Interview: Lara Toensmann on her experience with Deep Democracy

“It’s hard to put a label on what I do, the one binding aspect of my work is that I want to make a difference in the world.”

Lara, who is Dutch American and currently located in Istanbul, has many facets to her professional life—she works as a consultant with companies; helps clients with projects, employee engagement, and sustainability strategies among other things; works as an educator and is faculty at different business schools. Lara, who’s also a facilitator at various events, runs consultations with diverse groups. She is a practitioner and likes to work with different participatory methods, Deep Democracy being one of them.

“I believe that businesses can be a force for good. It’s always about individuals and groups learning together, creating a positive impact and resolving issues together.”

Lara’s professional life already encompassed using different experimental methods of facilitation primarily within the business world. She has always been interested in creating a more emergent way of bringing big systemic changes in organizations, by involving all employees in the process instead of a top-down approach. She had already been working with various methods such as the Art of Hosting, Open Space, World Cafe, and other tools to change the dynamics of the conversations and workshops conducted by her. She was always looking for more participatory approaches. She was working with a lot of resistance to change and the harder she was pushing the more resistance she was receiving. She had heard about Deep Democracy through various associations and upon reading the course description became more interested in learning about it. Working with Deep Democracy helped her gain a better understanding of why participatory and experiential methods work and why it is necessary to involve the people who will be effected by the change, especially those who might have opposite points of view to the change.

Lara attended the training in Netherlands under the guidance of Myrna Lewis. The theory helped reframe her ideas about conflict both in her professional and personal life. During the training she became more aware about her fear of conflict and has worked to come to terms with it since then. The ‘check-ins’ were very powerful during her learning stages and gave her more insights about herself. She eventually did more training sessions and became an instructor. The method being very complimentary to her professional work has been helpful with decision making and conflict resolution in her personal life. After completing the training she started working as a consultant and working with different companies. The practise has become a part of her life and she believes that it has enabled her to become a better consultant. She uses the decision making tools very frequently as it slows down the decision making process, making it really conscious in everybody’s mind.

The learning process and the experiential quality of Deep Democracy

“The nature of the course is very experiential, understanding it is only one level of learning.”

She initially tried using the method in professional situations but upon realizing she needed more experience with it, began using parts of the method—doing check-ins and check-outs for instance. She recalled running an executive program once where she implemented the 4-step decision process for the first time. The program involved engaging the group to co-create a module together at the end of the course. She quickly realized that its hard to come to a satisfactory consensus after gathering 40 different options in a decision making process. Changing the course of the process she began each module by doing a check in and a check out which was more useful. In the boardroom to help the client in making a decision, she would ask what they needed to come along? it always worked and was very effective to resolve tense situations. She gained a much better understanding of the intricacies on the process through such trial and error methods.

Deep Democracy at work

28 May 2013 set the stage for a wave of of demonstrations and civil unrest in Turkey to contest the urban development plan for Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park. The protests were sparked by outrage at the violent eviction of a sit-in from the park. Eventually, there were a lot of strikes across Turkey protesting a wide range of concerns— freedom of the press, of expression, assembly, and the government's encroachment on Turkey’s secularism. It was much more than a statement about a few trees in a park, it was about taking a stand against authoritarianism. The protests reflected a major shift in the role of being a citizen in Turkey. A small assembly organized the original environmental protest and the followed by subsequent protests in different parks. The facilitators at these protests were already using various participatory methods especially while voting on a lot of issues. For instance, if someone was speaking on a topic people would wave their hands in the air to show support and if they disagreed they would cross their arms to indicate disapproval. This was a variation on the soft shoe shuffle technique. But the leaders needed better tools to organize themselves and continue the non-violent protests without any internal conflict amongst the groups. A revolutionary movement like this needed better methods to initiate effective conversations reflecting a new way of thinking for the participatory groups.

