Deep Democracy: A Powerful Approach To Resolve Tension And Conflict

Deep Democracy: A Powerful Approach To Resolve Tension And Conflict

Written By: Cahide Akkuzu

Reading time: 6 minutes

You can use disagreements and conflicts to improve your relationships! This argument was unreal to me until I learned about Deep Democracy. I, personally, have generally avoided conflict throughout my life, and have sought consensus in disagreements. Avoiding conflict often comes at a high cost, and sooner or later we pay the price. When seeking consensus, the result we reach does neither fully relieve us nor the other person, in fact, we sweep the issue under the rug without resolving it. Again, sooner or later, the same old story resurfaces!

Whatever your role is: whether you’re the CEO of a large company, a manager, an individual contributor, a teacher, a parent, a student, or an entrepreneur. No matter what your role is, you are always in a position in which you are driving a process to achieve an objective. Your success depends on your ability to understand people and manage interpersonal relationships while managing this process! When you present a new budget proposal, there will always be people who think differently from you. If you want to change the company’s car policy, there will be people who don’t like this change. Your manager may not value your performance as much as you think you deserve, or your spouse may think differently from you about how to raise your child. We each see the world in a unique way, just like our fingerprints that are unique to us. Naturally, it is inevitable that we have disagreements about how to solve an issue or what decision to take. But, we need to know that tension and conflict arise when people label, or even just imply, their own view as “right” and the view of the other person as “wrong”.

There are many examples in which people hesitate to express their true opinions for various reasons. The topic may be very sensitive or may even be a taboo. Due to company or family culture, it may be against tradition to express a different opinion then certain ‘influential’ people. Or, we may think that no matter what we say, our voice will not be heard and that we will never be able to influence the opinion of the mainstream or dominant view. Sometimes, by using our rank, we may be imposing some decisions on people without realizing it. These people may not have the courage to express a different opinion. In some cases, disagreeing can mean losing your job, or being disapproved by your parents or being marginalized in a social setting. When people do not have the courage to speak up and decide to stay silent, you may interpret this as acceptance. The truth is that opinions, that are not expressed or that are not taken into consideration, do not disappear. These opinions still exist. Whenever we take a decision without taking into consideration the opinion of others, whenever we are not inclusive, negative feelings and frustration starts to build in people that are impacted by that decision. People say okay but they do not follow the decision, they sabotage or undermine the related processes. They resist because they are negatively affected by the outcome of that decision on an issue that is important to them. Perhaps it adds additional workload, or causes loss of money, restricts their freedom, or conflicts with an important value for them.

Deep Democracy is an approach based on a very strong theory to understand group dynamics, to manage interpersonal relationships, to create a safe space for people to express their opinions so that effective decisions can be taken, to turn implicit or explicit resistance into collaboration, and to resolve tension and conflict thereby improving relationships. Deep Democracy believes that the minority view has a wisdom that the majority view cannot see from their perspective. Therefore, expressing diverse views that are present in the group contribute to the wisdom of the group. Deep Democracy tools ensure that these diverse views can be safely expressed and that the wisdom gained from these can be added to the final decision in a practical way. This enables the group to take ‘smarter’ decisions that use all the intelligence of all group members. Another benefit is that decisions taken in this way gain buy-in of the whole group and also establish accountability and responsibility.

The concept of Deep Democracy was first coined by Arnold Mindell, a physicist and Jungian analyst. Deep Democracy is based on Arnold Mindell’s Process Orientated Psychology, which has shifted psychology to become in alignment with the ‘new physics’ based on the quantum world view. This has moved psychology from a focus on individuals to a focus on how we are influenced by field and energy theory. This shift has had tremendous effects on how we understand group behavior. The Deep Democracy tools that I am referring to in this article were developed by Myrna Lewis and her husband Greg Lewis shortly after the political changes that ended the apartheid regime in South Africa. Myrna and Greg have supported various organizations for 15 years to solve the problems of employees who finally had equal rights after apartheid. They quickly realized that, instead of stepping in and resolving conflict every time when there was an issue, they needed to teach the employees tools so they can resolve conflict the moment is arises. The couple adapted Arnold Mindell’s Process Oriented Psychology to meet this need. They took the basic concepts of Process Orientated Psychology and redesigned them to become practical tools that people could easily understand and apply. Lewis Deep Democracy approach, method and tools were developed during this period. During and after the initial starting period in South Africa, Myrna and Greg were invited to implement these studies to different organizations in the USA, Canada, the UK and Russia. Their work spread by word of mouth. Today, Lewis Deep Democracy is practiced in more than 20 countries in many different sectors. As a person who has spent 31 years in professional life, as a person with many different identities in my current professional and social life, and also as a mother, I strongly believe that the Lewis Deep Democracy approach and tools are one of the most important keys to effectively manage relations and processes that make all parties involved feel included and heard.

