Leigh Anne Albert on infiltrating the business world and the power of Deep Democracy

Leigh Anne Albert is a management consultant in Johannesburg, South Africa. She is, in her words, a “little baby practitioner”, subtly incorporating some of the techniques of Deep Democracy into the business world.

As an American who has made South Africa her home, she has a soft spot for Deep Democracy, because it has grown out of the uniqueness of the South African context. In addition to being a very useful approach to successfully facilitating business strategy meetings (without anyone realizing what's really going on), she also feels that it can be really powerful as a personal development tool.

I got the chance to speak with her over Skype to learn more about her experiences. Even though Leigh Anne stresses that she is fairly new to it, it is obvious that incorporating Deep Democracy into any kind of interpersonal setting leads to really interesting results.

Deep Democracy in a business context

What is appealing about Deep Democracy that makes you continue to use it?

It’s just a really good tool which gives you the ability to kind of bring people together. The thing I like about it is it’s very different. You know, if you work in the business world, you get tonnes of tools, and training, and methodology, and this to me was very unique, in terms of the approach. It’s much more focused on listening to the “no”. I get faced with the “no” every single day, and what was appealing to me was the approach of “stop trying to brush it under the table, and actually deal with the issues - otherwise you do not make progress.”

How does it work in the context of management consulting?

In management consulting, you always have different situations. What has probably been the most useful aspect of Deep Democracy has been the check-in. Often, you come, and there are guys running meeting to meeting to meeting, and they’re not focused, and you don’t really know what’s going on. So the check-in is a really nice way of getting people to land in the room. You’d be amazed; when everybody gets a chance to be heard, you actually understand the context of where they’re coming from. There might be personal issues, there might be work stresses, it helps you to better manage the meeting. I also find it realy helps to connect on a more personal level. You don’t often have the chance to do that, so this is a different way of being able to connect personally other than over a coffee, or a drink.

When you do the check-in, do you usually ask content specific questions? Or, do you usually try to stay away from what the meeting’s about?

It won’t be directly related to the meeting, but it might be what’s happening in the company. So, let’s say, “Oh: the CEO made this big announcement last week, what do you guys thinks about it?” Or, it might be something very personal, like, “How was your weekend, did you do anything interesting?” I don’t typically ask about the content of the meeting, maybe about people’s expectations.

Deep Democracy as a tool

What’s the nature of the learning process? How do you build skills, metaskills, and general confidence facilitating groups?

As a management consultant, you do a lot of facilitation, so I’m actually really comfortable facilitating and managing groups, but I have to be honest with you, Deep Democracy’s really hard (laughs). All my skills, all my education, la la la… It’s really difficult because it’s completely out of my analytical comfort zone. And, I think a lot of my colleagues also struggle, because it’s just not something that you’ve done. Deep Democracy, it’s definitely a skill that needs a lot of practice.

I first learned it through a course with Myrna Lewis. She also does once a month facilitation sessions. A group of us will get together, and we’ll talk about different techniques, or a business situation, and how we’ve applied Deep Democracy to it. This is a little bit more challenging, because everyone is very busy, and we travel a lot, so we don’t always have great attendance. But when we do have it, it’s actually a nice way of reinforcing…

Helping to make things stick.

Yeah.

Deep Democracy in practice

When you facilitate a group, who’s in the room, what specific tools do you use, and what kinds of things actually happen?

I’ve used it very subtly. I’ll give you an example. I ran a strategy meeting in November, and it was for a local municipality. I was really nervous about working with this group; I didn’t know how functional they were, how they worked together, or were they used to working together.

So, I used a couple things. I used the check-in, and I used it around setting expectations. And then, throughout the course of the workshop I used a number of techniques. One of the things I had to do was determine what were their key strategic focus areas. What I did was, I would pick up points of debate, and kind of physically do the Argument - go and actually physically do the, “so we’ve got a view over here, that we should blah blah blah,” and then I’d move over, “and there’s another view over here.”

The difference is, it’s really hard to do these techniques, because you’re a little, like, fake (laughs).  So, actually getting people to physically move around, as a kind of framing the argument in a subtle way, was really effective. The other thing I used was the amplification: “We’ve got a view that says THIS! Do you guys agree?” And I’d say it really loudly, to make the point. I’ve never facilitated an argument in a business setting, I don’t think I’m skilled enough to do that.

Do you tend to set ground rules when you’re facilitating?

I think if I had a much deeper interpersonal conflict that I was dealing with, I would put ground rules in place. But, when you’re talking about, you know, your sourcing strategy, it’s a little...  the ground rules I would say are the least important of the tools. The check-in, definitely. The getting the views: everybody loves to be heard. You can use it as a way to make sure that that loudmouth doesn’t dominate the meeting. And then, subtly framing the argument, and the size, once the conversation gets to a point, and recognizing when you’re cycling. Those are just little tricks to make everything more effective.

If you notice that you’re cycling, what’s a thing you can do to move on from that?

I guess it’s when you search for the views. I’m not so good at that.  It is really difficult, but if you recognize it, you can throw something out, like, “we’re having a protracted conversation about this. Should we keep going or move on?” You just have to throw something to break the momentum and the rhythm.

Leigh Anne gives another example of a time when her director, who learned about Deep Democracy and brought it to the company, used it as a tool, with her on the receiving end.

There was a really conflictual situation with me and another guy on the team. Our director actually sat us down, and told us that we were going to use some Deep Democracy things, and this and that. We actually had about a 45-minute discussion breaking down the issue, identifying what the problems were, you know. He actually followed it to the T. He got the views, each of us got the opportunity to talk about what the problem was, he summarized , we had a little bit of an argument, and he used amplification. It was actually one of the more stressful colleague situations I’ve had in a while. I have to say, it was a little bit raw afterward, but it was a safe environment. I have a fabulous relationship with this guy going forward, and we really do work well together. So it was great about getting the - he had a certain perception, and I had a certain perception, and we were able to work through that and get to the true kernel of the matter. It was really, really effective.

How would you prepare for a session you feel like might be difficult?

When in the conversation, it’s really hard to maintain that neutrality. So I think it’s good to give yourself a reminder, and keep it top of mind, so you’re recognizing it in yourself.

To be perfectly frank, it’s just convincing yourself that you’re strong enough to do these things. ‘Cause they’re hard. I think they’re hard, maybe not for everybody. And maybe just preparing the group, to just say “If we get stuck, I’m going to try a few facilitation techniques that may be a little bit different, so just bear with me.” I never go into a business context and say “Oh, we’re doing Deep Democracy.”

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What would you do if a meeting went badly?

Like any other session, you would just stop the meeting, and then come back and talk about how are we going to move forward, etcetera. That’s the best you can do.

Do you get any clues that indicate that Deep Democracy works well?

I have to say that in my limited experience, every time I’ve used a technique, it’s never gone wrong. And I think it’s helped to progress the conversation. And I think it’s also helped to connect with the group, whether I’ve been a participant or a facilitator. I don’t know, that sense of connection and understanding - you walk away with a much richer appreciation for people’s views. Because sometimes you go into a meeting and you know, this guy’s a joker, and you give him a voice, and you start to really understand, and it gives you a chance to interpret their views going forward. One technique, the “What do you need to come along?” really works in a business context. That is also incredibly powerful. Several times when I’ve had that framework I’ve been able to manage conflict a lot more effectively.

What about the future of using deep democracy makes you most excited?

Leigh Anne talks about the potential for incorporating it into education, which is happening more and more. She is excited about its potential usefulness for students in risky situations, for example, as well as educators.

I think it is growing. I’ve met people from all over, and they’re using it in very different ways.

I’ve done so many training courses and this is something that really speaks to me. I think you can use it in all aspects, in both your personal and professional career. There’s a place for it anywhere.

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