How does deep democracy work, and how can we apply it to decision making?

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The following responds to a question received during the learning circle held on how to occupy spaces to advance your cause. The contents of this page include insight from thinkers who developed and expanded upon the concept deep democracy.

What is deep democracy?

Arnold Mindell coined the concept of Deep Democracy. It is defined as an attitude and a principle. 


"Deep Democracy is an attitude that focuses on the awareness of voices that are both central and marginal. This type of awareness can be focused on groups, organizations, one’s own inner experiences, people in conflict, etc. Allowing oneself to take seriously seemingly unimportant events and feelings can often bring unexpected solutions to both group and inner conflicts." -The International Association of Practitioners of Process Oriented Psychology [1]


"Unlike 'classical' democracy, which focuses on majority rule, Deep Democracy suggests that all voices, states of awareness, and frameworks of reality are important. Deep Democracy also suggests that the information carried within these voices, awarenesses, and frameworks are all needed to understand the complete process of the system. The meaning of this information appears, when the various frameworks and voices are relating to each other. Deep Democracy is a process of relationship, not a state-oriented still picture, or a set of policies." -The International Association of Practitioners of Process Oriented Psychology [2]  

Deep Democracy welcomes differences in opinion and seeks out divergent opinions by embracing 'no.' It aims to give people tools for tough conversations and to achieve resolution.

Levels of deep democracy [3]

According to deep democracy, there are 3 levels and dimensions of experience. The 'levels' of deep democracy need to be understood to work through the steps of the decision making process effectively.

Consensus reality level

  • This is defined by the real people and issues involved in a situation. Most groups address this when working to resolve a conflict.
-This level includes facts, history, money, legal issues, vision, power-related issues (rank).
  • Rank is the power someone has over another. There are several categories of rank; social, psychological, contextual and spiritual rank.
  • -Social rank; related to power in society (race, economic class, sexual orientation etc.; your intersectional identities)
    -Psychological rank; related to feeling centered inside oneself even in the midst of difficult situation. People with psychological rank can help with problem solving and facilitating problem solving. But without awareness, they can make people feel put down or 'disturbed'
    -Contextual rank; related to given situation or context. E.g. a boss has power over their employees.
    -Spiritual rank; related to feeling connected to a greater source. High spiritual rank can bring wisdom and eldership. 

    Dreamland level

    • This is defined by background feelings, atmosphere and 'roles.' This level includes what goes unnoticed, such as beliefs or dreams.
    • Deep democracy uses the concept of 'fields' to suggest a group of people have influence on one another; that is, an atmosphere is created. We sense them, but rarely notice them. For example, you might describe a meeting as tense, or as inviting.
    • Fields consist of what deep democracy refers to as 'roles.' When in a field, we tend to get pulled into roles. At the consensus level, roles might look like, a person who is angry and a person who feels hurt. At the dreamland level, these roles don't just belong to those 2 people. Everyone shares them within the field to some degree. Others can recognize the feelings of both persons, because they've shared these experiences.

    Essence level

    • This is defined as the common direction behind the community or group. This level includes power, and the background field moving the group, otherwise known as common ground. This can also be called the 'process mind' that connects us.
    • The essence level can be understood using the Japanese concept 'Ma': translated as the space between parts that gives shape to the whole. When we touch 'Ma' or the field, we sense unity. The essence level combines the parts found in the consensus and dreamland levels.
    • Deep democracy described the concept of 'earth spots' which are both human experiences and experiences found in nature, to help move us into the process mind. E.g. a spot on the coast of the ocean may bring perspectives such as; easygoing, flowing energy. And quick, powerful energy of waves crashing against the rocks. 
    • Deep democracy describes the concept of 'spacetime dreaming,' which can help us to let go of the uptight feelings that come with facilitation. It helps us bring perspective to the group dynamics, and the bigger picture. It should help to simply notice the different energies in the group; none being good or bad, just noticing them as one flow.

    Applying the levels of deep democracy to facilitate decision making

    The Lewis Method of Deep Democracy [4] aims to work with the rational and emotional aspects of decision-making processes. It was developed by Myrna and Greg Lewis, psychologists asked by one of South Africa’s main electricity companies to transform a department with a racist hierarchy to a department where people work together on an equal level. 

    5 steps of The Lewis Method [5] and examples of facilitating deep democracy decision making:

    1. Collect all perspectives (even those opposing)

    • Ask consensus level questions to facilitate discussion during this step.
    • What are the facts? What is the history? 

    2. Actively look for the alternative voices (does anybody think something completely different?)

    • Ask consensus level questions to facilitate discussion during this step.
    • What at the issues at present? Where are the power issues? What categories of rank are relevant here? 

    3. Spread the alternative (who shares this opinion?)

    • Ask dreamland level questions to facilitate discussion during this step.
    • Ask the group to describe the field of the meeting. This helps to identify feelings of tension, excitement etc.
    • Apply the concept of 'roles'. Facilitators can start by asking participants to identify the roles that are present. A group can discuss, for example, how we feel in the role of being hurt, and the role of being put down. Others in the room might take the role of feeling uncomfortable witnessing conflict. The dreamland level helps everyone to bring unconscious empathizing to the surface. Facilitating role switching is helpful to make for a more fluid field and support new resolutions. As people role switch, people can more deeply understand the situation at hand. It also helps to deepen relationships within the group.
    • 'Ghost roles' are defined in deep democracy as things people talk about in a group, but no one is directly representing in the moment. E.g. 'banks vs the people,' the ghost role is the bank CEO. It can be helpful to try to represent these roles when strategizing. In the previous example, this could provide insight as to the types of strategies the bank CEO might use, or the arguments used to delegitimize the campaign.

    4. Add the wisdom of the minority to the decision of the majority (what do you need to go along with the decision of the majority?)

    • Ask dreamland level questions to facilitate discussion during this step.
    • Perform a visioning exercise if it's helpful, and have a discussion on the beliefs or dreams of group members. What do they need to be okay with the decision?

    5. Dive into the unconscious

    • Ask essence level questions to facilitate discussion during this step.
    • As a facilitator, it can help to start by identify the energy of ourselves, and of the group, using the process mind. For example, group discussion might identify that the facilitator takes on a 'boss' type energy; firm, and more rigid. The rest of the group may have a more flexible, moving energy.
    • Facilitators might also use the concept of earth spots to aid facilitating a discussion on the unconscious. Describing an earth spot, such as a mountain range, as a team might identify that the mountains represent the more rigid energy, and the clouds above represent the rest of the group. Discussing using the process mind can help us to explore how these energies flow. We can recognize these energies don't conflict; they're 2 energies in 1 field. Perhaps the rigid energy, the mountains, feel they need to be appreciated for the work they've done more. Perhaps the other group members, the clouds, feel they want more freedom to choose their direction.
    • Dreaming is critical for group work. We can use dance, music, art... to dream our way into visioning something better, together.

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