The Therapeutic Neighborhood

If you have a deeply troubling personal problem, where do you turn?  To a cleric? A psychologist? A counselor? A therapist? Each is a hired professional with different approaches to our dilemmas.

But suppose they didn’t exist. Where would you turn?

What about going to a group of your neighbors?  They might be more helpful than the professionals. 

We can learn how to use this neighborly wisdom from the Quakers.  In the 1660s, universities weren’t turning out certified personal problem solvers, and the Quakers had no clergy to turn to.  Nonetheless, their members often faced personal crises and suffering.  In response, the Quakers recognized that the local community had unusual powers to help its members through difficult times.  Relying on the wisdom of their community rather than paid professionals, they created “Clearness Committees.”

Parker Palmer, a wonderful guide toward community wisdom, has written about the Clearness Committees in his book A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey toward an Undivided Life.

The methods he describes are quite clear and simple.  So for those seeking to uncover the wisdom in their neighborhood, here is Palmer’s description of the “clearness” process:

The Clearness Committee: A Communal Approach to Discernment

Behind the Clearness Committee is a simple but crucial conviction: each of us has an inner teacher, a voice of truth, that offers the guidance and power we need to deal with our problems. But that inner voice is often garbled by various kinds of inward and outward interference. The function of the Clearness Committee is not to give advice or “fix” people from the outside in, but to help people remove the interference so that they can discover their own wisdom from the inside out.

If we do not believe in the reality of inner wisdom, the Clearness Committee can become an opportunity for manipulation. But if we respect the power of the inner teacher, the Clearness Committee can be a remarkable way to help someone name and claim his or her deepest truth.

The Clearness Committee’s work is guided by some simple but crucial rules and understandings. Among them, of course, is the rule that the process is confidential. When it is over, committee members will not speak with others about what was said and, equally important, they will not speak with the focus person about the problem unless he or she requests a conversation.

1. Normally, the person who seeks clearness (the “focus person”) chooses his or her committee, with a minimum of five and a maximum of six trusted people who embrace as much diversity among them as possible in age, background, gender, etc.

2. The focus person writes up his or her issue in 3–5 pages and sends this document to members of the committee in advance of the meeting. There are three sections to this write-up: a concise statement of the problem, a recounting of relevant background factors that may bear on the problem, and an exploration of any hunches the focus person may have about what’s on the horizon regarding the problem. Most people find that by writing a statement of this sort, they are taking their first step toward inner clarity.

3. The committee meets for three hours—with the understanding that there may be a need for a second and even third meeting at a later date. A clerk (facilitator) and a recording clerk (secretary) should be named, though taping the meeting is a good alternative to the latter. The clerk opens the meeting with a reminder of the rules, closes the meeting on time, and serves as a monitor all along the way, making sure that the rules are followed with care. The recording clerk gives his or her notes to the focus person when the meeting is over.

4. The meeting begins with the clerk calling for a time of centering silence and inviting the focus person to break the silence, when ready, with a brief summary of the issue at hand. Then the committee members may speak—but everything they say is governed by one rule, a simple rule and yet one that most people find difficult and demanding: members are forbidden to speak to the focus person in any way except to ask honest, open questions. This means absolutely no advice and no amateur psychoanalysis. It means no, “Why don’t you…?” It means no, “That happened to me one time, and here’s what I did…” It means no, “There’s a book/therapist/exercise/diet that would help you a lot.” Nothing is allowed except real questions, honest and open questions, questions that will help the focus person remove the blocks to his or her inner truth without becoming burdened by the personal agendas of committee members. I may think I know the answer to your problem, and on rare occasions I may be right. But my answer is of absolutely no value to you. The only answer that counts is one that arises from your own inner truth. The discipline of the Clearness Committee is to give you greater access to that truth—and to keep the rest of us from defiling or trying to define it.

5. What is an honest, open question? It is important to reflect on this, since we are so skilled at asking questions that are advice or analysis in disguise: “Have you ever thought that it might be your mother’s fault?” The best single mark of an honest, open question is that the questioner could not possibly know the answer to it: “Did you ever feel like this before?” There are other guidelines for good questioning. Ask questions aimed at helping the focus person rather than at satisfying your curiosity. Ask questions that are brief and to the point rather than larding them with background considerations and rationale—which make the question into a speech. Ask questions that go to the person as well as the problem—e.g., questions about feelings as well as about facts. Trust your intuition in asking questions, even if your instinct seems off the wall: “What color is your present job, and what color is the one you have been offered?”

