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In Conflict There is Wisdom

In today’s world, we are deeply committed to building a community that supports equality, diversity and human rights. In work and community environments, it is essential for leaders to manage interpersonal and team dynamics with skill and sensitivity. However, when a diverse group of people has a wide range of opinions, there is often no clear way of reaching a mutually satisfying consensus.

This is the gift of diversity, but also its challenge.

Dr. Aftab Erfan, Director of Dialogue and Conflict Engagement at the University of British Columbia, is a senior practitioner and instructor in the Lewis method of Deep Democracy, developed in South Africa when apartheid was ending.

Deep Democracy is a very potent and versatile facilitation and conflict resolution approach that can be used all the time in all situations, large or small. The Deep Democracy method is distinct from many other approaches because of its orientation towards tension and conflict. It is “democratic” because it emphasizes that every voice matters and that the best decisions are made when every voice is valued. It is “deep” because it goes far beyond mere engagement with ideas and instead enables people to take a proactive approach toward exploring otherwise untouchable challenges and gain insight into how to work with them at both an individual and collective level.

The Deep Democracy method outlines a structured way of leading people into tense, potential conflicts rather than avoiding them. By unearthing the “gold of conflict” and exploring a method that allows people to engage in the differences that divide us, it opens us up to transformational growth, innovative solutions and sustainable decisions.

While Deep Democracy is primarily a verbal, language-based method, it also relies on visuals for conveying information and moving through conflict. The “soft shoe shuffle” approach, for example, offers an opportunity for a diverse group of people to come together and move around a room while discussing a mutual challenge.

This dialog begins with people getting to know each other in small groups before coming together in one large group. The facilitator selects someone to speak about a topical issue and stand somewhere in the room. If people agree with that individual’s viewpoint, they move toward that person; if they have a different view, they move away from that person. The facilitator identities the people who have moved furthest away and asks them to give their own viewpoint of the topic. People then move toward or away from that new viewpoint. Everyone is strongly encouraged to move around the room. The point of this exercise is not to be persuaded by the other side or to change a person’s mind or even to win or lose the debate. Instead, it is an empowering process that visually highlights differences and draws people into viewing and respecting different opinions. Once this breakthrough occurs, it becomes possible to for participants to work with these polarities in a deeply democratic resolution process.

Only when we choose to ascribe equal dignity to everyone will we be able to come together as a strong global community that supports equality, freedom and justice for all.

Dr. Aftab Erfan did her dissertation on a one-of-a-kind action research effort that applied the method of Deep Democracy within a small conflicted First Nation community on Vancouver Island. She’ll be presenting this approach as a faculty member of our ALIA Summer Leadership Intensive, Module #1.

Aftab Erfan, Ph.D.


ALIA Summer Leadership Intensive

Engaging the Differences that Divide Us
June 22 – 25, 2017 | Tacoma, WA

Strengthen your capacity to lead fearlessly. Participate in a powerful learning community and experience “deep dive” modules with diverse, world-class faculty. Learn More

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