Most of the time we think that we can solve the problems we are facing with a rational approach. We try to convince people with numbers and we find logical reasons. This approach often doesn’t work because we are essentially emotional beings. Eventually, we look back and see that we have spent most of our time solving problems related to people issues. This is true for all kinds of social interactions, whether this is in the workplace or in your personal life.

Visualize an iceberg, with only 10% above the water, the remaining 90% invisibly deep in the water. Sigmund Freud used this metaphor to describe people’s conscious and unconscious. Very little portion of a person’s behavior is conscious, above the waterline and the rest of it is unconscious, below the waterline. Arnold Mindell shows us that the same analogy applies to groups, too. Mindell’ s definition of a group is two people or more. A very small portion of a groups’ behavior is conscious, above the waterline. The rest of it is in the groups’ unconscious, below the waterline.

In a group context, ‘conscious’ refers to a situation in which each and everyone of the group is present and is aware of what is going on. The stated agenda of a meeting, everything presented during a meeting, a discussion that took place during the meeting. These are all examples of the conscious of a group because each and everyone of the group members were present.

In a group context, “unconscious” or lack of awareness refers to a situation where not everyone is there. These are things that are only known to some of the group members, but not known to other group members. A conversations between only two members of the meeting about the agenda items, or a side conversations by some of the attendees about an important decision that needs to be taken during the meeting. These are all examples of the unconscious of the group, because these are things that are only known to some of the group members. The fact is that, everything that is in the unconscious of the group has an impact on the behavior of the group. Studies show that we only use a very small part of our brain. The part that we don’t use is not lost, it waits for use in our unconscious. Same thing applies to groups, too. Because of their nature, groups often do not reach their full potential or optimum functioning. This potential is not lost and waits in their unconscious. The fact that the group does not use this potential, or cannot find a place to use it, doesn’t mean that this potential has disappeared. So, we need to be able to uncover the unconscious of groups. Being inclusive to a diversity of opinions, enabling diverse views to be heard and to be taken into consideration, specifically during decision making, helps to make benefit from the potential and wisdom of the whole group.

Let’ s look at how the conscious and unconscious affects our decision-making processes. A traditional leader, whether this is a CEO, a department manager, a project manager, a teacher or a parent, sees the person who expresses an opposing view as a troublemaker disrupting the decision making process. Traditional leaders will look for agreement and will try from the outset to achieve a sense of unity. They do invite people for their opinions, but often do not know how to handle these different views, therefore most of the time they politely ignore these views. By now we know that, these opposing opinions, that are not taken into consideration, do not go away. Most of the time decisions are taken without any deep and meaningful discussion and over time people start to show resistance to decision that are taken in such a way. The results is that leaders find it hard to implement decisions, processes become slow and ineffective.

However in an environment where the traditional leader is not present, people would express their true opinions or feelings. Because the leader is not present in the environment where these opinions are voiced, it means that these conversations take place in the unconscious of the group. Often these feelings are negative, people express frustrations or other negative feelings, and over time these negative feelings build up, to what Lewis Deep Democracy would call ‘resistant’ type of behavior. These behaviors would over time sabotage or go against the decisions being taken. The possible sequence of resistance type of behavior is called ‘Resistance Line’, these behaviors are initially very covert, and if not addressed they become very overt.

