What should we do? How groups make good decisions using discernment in common
Have you ever been in a meeting where some participants remain adamant about their position without taking time to listen to others? Or have you been part of a group that had to make an important decision but didn’t know how?
In the 1980s, Canadian Jesuits (notably John English, SJ), religious sisters, and lay people brought their experience of the Spiritual Exercises and personal discernment to a group context. This discernment in common allows organizations, religious or not, to become more aware of their identity, their raison d’être, and their mission, and thus to conduct their work in a coherent manner with the help of personal reflection, time, and space for each person to speak, actively listen, and use an Ignatian framework, among other tools.
“It’s really a legacy that the province has developed,” says Xavière Sister Laurence Loubières, a legacy that has been renewed in recent years with the creation of the Service of Discernment in Common, where she serves as director. This service is geared toward religious organizations but will be available to the business world, among other sectors, as well. Let’s take a closer look at this process.
Discernment in common in private companies
Discernment in common can also take place in nonreligious contexts. Sr. Laurence was an executive in a private company for several years, and she led her team through exercises similar to the discernment process.
“I invited each team member to review the last six months of our work. At our meetings, we learned to take turns speaking and listening to each other. We looked at what was working, what was giving everyone a sense of enthusiasm and energy, and on the other hand, what was going less well. And six months later, we would check in to see whether the changes we had made were working. This gave people the ability to reflect on what they’d been experiencing and to respond in a constructive way.”
Discernment in common in the religious milieu
Sister Hélène Pinard, FCSCJ , experienced the ESDAC (Spiritual Exercises for Apostolic Discernment in Common) process in 2018, during the provincial and general chapters of her congregation. “What attracted me at first was the way we listen to each other during the conversation. No one says, ‘I think we should…,’ and people don’t talk over each other. I’ve seen people who don’t usually speak have a voice like everyone else, and what they say is important, even if they don’t believe it themselves. The other thing I appreciate is that it forces people to synthesize their ideas.”
Seeing the results of the ESDAC process, Sr. Hélène was quick to apply it to the groups of religious and lay people that she facilitates. In one of the groups, divided by conflict, the results of the process were impressive.
“We came up with a result that surprised everyone. The truth was named, people were not afraid to express their agreement or disagreement. We were able to leave with a much clearer framework for our work, knowing where we are headed together.”
And how is ESDAC different from other methods of team conversation? Sr. Hélène believes that the secret to this process lies in the fact that people listen to each other and can speak honestly in an atmosphere of safety.
Discernment in common for a religious organization
Donat Taddeo, currently assistant to the president for planning and development at Loyola High School, and André Courchesne, director of Camp Lac Simon, held two sessions of discernment in common to define the role and activities of Le Gesù in Montreal.
“It helped us gain a better sense of how we are moving forward in the midst of a situation that is quite complex,” says Donat. Part of the complexity is that those involved, Jesuits and laypeople, have different backgrounds. How do you get the best ideas from each person in a constructive way? André noted that discernment helps us to better understand the important contributions of each person. “Each participant who adds his or her stone—small or large—participates in the building of the Kingdom.”
Participants were given reflection questions 48 hours in advance, which helped to focus the discussion from the very beginning. During the three stages of the discernment process, each person took a turn to speak. “What I found interesting,” says Donat, “was that because we were few in number, it was easier to listen and to see how each person’s words were received by the others. The role of the leader is essential, ensuring that everyone follow the rules of the exercise. The spiritual element, in the broad sense of the word, is also interesting. There is time for reflection, which allows ideas to emerge. It’s amazing to see how much convergence there can be around two or three questions. I really liked it, although I had previously been a bit skeptical.”
André also enjoyed the experience. “Community discernment offers a wonderful opportunity for open and honest communication and active listening, becoming aware of the movements within us, without ‘preparing a response.’ The approach allows us to open our hearts to receive the words and reflections of the other. Careful attention to what moves within us reveals the Spirit as it slowly manifests itself.”
An exercise inspired by the first Jesuits
As Sr. Laurence explains that the Jesuits themselves were founded through a process of discernment.
“The first companions who gathered around Ignatius had no real idea about what they were going to do at the beginning. They were a diverse group, but they had all experienced the Spiritual Exercises. At some point, they had to think about their future and develop a process to really listen to the Spirit working through this powerful spiritual experience that they had lived.”
While personal discernment has long helped people make life choices deeply rooted in a sense of vocation, communal discernment has only been around for about thirty years, but it has been readily embraced by other Jesuit provinces.
The combination of active listening, adequate time and space, structure, and the opportunity to go deeper distinguishes discernment in common from other types of group discussions. It’s a time to refocus, to move forward in a better way.