Lowering the Waterline

Notes from a Deep Democracy Workshop

Photo of a room of people seated listening to a speaker

How many of us avoid conflict at all costs? If you nodded—or winced—you’re not alone. In our families and communities, conflict is often pushed away as unwanted, even dangerous, because it can tear apart relationships and threaten our well-being. It can hurt!

But when well managed, conflict can also be an opportunity for growth. And besides, if we keep covering it over, it ends up costing us more, because we get stuck in endless loops, bickering over the small issues because we don’t dare face the big ones. The only way through is to head into the storm and embrace conflict. This was Myrna Lewis’s opening message at the recent Deep Democracy workshop in Halifax. Some of us were skeptical.

We were then shown a statement from the oneNS (“Ivany”) Report and invited to express our views about what is needed to move forward as a province. We quickly surfaced two opposing attitudes. One said that there are already so many positive things going on in our communities and we have what we need to solve our own challenges, so let’s just work together, innovate and get on with it. The other said even our best efforts are futile, because the status quo will never really budge. Power and resources remain out of reach. We are inherently, historically, and undeniably a conservative place that is dominated by a few and resistant to change. Even when change does come, it will be too slow and too late.

Instead of favouring one view over the other or trying to find a “happy middle” between them, we exaggerated both sides. We lined up in two rows, facing each other, and then after making some safety rules, each side had a chance to “throw all its arrows”—to vent all its arguments. When we were too polite, our facilitators restated our point even more bluntly.

The twist was that if you heard something compelling from the other side, you were free to switch. And people did. Often. And sometimes they added their voice to the opposite argument.

At the end, we reflected on all we had heard. Some of the “arrows” had hit home. They had struck a sore point, a buried truth, and a few people shared these with the group. By the end, we noticed that the tone in the room had shifted and softened. We had lowered the waterline. We now saw the issues in much more detail, because we had ventured beyond our fixed positions. Even though we might leave with similar points of view as when we first arrived, we had uncovered our own blindspots and touched the doubts and fears that held us back from being our most effective selves.

Many thanks to Myrna Lewis, Sera Thompson and Aftab Erfan for guiding us through a remarkable process. Thanks also to Rachel Derrah and Marguerite Drescher of Brave Space for capturing our insights (“grains of truth”), to McInnes Cooper for sponsoring our meeting space, and to everyone who jumped in so whole-heartedly.

A photo of a wall with ideas and graphics written on it