Lara and a few other people started an initiative called Baraka Istanbul in the spirit of the gift economy. People interested in learning about Deep Democracy paid what they could afford for the training which enabled greater participation. The best way they could support the cause was by training the people who were on the front lines access better tools for effective facilitation. There were several info sessions which involved teaching park forum leaders about the  basics of Deep Democracy. The deep democracy method gave the park forum leaders more clarity about the movement and their purpose—it helped them find their voice making the facilitation process more inclusive for everyone and they were able to address and resolve some of the internal conflict that was showing up routinely.

Her team was invited to share the Deep Democracy method with one of the groups in the park to resolve some issues. They gave the group an introduction to Deep Democracy teaching them about the Four Steps. The group did a a ‘check-in’, participated in a ‘soft show shuffle’ (referred to as Dynamic Dialogue) which was followed by an ‘argument’. Everyone was so focused on the outcomes of the protests and the cause that one of the biggest challenges for them was recognizing the humanity in one another. Though this process for the very first time they had acknowledged each other as individuals.

When the going got tough

The park forums couldn’t keep up the momentum once summertime ended and the energy people were holding in the spirit of change was beginning to dwindle. The weather wasn't making it any easier for people to gather. Myrna Lewis was visiting Istanbul at the time and they all got together with a group of people who really wanted to keep the park forums going and were looking for a strategy to keep the activism spirit alive. The stakes were very high for the group and they were very conflicted about the right way forward. Myrna facilitated a dialogue with about 24 people from the group who came together and she began the process by doing a check in about who was there and the reason for their presence in the room. People had put so much of themselves into the movement that the thought of it all failing was inconceivable for most of them.  Midway through the process the group had split into two sides and there was great anxiety about the next steps forward— to continue or not continue the movement. Towards the end there was some very deep and personal grains of truth that people took away from the process and it unraveled people’s individual motivations for participating in the movement. Individuals got clarity and they saw a way forward as a group.

The preparation involved in facilitating such events

In the evening session she co-facilitated with Myrna there were 3-4 translators/facilitators offering their support. They all prepared together for the event and designed a flow for the evening. They were dealing with many different probabilities so even though there was plan they had to be ready to abandon it all depending on how the group responded to the process. The facilitators maintained eye-contact the whole time and did their best to communicate without interfering in the process by creating check ins during the event. Hence, one needs trust, clarity, and good preparation to make sure such events go well. Every event is followed by a de-briefing session to resolve anything that was left unresolved and bring about more improvement in the group’s facilitation skills.

It’s important to dissolve any tension existing between the facilitators before the event, says Lara. When Lara works with a co-facilitator, they prepare for different parts to bring more clarity in their role. She checks-in with the other person the night before the event and they have deep discussions regarding their concerns and feelings about the event. When working on her own, Lara studies the group in attendance and creates a plan deciding on the pieces she will be using even if the order has not been organized. On the day of the event she goes for a walk to mentally prepare herself and organize her thoughts.

Gauging the effectiveness of Deep Democracy

People feel included in the conversation through such a process, wherein they previously didn’t have the space to voice their opinion. The check-in and check-out ensures a lot of participation in the room. Everyone in the room becomes very familiar with one another in a short span of time. The questions asked and answered in the room reveal some intimate details about everyone in the group. The learning is not always immediate, as people need more time to reflect on the course after it’s finished. The question ‘what you need to come along’ is a very powerful way to bring people together in the room and decide on one option. Most consider it to be a great experience and leave wishing Deep Democracy was common practise everywhere. It’s such an experiential process and the reviews for this method are mostly collected anecdotally, so it’s difficult to explain the benefits in terms of hard data.

Lara continues with her work to create a positive impact in the world. She believes that Deep Democracy can change the format of the conversation and can create progress and purposeful impact. As more people learn about Deep Democracy and include it in their work the whole movement can start to have to have a trickle down effect. The people who do this kind of work can hopefully leave positive footprints and many more people can benefit from it.

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