Today we’re going to look at where lodge discussions get de-railed, and what we can do about it. We can’t agree all the time, and so disagreeing well is important to maintaining respect & harmony, while staying in reality.
As an example, we’ll use the common argument in US lodges about the dues, and whether they should change. These discussions can break down:
- Some worry that fixed income seniors won’t be able to afford Masonry
- Some worry that without a dues increase, the lodge will not be able to perform functions (building maintenance, socials, etc)
- Yet another group worries that higher dues will disincentivize people from joining or participating
So which topic were we discussing again? We are disagreeing about lodge budget, future membership, and existing membership all at the same time. No wonder it’s hard to agree on a solution (either raise the dues or don’t).
First, how do we actually agree in the first place and where does it go wrong?
The Levels of Agreement
When people agree, it’s as if they’ve built a little pyramid together; it’s not really just one thing they agree on, but a whole set of things that build on top of one another.
- The good faith foundation: you agree that the person you’re discussing with is honest enough to be worth talking to in the first place.
- The Topic: you agree on what is being discussed.
- Facts & Substance: you agree on some points about what is being discussed
- Solutions: you agree on what to do about the substance.
The key point: without one of the bottom layers, you cannot agree on the higher level layers.
If you think you’re arguing with a liar, it’s better not to engage, because you will never agree on facts. Additionally – there’s no hope at agreeing on solutions, if you don’t already agree on what you’re discussing.
If you’ve had that experience where you feel like two brothers are talking past one another, it’s a sign they’re missing one of the middle layers.
Masonic lodges (in contrast to the outside world) are good at getting that foundation of good faith agreement, because of a strong set of shared experiences through the ritual. But the layers above are always tough. And there’s a tendency for us to jump to solutions and have the answers. But this is borne of impatience. These points and solutions never make sense to the brethren without the supporting agreement underneath.
Build from the Foundation Upwards
When you see two brothers disagreeing, (or if it is you, with another) the way to do it more skillfully is to build from the foundation upwards. Watch them disagree and ask:
- Do they trust one another? If not, stop. Either get different people into the discussion, or work on the basic relationship, don’t bother with the substance of the issue, you won’t get anywhere.
- Are they arguing about the same thing? If they are talking past one another, they probably don’t. Try to pull apart the issues and take them one at a time
- Do they agree on the facts? This can include what counts as a fact, and what sources of information are trustworthy.
To promote agreement where it is possible, the method is simple: visualize the levels of agreement, figure out where the lodge is disagreeing, try to fix that with the suggestions above, and move the discussion upward, if possible. If this sound hard, then you’ve got the right idea; it’s an issue for deft Masonic leadership & good communication. Masonic efficiency is not necessarily about getting to the result as quickly as possible.
What’s the opposite? How do you destroy and poison a debate? We need to spot these behaviors too, which Masonic leadership should quash wherever possible. These are behaviors that tear out lower levels of the “agreement pyramid” and set the lodge back.
- A lodge is discussing whether to focus on existing membership or new membership (the topic) and a brother questions whether one of the officers has ulterior motives (trying to remove good faith)
- A lodge is discussing whether to raise the dues to have more social programs (solutions), and a brother says that they aren’t wanted and that attendance is low anyway (he is trying to remove agreement on the issue)
Tearing out lower layers of agreement is not skillful disagreement, it’s destructive.
You’ll Still Disagree
When agreement cannot be reached, the goal is to disagree skillfully, in a way that does not damage unity. Doing that is simple:
- Repeat what brothers already agree on;
- Focus the issue down onto the specifics of what is not agreed;
- Leave the door open for future discussion.
That’s it. Imagine a Mason saying: “Well, we’ve discussed the need to make sure we’re having social events that draw people and are fun – that requires a bit of a budget. But we need to find a way to ensure it’s done in a way that all can participate, including all existing members. Let’s try to think creatively about this and talk again.”
Because we have so many different backgrounds and priorities, we do not have to all be of one mind.
One sacred band, or society of friends and brothers, among whom no contention should ever exist but that noble contention, or rather emulation, of who best can work, and best agree.From the lesson of the trowel
Contention is best defined as a belief or opinion that is strongly argued. (…) Emulation, by contrast, is an endeavor to equal or exceed another person in specific qualities. To emulate someone is to try to be like your perception of that person. (…) It is no accident that these two words are placed immediately following each other. It teaches us that instead of fighting with our brothers, we should each try to emulate those qualities within each other that will help us as we smooth our ashlars. The lesson of the final working tool is to regulate our lodge in such a manner that discontent is unable to take a foothold.“That Noble Contention” by Bro. Adam Thayer