Think, then speak

Our first Christian church was All Saints Episcopal in Austin, TX. Episcopalians these days elect their ruling board, called a vestry, and only being familiar with civic organizations, I thought after a couple of years attending I’d volunteer for a job that folks usually did their best to avoid. Well, that’s not how churches work at all, but somehow I was elected anyway to a three-year term.

Even though it was prestigious to be on the vestry, there were various administrative jobs that nobody wanted, in particular the job of clerk (secretary). Usually it could only be filled for a year at a time, and with a major amount of cajoling for some unfortunate. But I thought it would be a fine way to contribute, and so I volunteered.

I kept the job all three years. One friend joked I wasn’t keeping minutes but seconds, since I recorded and wrote up the meetings in such detail. Another said she didn’t worry anymore about missing a meeting, because the minutes I produced were better in some ways than the meeting that produced them.

I liked the discipline of it. I’m not the world’s greatest note taker, so I had to improve at that. And since even then my notes weren’t great, I had to sit down not long after the meeting to reconstruct it in my mind before it faded away. And I had to learn to identify and isolate the significant threads that ran through lots and lots of not always relevant talk (the monthly meetings began at 7pm and often ran past 1am when contentious issues were on the table).

I got to be friends with the treasurer, a businessman whose level-headedness I admired. When I agreed to be the clerk for a third year, he asked me privately why I was willing to continue on. I thought about it, then said: because it helps me to keep my mouth shut.

Which it did. In a room with fifteen other professionals of differing opinions, there is no end of desire to be heard. Early on in my term I would want to chime in myself at some point, but found myself too busy taking notes—and then when breathing room opened up, I realized that my own point had already been well covered.

I decided to go with that, and never chimed in until very late in the discussion if at all. Usually my point was covered by someone else. Often when I wanted to say something that didn’t eventually get said, it became clear as the discussion continued that any number of reasons it wasn’t a good idea to say it.

And very occasionally the discussion got to a point where I was able to make a contribution that moved it forward. Because I had been listening rather than participating, i.e. arguing, I was not only able to refine what I said but also watch how the discussion evolved and sides develped. And I had time to craft a suggestion that defused tensions, took different points of view into account, lightened the mood. People often listened simply because it was the first time I said anything during a long night.

There were other times when even though I had an opinion I wasn’t able to work it lovingly into the discussion. But I can’t think of a single one where the situation became worse because I hadn’t said anything.

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