A guided tour to Sociocracy

In the Autumn 2017 residency, Beetime visited sociocracy teacher and practitioner Nora Plaza, in line with our research on systemic thinking. Nora is a Coordinator of ;Sociocracia Práctica; (Practical Sociocracy) (www.sociocraciapractica.org), a member of the General Circle of Sociocracy For All (www.sociocracyforall.org) and a facilitator in sociocracy or dynamic management, a system of governance that seeks fairness and transparency by proposing a system of collaborative, effective (and affective) self management that, in addition, can be adapted to and implemented in many situations and for many groups.
Here is an excerpt of an interview we conducted with her about her work.
The full interview in Spanish can be read here.

BeeTime
During the assessment we made of the last residence, we had the feeling that we needed to support projects that were starting up and then bring them back together by placing them in the context of this publication. On several occasions the ideas born during the residence have materialised and the projects have gone on to develop further.

Nora
It’s something about these times; I’m noticing it too. We’ve gone from having spent some years (those of us who had certain ideas) dragging people along with us, to suddenly only having to respond to those calling us, right? It makes me feel very hopeful. Sometimes it’s exhausting, but…

BeeTime
We are accumulating a lot of work. We have four or five balls in the air, we’re juggling, but all the tasks are coherent.

Nora
Of course. You know that this is part of multidimensionality, right?

BeeTime
No, but….

Laughter

BeeTime
What do you mean by multidimensionality?

Nora
Well, that we are starting to become multidimensional. In the past, we would get into many things, but it seemed like we got distracted or we weren’t concentrating on them enough. Now, it seems we’re getting into many things because we really have the capacity to do so, and we’re no longer such linear beings. Now we are beings that need to integrate and be coherent.

For example, to me it wouldn’t make sense to be a feminist and not be in a women’s circle; or it wouldn’t make sense to be involved in ecology or be an ecofeminist, and not be in an agroecology group… I need to put things into practice. And so, sometimes, it looks like you are involved in so many things. But this attitude shows congruence between what you think, what you feel and the fact that you are acting on it.

BeeTime
And how does this change how you organise your time? Do you have to be quick and effective, as well as multidimensional?

Nora
As far as I can see, stress appears every time you move away from the present. For me, the great training is to be in the present. And I use the word ‘training’, because I don’t always manage it, but I’m training myself to do it. It’s good to plan what I’m going to do afterwards, but I don’t allow my mind to waste energy in trying to control or know what’s going to happen next, because it can’t know that. Stress is caused when your mind is trying to control something in the future.

BeeTime
So does that mean that in sociocracy you have to be more patient? Because the system itself, of rounds and circles, already has a little of that, doesn’t it?

Nora
It does, but at the same time you have to realise that the circles in sociocracy are small circles, and therefore they are also more efficient, because you have more people thinking about the same thing and giving more responses to a topic. You don’t have just one person carrying the weight of a big decision on their backs. This also saves energy… because you know that any proposals or decisions you’re going to take rest on the entire team’s shoulders, and your function is a very specific one, and you don’t have to worry about others. And this is where trust comes in, knowing that everyone is going to do their part and no single person has to have the full plan in his or her head. The person who coordinates in sociocracy walks behind. This means they don’t have to be going on ahead or demanding something from the group, and that’s what overloads one. In sociocracy the coordinator simply has to ask: how’s it going? What’s going on with this topic? And that frees them up a lot.

BeeTime
I suppose that this changes the functioning of a group that is accustomed to being led by someone and decides to make the change to sociocracy. What are the greatest difficulties for a group that decides to make this transition?

Nora
The difficulties tend to be in the personal rhythms. People who start to function sociocratically have to know exactly what’s being talked about and have to have on-going training. It’s training that involves work or, as I say, a workout, with yourself. You have to be training continuously.

When we are in competitive systems, our more competitive side comes to the front: “I want to strengthen my position”, “I want to occupy the best space”, “I don’t want to be contradicted”, etc. But if you are in a group where you see other things: super generous people, people who listen, people who suddenly have much more balanced answers, it’s also good that your competition takes you in that direction: “Wow! I need more balance too”.

So, the ideal is to be in groups where some people, at least, do that personal work daily, because that spreads throughout the system.