6. Normally, the focus person responds to the questions as they are asked, in the presence of the group, and those responses generate more, and deeper, questions. Though the responses should be full, they should not be terribly long—resist the temptation to tell your life story in response to every question! It is important that there be time for more and more questions and responses, thus deepening the process for everyone. The more often a focus person is willing to answer aloud, the more material he or she, and the committee, will have to work with. But this should never happen at the expense of the focus person’s need to protect vulnerable feelings or to maintain privacy. It is vital that the focus person assume total power to set the limits of the process. So the second major rule of the Clearness Committee is this: it is always the focus person’s right not to answer a question. The unanswered question is not necessarily lost—indeed, it may be the question that is so important that it keeps working on the focus person long after the Clearness Committee has ended.

7. The Clearness Committee must not become a grilling, a cross-examination. The pace of the questioning is critical—it should be relaxed, gentle, humane. A machine-gun fire of questions makes reflection impossible and leaves the focus person feeling invaded rather than evoked. Do not be afraid of silence in the group—trust it and treasure it. When silence falls it does not mean that nothing is happening or that the process has broken down. It may well mean that the most important thing of all is happening: new insights are emerging from within people, from their deepest sources of guidance.

8. From beginning to end of the Clearness Committee, it is important that everyone work hard to remain totally attentive to the focus person and his or her needs. This means suspending the normal rules of social gathering—no chit-chat, no responding to  other people’s questions or to the focus person’s answers, no joking to break the tension, no noisy and nervous laughter to indicate that we “get it”. We are simply to surround the focus person with quiet, loving space, resisting even the temptation to comfort or reassure or encourage this person, but simply being present to him or her with our attention and our questions and our care. If a committee member damages this ambiance with advice, leading questions, or rapid-fire inquisition, other members, including the focus person, should remind the offender of the rules—and he or she is not at liberty to mount a defense or argue the point. The Clearness Committee is for the sake of focus person, and the rest of us need to tell our egos to recede.

9. The Clearness Committee should run for the full time allotted. Don’t end early for fear that the group has “run out of questions”—patient waiting will be rewarded with deeper questions than have yet been asked. About 20 minutes before the end of the meeting, the clerk should ask the focus person if he or she wants to suspend the “questions only” rule and invite committee members to mirror back what they have heard the focus person saying. If the focus person says no, the questions continue, but if he or she says yes, mirroring can begin, along with more questions. “Mirroring” does not provide an excuse to give advice or “fix” the person—that sort of invasiveness is still prohibited. Mirroring simply means reflecting back the focus person’s own language—and body language—to see if he or she recognizes the image, and with each mirroring the focus person should have a chance to say, “Yes, that’s me…”, or, “No, that’s not…”. In the final 5 minutes of the meeting, the clerk should invite members to celebrate and affirm the focus person and his or her strengths. This is an important time, since the focus person has just spent a couple of hours being very vulnerable. And there is always much to celebrate, for in the course of a Clearness Committee people reveal the gifts and graces that characterize human beings at their deepest and best.

10. Remember, the Clearness Committee is not intended to “fix” the focus person, so there should be no sense of let-down if the focus person does not have his or her problems “solved” when the process ends. A good clearness process does not end—it keeps working within the focus person long after the meeting is over. The rest of us need simply to keep holding that person in the light, trusting the wisdom of his or her inner teacher.

The Clearness Committee is not a cure-all. It is not for extremely fragile people or for extremely delicate problems. But for the right person, with the right issue, it is a powerful way to rally the strength of community around a struggling soul, to draw deeply from the wisdom within all of us. It teaches us to abandon the pretense that we know what is best for another person and instead to ask those honest and open questions that can help that person find his or her own answers. It teaches us to give up the arrogant assumption that we are obliged to “save” each other and learn, through simple listening, to create the conditions that allow a person to find his or her wholeness within. If the spiritual discipline behind the Clearness Committee is understood and practiced, the process can become a way to renew community in our individualistic times, a way to free people from their isolation without threatening their integrity, a way to counteract the excesses of technique in caring, a way to create sacred space for the Spirit to move among us with healing and with power.


~ John ~

Adapted from Chapter VIII in A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey toward an Undivided Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009). Used by permission of the author.


Parker J. Palmer is an author, educator, and activist who focuses on issues in education, community, leadership, spirituality and social change. He is founder and senior partner of the Center for Courage & Renewal, a small non-profit organization that provides support for people in the serving professions. See the Center’s website for selections from his writing and speeches plus links, blogs and other material related to his work.


Photo by Elliot Brown

About the Lead Author

John McKnight
John McKnight
John McKnight is emeritus professor of education and social policy and codirector of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at DePaul University. He is the coauthor of Building Communities from the Inside Out and the author of The Careless Society. He has been a community organizer and serves on the boards of several national organizations that support neighborhood development.

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