Origins of the Check-In (Quakers)

I’m researching elements of teams, group process, and facilitation to better understand the professional world I’m part of.

The ‘check-in’ is a fundamental element in the repertoire of a facilitator. There’s no better way to start a session and get everyone present, and there’s no faster way to discover what’s going on under the surface of a group.

It’s such a simple an effective process tool that I figured it must have a rich and well-documented history. But it’s proved quite tricky to research, partly because its name is shared with the hotel and airline industries, but partly also, I suspect, because of its simplicity. In its most basic form, a ‘check-in’ is one person asking another person: “How are you?”

Me checking-in 380 people at a company day for Brandwatch (through Hyper Island).

But, I’m not about to delve into the history of greetings. Here I’m exploring the formalised group process that we call a ‘check-in’.

Where to start? With such a basic human process, the line through history will surely be tangled and confused. But, for the sake of starting somewhere, I’ll start with the Quakers.

Quaker Meetings

I’ve been inside a Friends meeting house (Quakers are also known as the Religious Society of Friends) only once, in Manchester for some kind of social entrepreneurship hack event back in 2011. Unfortunately, there were only a few Quakers actually present, and I wasn’t able to witness one of their unique ‘meetings’.

Whilst perhaps not the strict progenitor of the ‘check-in’, the Friends and their meeting practices undoubtedly contributed to the way things are done in progressive contemporary organisations and businesses. There is something distinctly ‘check-in-like’ about the way that many Quakers conduct their meetings, sitting in a circle, giving each other space, seeing everyone as equal.

Let’s spend some time with these chilled-out folk.

Image from Transition Quaker

The Quaker Vibe

This small but historically important branch of Christianity emerged in mid-17th century England. They followed a doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers”, building personal relationships with Christ, instead of one mediated through the Church of England’s strict hierarchy.

They have historically been a kind and temperant segment of society, not drinking alcohol, opposing slavery, lobbying for prison reform, dressing plainly, and refusing to participate in wars. Whilst there are still multiple branches of the Quaker faith, the dominant sect today seems to have a practical and socially-motivated belief in Christ, focusing on his moral teachings and bringing them to life in the world. There are also, interestingly, nontheistic Quakers who use the practices and processes without believing in a God.

Quakers have built some of the largest and most influential organisations still in existence: Amnesty International, Oxfam, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Lloyds Banking Group, Barclays PLC, Cadbury, Terry’s, Fry’s, and Clarks all have Quaker entrepreneurs at their roots.

We’re here for the meetings though. It is Quaker meetings that I reckon may have inspired the ‘encounter groups’ of the 1960s (more on that in the next article), which sparked an interest in group process and facilitation, which built the foundations for me and my colleagues to be able to do awesome work with groups.

What do Quaker meetings actually look and feel like?

Silent Worship

In a faith where everyone has an equal and deeply personal relationship with God, everyone gets a say and everyone is equal. Instead of sitting in rows in a massive room listening to someone translate the word of God through their consciousness, Quakers sit in a circle and listen to themselves and each other.

The meeting starts when the first person sits down. As more people arrive they all sit in silence, connecting with each other, with the worlds they are part of, and with God. When someone is moved to speak, they speak, or “give ministry” as the Quakers call it.

The person speaks and shares whatever it is that struck them or inspired them to speak, then they blend back into the silence. There is no discussion or debate or dialogue. Just people speaking when they want to, accepting the words of others, and sitting mostly in silence.

This beautiful piece of writing about these meetings is quoted on the Transition Quaker blog:

‘Unless we are extremely unfortunate in our journey through the Society of Friends we all know when we have experienced a gathered meeting: a meeting where the silence is as soft as velvet, as deep as a still pool; a silence where words emerge, only to deepen and enrich that rich silence, and where Presence is as palpable and soft as the skin of a peach; where the membrane separating this moment in time and eternity is filament-fine.’
(from Gerald Hewitson, Journey into Life )

For those who have experienced a profound process like an ‘encounter group’ or a really deep reflection/check-in session, this silence and depth will be familiar. There’s something so pure and simple about this communion. Just people sitting, facing each other, being moved.

I had an amazing, similar experience earlier this month. We were at a friend’s parents’ house in the Suffolk countryside. We’d finished dinner and were preparing to watch a movie when the power went out. There was a sudden and profound silence. Suddenly no background hum of the fridge or the hundred other things that were plugged in across the house. No possibility of doing anything that required more than candlelight.

It was utterly disarming. And we all just sat there in silence. For about 40 minutes, just sitting, occasionally looking at each other, sharing a few words, refilling a glass of wine, stretching and shuffling around.

It was a beautiful experience, the vibe of which I imagine is quite similar to a Quaker meeting in its purest form.

What’s next?

I need to go to a Quaker meeting I think. There’s one in Peckham this Sunday, so I’ll try to make that. To go and sit and see what they feel like, and perhaps to give ‘ministry’ if the urge takes me.

Next on the research path though, is the Encounter Group. Developed by Carl Rogers in the 1950s, this intense group experience was the cornerstone of the ‘Human Potential Movement’ in California. It also looks a lot like a check-in but takes people so much deeper than that.

If you’re into this and want to stay in touch, the Flux Cells mailing list is probs the place to be 😊