We all know what it can feel like when our vote does not land with the majority, when our proposal is not backed or when our choice cannot see the light of day, even if all of this was dealt with democratically. It is painful. We react in different ways: we may give in, we surrender, we might joke or moan.  Worse, we may become angry, we may start to sabotage, organise strikes and, in the worst situation, our (re) actions might lead to fights, to war.

Different thoughts will come to mind when hearing the words Deep Democracy. Democracy is a well-established, positive way of convening people and power, giving everyone the opportunity to vote – but there are ‘side effects’ to democracy. Acting on decisions that were taken in a democratic way does not necessarily mean creating the best – or easiest – way forward; and it can actually be very risky.

I have recently learned that Deep Democracy acknowledges this reality: that outcomes of democratic processes do not mean the ‘path is paved’. It recognises that majority democracy is still flawed. It aims, therefore, to acknowledge all opinions, thoughts, feelings, including those of the minority. It aims to embrace all points of view within a system to enable better decision making and implementation.

Up to last year I had not heard of Deep Democracy as a method or a philosophy. I got introduced to it last September. I realised then that I had previously experienced certain forms of Deep Democracy in decision making processes regarding Greenpeace campaigns, or when discussing new projects in civil society gatherings. Elements were similar to ‘family constellations’. I had never been taught the method, however, and I have now had the opportunity to be trained in the Lewis Method of Deep Democracy, which has a unique set of tools that enable differences to be resolved and that teaches how to use the wisdom that lies with the minority.

The two days level 1 training last December was wonderful. It was intense and insightful. Trainers Anna Kanneworff and Joel Rijnaard provided us – a group of eight – with a good introduction and overview to Deep Democracy, using opportunities to practice from the start of the training. What seemed like straightforward decisions – when shall we break for lunch? – appeared be a relatively easy way to get acquainted with the method. I recognised how used we are to ‘dismissing’ opposing thoughts when only one or two in the group have a different point of view. The trainers showcased how demotivating it can be when one is not being listened to and, moreover, what the dangers are of it not being acknowledged. A differing point of view can be very relevant.

I was encouraged by the way the method recognises the conscious and the unconscious, giving the latter meaning and providing tools to get the unconscious into the conscious. Think of an iceberg and imagine the water line. Everything below is the unconscious. Deep Democracy teaches you how to get the water line down. What I found particularly enticing was the recognition of the unconscious of the whole group, and being taught how to work with this constructively. From a systems thinking perspective everything is connected and Deep Democracy acknowledges that ‘everything plays a role in a system’. We all know the expression ‘the elephant in the room’. The method teaches you very respectfully how to deal with all these elephants. The exercises made us realise profoundly that ‘each voice of doubt or resistance’ actually lives within ourselves. In this way the method endeavours to use resistance as a force for good. Myrna Lewis actually invites everyone to use conflict as a growth opportunity.

The practical exercises allowed us to continuously put the theory into practice, experiencing the different tools that the method offers. It very carefully teaches steps to take joint decisions, using polarisation as positive tipping points. The exercises were deeply meaningful and though the group was convened for the training, one could easily imagine applying it to real situations. Our group chose to debate a quite topical societal issue that indeed polarised the group. Working carefully through the practical steps and facilitated well by Anna and Joel, the opposite sides ultimately ‘found each other’. The two days had a good balance between theory and practice and the group was invited to select what to focus on. We were a diverse group and both trainers worked well with that, using the differences as a positive, something I have come to appreciate is very ‘Deep Democracy’.

At the end of the first day we practised what it is like to keep ones neutrality when facilitating or training a group. This ‘meta skills’ practice is something you can use yourself when faced with choices, using your own duality to get to a stage of neutrality. This ‘neutrality dance’ worked very well, but I found it challenging. I am glad to know that it is said that the development of the meta skills is a lifelong process.

After the training I felt very tired, but deeply satisfied.  We were told not to take any important decisions during the following few days and let the training really ‘sink in’. I did exactly that, realising immediately that I wanted to continue with Deep Democracy.

Having worked as an agent of change for most of my (working) life, I have come across many ways of working ‘with change’, have been introduced to a variety of techniques, have worked many tricks and methods and experienced success and failure. I have learned how to use communications (my profession) as an instrument for change. Being trained in Deep Democracy, however, provides me with a particular set of tools that improve my ability to work on change, with people and organisations. We live in changing times, I believe. The more we can enable people to work through challenging circumstances, to do so together and to embrace resistance then that will ultimately lead to meaningful progress.

I have since completed the level 2 training, given by Yonathan Keren from The Dialogue Hunters, which provided me with a deeper understanding, more practice and a further appreciation of how to work with Deep Democracy in the workplace. What has been particularly appealing to me is the diversity of the people whom I met and with whom I participated in the trainings. That is what our world is all about, a world in which we work and live well with one another. The Lewis Method of Deep Democracy might not be the panacea. There are other, both different and similar, methods and philosophies providing ways to improve our world, which is great. I look forward to work with many on positive change and to contribute to making our world a little better.

The Lewis Method of Deep Democracy was developed in South Africa the 1990s by Greg and Myrna Lewis when Apartheid was abolished. Managers and workers who previously had been part of the Apartheid system were now faced by having to work together. Greg and Myrna taught the people in the organisations how to resolve their racial tension themselves instead of relying on outside help. The couple conceived pragmatic and practical tools based on Arnold Mindell’s work. Mindell is a physicist and Jungian analyst who conceived Process Orientated Psychology. The couple continued the work, expanding globally. Since Greg’s death in 2003, Myrna continued to work on capacity building, enabling many people to train in the method. 

I am grateful to Moraan Gilad, with whom I had the opportunity to work together, albeit too shortly last year and who introduced me to Deep Democracy and recommended the training with Anna and Joel. I am also grateful to Christine van Empel, with whom I attended level 1.

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