the wisdom and insights of others, we must be prepared to listen. Good ideas, good advice, can come from the most unlikely quarters. We may not like what we hear at first, so, like the abbot, we must think things over, give the matter time. But we start with that simplest and most difficult of acts: assuming goodwill in others.

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Meetings: Getting Them Right by Getting Them Wrong

Today the eyes of the world are turned to Hamburg and the expected meeting between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. For our friends in the Church of England, the opening meeting of the General Synod is possibly more to the forefront because of the thorny questions that are to be discussed later. Media pundits have informed us that it won’t be words alone that everyone will be watching for, but body language and the other little giveaways that signal winning or conceding. All very entertaining at one level, and fruitful ground for the business psychologist and teacher of management techniques to exploit, but not necessarily the point.

Most of us have unconsciously absorbed the idea that we ought to win an argument; and we go into meetings determined to present our case as persuasively — or forcefully — as possible. Thus, we wait to see whether Mr Putin or Mr Trump will ‘triumph’. We do not wait to see who will prove the most wise, prudent or constructive, whose vision for the future offers the best hope for humanity, who is willing to concede something in order to obtain a greater good for us all. We think in absolutes, in terms of winning or losing, national or personal self-interest, and I think that may be why we so often get meetings wrong. We miss the opportunity they give us and settle for something much less.

No one, alas, is going to ask the opinion of an obscure British nun, but I’d like to suggest that there is a way of getting meetings right — basically, by getting them wrong. If we go into a meeting prepared to accept that the other party has reasonable grounds for holding his or her opinions, is as keen as we are to obtain the best possible outcome for everyone (and go on believing this no matter how irritating or confused may be their way of expressing themselves); if we really listen to the other, then try to respond constructively, even if it means we have to shift our own stance, then there is a chance that something good will be achieved. This isn’t at all the same as saying that we should bow to every wind or abandon what we believe to be true and necessary. It is much more what St Benedict alludes to in chapter three of the Rule, a way of discerning. That word is so much used by ‘religious’ types that we have probably forgotten that in origin it means to separate, to distinguish. For a meeting to be successful, we have to distinguish between the accidents of froth and presentation and the substance of intention and content. We have to exercise judgement, and that is best done coolly and with an awareness of the consequences for others.

I shall certainly be praying today for the meetings of the G20 members, especially that between the leaders of Russia and the USA. I hope they will have the courage to get things wrong so that they can get them right — for all of us.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail