Deep Democracy – A new way to stop workplace and schoolyard bullying and discrimination before it happens?

How do you stop workplace bullying and discrimination before it happens? This was the central question explored in a recent interview with Julie Whitmore. Julie lives in Canberra, Australia, and works for the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) human rights commission processing workplace discrimination complaints.

As an employee of the ACT human rights commission, you’re particularly interested in workplace bullying and discrimination.

Julie expands:

“I’ve spent a bit of time exploring the issue of workplace bullying, and particularly out of a frustration that all of the sort of mechanisms and remedies that are in place in Australia and all of those still fall short of actually meaning that the problem is being addressed. It’s currently costing the Australian economy somewhere between 6 and 36 billion dollars a year… this issue is not confined to Australia, it’s an international issue and both international and national conferences talk a lot about the cost of bullying, the extent of the problem, and the existing remedies. For me, that was really frustrating…we weren’t getting anywhere. There was not a lot of talk about what we could do differently.”

How did you hear about Deep Democracy?

In Julie’s exploration of what could be done differently, she stumbled across Deep Democracy. At the time of this interview, she is still relatively new to Deep Democracy, coming across it only 18 months ago when she heard Myrna Lewis speak at a conference. Julie was intrigued by its potential implications for workplace bullying and discrimination. After the conference, she emailed Myrna asking a series of questions about how this practice could be applied in the area of workplace bullying. Myrna replied, and they planned to meet up for lunch in Sydney. Myrna was in Sydney to teach level 1 and 2 Deep Democracy training courses, of which Julie was able to attend part of. She’s been hooked ever since.

How did this newfound understanding of and faith in Deep Democracy affect your work?

Julie is in the process of writing a paper and creating a presentation for a conference presentation in October. She is using her frustration with current practices to attempt to reach new audiences through the paper and conference presentation. The paper and presentation are exploring the possible applications of Deep Democracy in the phenomenon of workplace bullying, with the intention of stimulating conversation and positively influencing the issue.

What role do you see Deep Democracy playing in workplace bullying and discrimination?

Most current strategies to deal with workplace bullying and discrimination occur only after an issue has been reported. At this point, it has already gone too far. You have a bully and a victim, someone who is being harmed. By the time people are at that point, it’s really difficult to deal with. People don’t have a lot of trust; they don’t want to stay in relationships. What Deep Democracy offers is a chance to deal with the issues as they arise, which, left unaddressed, could turn into workplace bullying. But if addressed, in the ideal world, should impact it and make workplace bullying fade away as an issue.

Even just the awareness of the theory of Deep Democracy, and the knowledge of basic concepts and practices can improve the workplace. They understand what resistance looks like, and have knowledge of the diagnostic look of what tension looks like. They can change how people interact in the workplace because they will be more conscious of themselves and the tension, and of the destructive nature of not addressing it.

Do you have an example where the concepts of Deep Democracy have been applied and improved a workplace issue?

When a friend of Julie’s was having issues in her workplace (the Commonwealth Public Service) she sought Julie’s advice on how to resolve it. Julie advised her based on her knowledge of Deep Democracy, and suggested that she needed to uncover any tension. Tension occurs because there is something that needs to be said, and isn’t being said. If she continued to ignore it, it would only get worse. Once the source of the tension was discovered, the water line would need to be lowered by addressing the underlying issues behind the tension. Julie told her friend to create a safe space for each of them to say what needs to be said, and for both of them to be open to all the views. Her friend took her advice, and had a discussion with her colleague. They were able to successfully clear the air, and were able to work together after that. She even said goodbye to the colleague at the end of the day, the first time she had felt comfortable enough to do that in weeks.

Have you explored the application of Deep Democracy in any other sector?

Julie’s son went to a Steiner School, a school where students work with the same teacher from grades 1 to 7. One day they were conversing with his teacher over dinner, and Julie told her about Deep Democracy. The teacher saw a lot of potential for Deep Democracy in schools, from teacher interactions with other teachers, principals, parents, and students.

She assisted Julie in becoming an accredited provider of professional development training for teachers in the ACT, and coordinated a professional development workshop for Julie to teach. After obtaining permission and materials, as well as conversing with a principal in Darwin using Deep Democracy to run her school, Julie taught a two-hour introductory course. She has now done 3 sessions: one for primary school teachers, a second one for kindergarten teachers, and a third for high school teachers. Julie sees this school as a case study, and is using it as a practise ground with the intention of giving it out to other schools in Canberra.

Do you have an example where the concepts of Deep Democracy have been applied and improved an issue at the school?

Once example Julie had heard about in the schoolyard was about an incident on the playground.

“There was a covered walkway between two of the buildings. Some of the kids like to use that space to play handball, and then other kids wanted to sit and have their lunch there. And it was causing a bit of friction. And so they had a discussion about it using Deep Democracy and all but one student agreed that they could eat their lunch somewhere else and the kids could play handball there. But the one person who didn’t like to have to move to eat her lunch was pretty adamant about that, she felt pretty strongly about this. And so the teacher said “I’m sorry you’ve been outvoted, what would it take for you to come along with the majority view?” And the child was so amazed that somebody even asked her for her point of view and what she might need, she was so blown away by that that she said “oh nothing, oh I’ll move”. Just asking the question changed her point of view.”

How receptive do you find people are to the concept of Deep Democracy?

Julie has found mixed reviews from people when she introduces them about Deep Democracy. Some people are “so enthusiastic about it, and just naturally get it in a way and even without knowing much about it have a natural enthusiasm for it. And others, some people are almost afraid. She finds that it is especially difficult for people who are used to making decisions; people in positions with authority tend to struggle with it more than others. They are afraid of it undermining their ability to make decisions, so she spends time explaining that it doesn’t replace the decision making process or override it, it can compliment it. A lot of people don’t like doing anything differently, but others are really keen to do anything that helps deal with the tension.

She finds that the knowledge she has shared with receptive listeners has been really exciting to them. For example, since the teachers have only had an introduction to Deep Democracy, they are keen to have another development workshop where they can try it for themselves. They are especially interested in using it in the classroom and staff room, to make decisions, to do check-ins in the morning, to do the soft shoe shuffle, and as a conflict resolution tool. They want more; the response is overwhelmingly positive among the teachers at this school.

What excites you about the future of Deep Democracy?

“The more I understand it the more I see the simplicity of it. You don’t have to do a 4-step process, it can be very simple. For me, this is one of the most exciting practices I’ve come across in my life to date.” Ultimately, Julie is hoping she can spark interest among teachers and workers in the field of workplace bullying and discrimination. Deep Democracy has “lots of potential, and we’ve only just scraped the surface of it”.

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