Halifax Dialogue Oct 2015: Interview with “Amy”

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The proud province of Nova Scotia is currently facing some significant economic and demographic challenges. According to the “Now of Never” report, a provincial economic forecast written by a local leadership group called oneNS Coalition, “Nova Scotia is today in the early stages of what may be a prolonged period of accelerating population loss and economic decline.” The report emphasizes that “[t]hese negative prospects are not, however, inevitable or irreversible.”

This report—and the greater socioeconomic conditions that inspired it—provided a compelling backdrop for “Lowering the Waterline,” a Deep Democracy Workshop that took place on October 8, 2015 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Deep Democracy co-founder Myrna Lewis, along with fellow facilitators Sera Thompson and Aftab Erfan, brought this unique conversation and conflict resolution toolkit to Halifax in an attempt to help progress Nova Scotia’s mission of becoming a stronger, more resilient province. The burning question that arose from the event, however, was this: could a methodology developed in one distinct culture—Apartheid-era South Africa—be transposed to another very different culture, that of modern-day Nova Scotia?

I was fortunate enough to chat over Skype with a thoughtful and engaging attendee from the “Lowering the Waterline” event in Halifax. She requested anonymity, so for the remainder of this blog post, I will refer to her as “Amy.” Amy had quite a few insights about the event, including positives, negatives, and ways in which the workshop could have been improved.

Digging (Too) Deep?

“Lowering the Waterline” was attended by approximately 70 people from a broad range of sectors, including government, private business, social interest groups, and activists. To set the stage, the three-hour workshop began with a short description of the Deep Democracy process led by Myrna Lewis. While Amy commended Myrna for her ability to convey a vast amount of information in very short time span, she felt that this part of the workshop was rushed. In Amy’s opinion, this introduction lacked the proper framing necessary to prepare participants for the intense session that was to follow.

The group was warned that they were about to partake in the “argument” method, described as “the most hardcore and conflict-based way of doing deep democracy.” This method involves identifying a conflict, splitting the group into two, and encouraging the two sides to argue their points while allowing participants to “vote with their feet” by moving between the sides when compelled. True to their word, the facilitators allowed the conversation to move quickly towards highly sensitive topics such as patriarchy and racism. In Amy’s words, “it got people deeply vulnerable very quickly, which is good, but I don’t know if we were prepared…I felt that it wasn’t a safe environment.”

The facilitators had performed a brief safety check, asking participants if they felt safe before commencing the argument. Unfortunately, Amy felt this was fairly tokenistic: “I’m a person who if I’m somewhere and they want us to do something, I’m going to go there and do it, you know what I mean?” She decided to speak up about a fairly sensitive topic, but this left her feeling very uncomfortable: “Nova Scotia is such a small place that, especially after I spoke about the patriarchy, I felt very vulnerable and angry at the process. And this could be my own issues, but from a professional standpoint…I didn’t know if I was comfortable saying what I was saying in front of the people I way saying it in front of. … It didn’t feel good.”

She explained that it was her own choice to attend the event and to speak up, but she was still frustrated by the process:

It just wasn’t the environment I would have liked to say it in, and I didn’t realize it until after. …If I did it again, I wouldn’t have said anything. Which isn’t really the point [of the event]. It makes me think there was something that wasn’t quite working in terms of me feeling safe…It was so much that I didn’t want to go to any engagement events right after. Not even just because of that: people were tearful and people were so emotional…maybe we weren’t prepared.

Positive Outcomes 

With that being said, Amy was also quick to point out the many positives from the event, starting with the work of the facilitators. She appreciated Aftab’s approach in particular, explaining that “she was very gentle and calm, but confident, and I felt that that was a very useful presence…anything can escalate the anxiety in the room in that kind of scenario, so I appreciated [Aftab’s demeanor].” Amy also acknowledged that the argument method created positive change: “I do think there was healing that happened there; people’s perspectives changed, and people realized they were implicated in some of the problems we’re seeing with Nova Scotia—it’s not just ‘them out there.’”

