The Wisdom in the No: A New Approach to Conflict

Deep Democracy: Woman holding hand up to say "no." Image by Nadine Shaabana, Unsplash.
Image: Nadine Shaabana, Unsplash.

After thirty minutes of discussion, it looks like we finally have an answer. The facilitator calls for a vote: “Who agrees that we should do X?” Everyone raises their hands except two people. Many groups would call this success and move forward. But the facilitator does something unexpected. She expresses her sympathy to the dissenters that the vote didn’t go their way. Then she asks a powerful question: What do you need to come along?

The resulting conversation is fascinating and valuable. One dissenter points out that her team is completely overwhelmed with work. She would be willing to go along with the decision if the deadline was extended by two weeks. It’s a good thing she spoke up; if not, her group would have missed the deadline or sacrificed another priority project to deliver on time.

The second dissenter has a completely different request. To go along, he said, he needs the group to verify some data that is being used to make the decision. He suspects that the data isn’t sound and worries that the group is basing their decision on false premises. After listening to the dissenter’s explanation, people agrees: they must investigate before proceeding. If the facilitator hadn’t checked in, the group never would have taken this step or heard wisdom of his insight, wisdom that could make the difference between success and failure.

Deep Democracy

Finding the “wisdom in the no” is one of the gifts of Deep Democracy, a method of working with groups. The Lewis Method of Deep Democracy was developed by Myrna and Greg Lewis, psychologists who were asked in the late 1990s to help a large South African company work through the legacy of apartheid. They developed the Lewis Method, which they taught to over one thousand people in three years. Today, Myrna continues to teach, practice, and spread the Deep Democracy methodology around the globe. (Greg passed away several years ago.)

One of the strengths of the Lewis Method of Deep Democracy (LMDD) is that it welcomes differences in opinion, perspective, and style. It doesn’t require conformation; people can express themselves in ways that feel most authentic to them. It provides structured, focused methods for helping people hear the messages in the communication, regardless of the method of delivery and explore differences in ways that are productive and respectful.  

Working across differences might just be one of the most important skills humans can learn in our intensely connected, globalized world. People working on cross-functional, cross-country, and cross-language teams naturally have different ways of seeing the work at hand. The ability to navigate differences effectively can lead to success if done well, or failure if done poorly.

Managing “Resistors”

Deep Democracy: Book on Things I Wanted to Say
Image: Mark Schafer, Unsplash.

It can be tempting to gloss over differences in opinion and write off those who express unpopular views. In the framework of Deep Democracy, those “resistors” often represent something that the group can’t see or acknowledge. Says Rick Maurer, expert on organizational change and resistance, there aren’t “resistors out there just waiting to ruin our otherwise perfect intervention. People resist in response to something. Something that we… are doing evokes a reaction that we call resistance.”

Perhaps it’s unpopular to talk about being overworked in the organization; the culture supports burnout. That means that when Dissenter #1 talks about her concerns about her team missing a deadline, she raises an issue that was previously repressed. It can be deeply uncomfortable for others in the meeting; they’ve made a tacit agreement not to discuss such things. However, if the group can negotiate the conversation effectively, they strengthen the whole system by allowing people to talk openly about potential risks to the project timeline.

By ignoring, silencing, or glossing over divergent perspectives, we lose out on very real, important information. Rather than risking these losses, LMDD embraces the “no.” It seeks out divergent opinions and welcomes them. It doesn’t get mired in gridlock; decisions are still made and action taken. But those decisions and actions are stronger for embracing the no.

My Journey with Deep Democracy

I discovered LMDD about a year ago. I ended up in a Deep Democracy Level 1 workshop not really knowing what to expect. I left feeling like I had discovered something rare, precious, and important. Since that first class, I’ve become a fan, proceeding through Level 2 and Level 3 workshops and helping the leaders of Deep Democracy in North America develop the LMDD community.

The method is a gift. I relied on it to navigate a conflictual, emotional discussion between executives about the future of their company. In another circumstance, I found that it helped people work through an intense conversation about structural inequalities. And I’ve used it to help coach leaders through challenging dilemmas.

I am happy to share what I’ve learned. If you’re interested in LMDD and how it might help your organization or community break through gridlock and come to action, contact me.

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