The Resistance Line is an important tool that helps us to diagnose where people are in relation to the mainstream or dominant view. Being on the Resistance Line is a clear indicator that people disagree with the mainstream or dominant view. If other peoples opinions are not heard, are not taken into consideration, it will potentially lead to conflict. The Resistance Line starts in a covert way, some early stage behavior signaling that resistance starts to build up. It helps us to diagnose this tension even at a very early stage so that we can resolve the tension before it becomes too severe. The approach and tools of Lewis Deep Democracy help us to prevent the ‘Resistance Line’ from progressing. When we do not address the tension, when the Resistance Line continues to progress, the longer a person or a group is on the Resistance Line, the more the tension becomes overt, and the situation becomes more and more inefficient and ineffective. The situation becomes more and more toxic, it leads to war or withdrawal. In a company, this may mean that people leave or are fired. In business, this could be a merger, an acquisition, or a takeover. In relationships, this could be in the form of violence, separation, or divorce.

Many examples around the world show that even a majority democracy does not prevent the Resistance Line to build up over time. We vote and we think that our voice is heard. In fact, in a majority democracy, the minority who has lost the vote is expected to drop their views and support the majority. The reality is that the minority does not give up their opinion that they are so passionate about, and when their opinion is not heard and taken into account, they begin to show resistance behavior. Even democracies are not able to avoid the Resistance Line forming, and when not addressed it causes severe conflict, and over a long period of time it even causes terrorism. The same happens in business or social interactions. People say I want to hear your opinion, once you speak, in one way or the other, your voice is getting shut down. The natural instinct of the holders of the majority or mainstream view is to expect that you drop your opinion and support them. We know by now that this doesn’t work.

In a corporate environment, one of the most important muscles you need to develop as a leader is your ability to deal with tension and conflict. The cause of most leadership mistakes is about making a wrong diagnosis about the root of an issue. In denying tension and conflict or being unable to deal with it and resolve it, many business leaders chose an ineffective way to resolve the issue. They either change the strategy, they restructure the business or they separate the people that are labeled as ‘troublemakers’. The reality is that tension and conflict do not go away, even with a new strategy or a new structure and new people, after a while tension will resurface as Resistance Line behavior.

Although tension and conflict created by differences of opinion are a natural part of being human, most of us do not know how to deal with it effectively. We avoid conflict. We worry that if we say what needs to be said, we will lose our relationships. We know by now that each time an issue is ignored and remains unresolved, the tension around the issue increases until eventually, it becomes unmanageable. It is one of the paradoxes of life that in differing viewpoints we find creative and innovative solutions. Effectively addressing these differing viewpoints is actually a key to growth, successful resolution opens pathways to new insights and strengthens relationships. The real issue is not the differences of opinion, it’s how we arrive at the solution and deal with the tension created by differences in view points. We want to be inclusive towards the differing viewpoint in order to unlock the deeper wisdom of the group. This is one of the reasons why many companies are so passionate about diversity and inclusion initiatives. These companies believe that they will be able to unlock their true potential and wisdom and will gain more competitive power that is sustainable.

Lewis Deep Democracy operates on the belief that people and groups have the skills and wisdom to solve their problems. The potential and wisdom of the group lies in the unconscious, below the waterline. Lewis Deep Democracy approach offers us tools to lower the waterline and become inclusive to the different views so that we can benefit from these diverse opinions. There are tools for understanding group dynamics, one of which is the Resistance Line, which helps us to diagnose tension even at a very early stage. Tools for conflict resolution help us to resolve differences of opinions, arguments and conflicts instead of allowing anger and blame to continue. There are tools for collaborative decision making which enable people to make decisions that gain buy-in and establish accountability and responsibility. These tools help to facilitate dynamics conversations and enable diverse opinions to be expressed and heard. These tools help people to safely express their ‘No’ and make sure that the wisdom of their ‘No’ is incorporated into the decision. Using the Lewis Deep Democracy approach and tools, disagreements and conflicts are no longer a source of stress and inefficiency. You learn to use differences of opinion, tension and conflict as a source to build stronger relationships in all domains of your life.


For more information about Lewis Deep Democracy CoResolve or to attend a training program:

Turkish training course starting November 3rd:

English training course starting November 30th:



Myrna Lewis: Inside the ‘No’


Context Professionals Corporate Coaching and Consulting


social position

Share this post