Much of this positive change came at the end of the workshop in what Amy described as her “favourite part.” This was when participants were instructed to identify “arrows”—specific comments or ideas that really struck them and left them feeling uncomfortable, indicating that there was some deep-lying truth for them. As much as Amy felt uncomfortable after the argument, she admitted that it was necessary in order to reach the all-important “arrow” stage, which led to some very moving moments:

There were amazing people there, so people were very thoughtful and open about identifying parts that were obviously vulnerabilities in themselves. That was pretty cool, and I could see that being incredibly useful in other conflict resolution situations. So if this is what you need in order to get there—and I’m not an expert in conflict resolutions, so there may be other ways to get to that place—but that was a place of healing for sure.

A Methodology Transposed

Interestingly, Amy believes that some of the discomfort that she and others at the event experienced could stem from the fact that the method was developed in a very different time and place:

[O]ne woman at the end said “is South Africa a place that is somewhat different in how they accept conflict?” Which I thought was a really perceptive question because Myrna said “Yes, we are very in your face, we say it like it is, we are not afraid of conflict.” So that was interesting in terms of can you appropriate, or can you transfer, methodologies developed in one culture into another, and can you expect to be able to apply them in exactly the same way? I don’t know; that would be a research question. That was definitely something that most people kind of noticed, that we’re not super great at this, we’re not really comfortable with it. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong…maybe we need more preparation time, or maybe there needs to be tweaks just to [warn us that] ‘we’re going to go somewhere that’s kind of weird…’

Amy explained that Nova Scotians (like Canadians in general) “are not a conflict-comfortable society,” leaving her questioning the real-world applicability of the Deep Democracy methods: “[I]t wasn’t until later when I talked with Sera that I realized that this could be applied to normal settings.” During the workshop itself, this sort of applicability was never mentioned, leaving Amy (and presumably others) confused and frustrated. She felt that having that knowledge would have been useful going into the argument session. However, her discussion with Sera helped to clear up the process, and she has even used the techniques in her own meetings since the event.

A Comparison of Methodologies

Ultimately, the “Lowering the Waterline” event left quite an impression on Amy, albeit one that remains decidedly ambiguous. During our interview, she kept on comparing Deep Democracy to another process that she is quite familiar with called the “restorative circle,” which is a form of restorative justice often used by First Nations. I will leave the final words of this post up to Amy as she provides this insightful comparison:

I keep comparing [Deep Democracy] to the restorative circle. It’s another conflict resolution method and it’s amazing. There’s similarly multiple steps; the actual circle is the very formalized version of it. What you do is you have a talking stick and you’re allowed only to talk about how you feel about a situation. In restorative justice, you’re sitting with the perpetrator of the crime plus the victim—they’re all there with their support people. Or, we used it in a wind development problem…it’s like communities in hatred against one another. So we got everyone together—from government to industry to private citizens who say they’re dying from the wind farm—and they’re only allowed to talk about their own feelings (so, classically, “When you, I feel…” that type of thing).

And then the whole secret is that it’s the exact opposite of Deep Democracy—you’re not allowed to respond to that person. When it comes to you, you’re only speaking your truth and what you think. Therefore, the idea is that you’re completely listening to that person. In most interactions we have with humans, we, in our culture, we’re formulating our response while the person is speaking, so we’re not really listening. So if you’re not required to respond, the idea is that you listen. It’s a different way of doing things; however again, it’s quite specific [in that] harm has to have been done. …I guess I’d be interested in understanding what Deep Democracy’s purpose is, because with restorative practice, we can say when there has been real serious personal harm done, this is a really great method or tool. Deep Democracy, it’s when there is…cultural change that needs to happen, or deep disagreement that has never been uncovered, or whatever it is. If I had understood the applicability there, it might have helped. Maybe that’s what you guys are trying to figure out—when is it applicable?