BeeTime
In sociocraciapractica.org we read an entry written by Ted Rau that caught our attention – “The Myth of Natural Flow”. In BeeTime we also have times when we struggle with the natural, nature, natural habits… and we get a bit messed up. Because some things are so deeply rooted in our social genetics that you say: “that’s natural…”

Nora
At one time nature and ecosystems were balanced. Then there was harmony and balance. But we have been living through a time in which, especially in the era of industrialisation, this has become unbalanced. We have disconnected from nature. So if you don’t recognise that imbalance and you go to a group and say: “we’re going to let things flow naturally,” but at the same time you’re not connected with nature… you don’t know what it is to be in silence, you don’t know what active listening is, etc. Then what are you going to offer the group?

What sociocracy tries to do is stop us from operating on instinct. I hope we get to the point in our development where we recover that balance and can do rounds; that the time comes when it is innate. And I think that it is innate, but what has happened is that for a long time… I don’t know if we are deprogrammed or programmed, or both things. Certain things are deprogrammed and others are programmed, focused on a hetero-patriarchal and capitalist society, so you respond well to it.

BeeTime
One of the first things that caught our attention with respect to sociocracy was the difference between consensus and consent. Can you explain that a bit?

Nora
Basically, and focusing on the theoretical part, consensus starts from “we all agree;” that is to say, decisions are made when all people are in agreement. Whereas consent, from its root, starts from “we don’t all agree”. The starting point itself is different, it releases responsibility and discomfort. If you are aware that we are not equal, and that each person in your group is going to have a different point of view, when you want to make a decision, simply, you will try to make sure everyone in the group feels integrated into that decision and that the decision will not go beyond the tolerance of the people in the group.

That is why in sociocracy we ask: “can you work with it?” And we ask that often, because there are times when certain decisions do not feel good to someone in the group. So, if on the day of the meeting, if someone tells us that they don’t feel very comfortable, for whatever reasons, what we do is to try to integrate it. We can ask: “what would we need to change or incorporate into the decision for you to feel comfortable with it?” Perhaps there is an element that can be added and that objection can be recorded within the proposal.

On the other hand, when there are certain objections based on fears or concerns, what we try to do is to shorten the period of evaluation. Even if on the day of the evaluation we see that it has been a failure and we need to change the decision, we change it. And, normally, when the duration of the decision is shorter, the person feels more relaxed because they are not taking a decision that is going to involve a year of their life, or half a year.

BeeTime
You speak of on-going training, but I also see that there are things like these that operate at a very detailed and particular level, where integration and care are valued.

Nora
I sincerely believe that the survival of our species lies in mutual collaboration. I believe that very deeply. We need to be with other people. We are always in need of others for many things, and in many of the moments of our life, to a greater degree.

So what can we do to try to make people understand each other, to achieve goals together and make progress? And to make meeting a source of joy and enrichment, not loss of energy or a place to express your worst aspects? Well, not your worst, but your darker side, things that have to be expressed because if they are there, it’s better to give them light, but that this does not imply throwing it at the entire group and stopping its process.

In sociocracy, we hold an opening round to welcome and listen to the personal stuff and, in many of the groups, to also create a moment to tune in and to try to come into the present moment and tune in with the others in the circle. At the end, we also hold a closing round and honour the time that has been experienced, but closing the “file”, because now it’s time to go back to your personal life.

We have different facets. For a long time pretty much only the mental part has been recognised, and your body was separate from your mind, separate from your spirit, and they were like separate things. That is to say, when I go to a room and I meditate, or I go to my spiritual group, I put that in a separate little box; but then I go to a group to address certain issues and that is something apart; and then there is my personal life, in another separate box. All that is now changing. We are opening up all the compartments.

BeeTime
We have also been reading a bit about the so-called ‘circles of well-being’. Could you explain a little about what they are for and how necessary they are?

Nora
When certain polarities or discomforts come up, this group organises a meeting to deal with it. Reading Diana Leafe Christian, who is an expert in communities and in community issues, and thinking about El Semillero, I realised that we needed to have relational agreements.

BeeTime
What are they?

Nora
Relational agreements are a list that the group consents to, which deal with how we’re going to relate to each other, what things we will tolerate and what not.

In a group it’s very important to make these agreements, of what things we will accept and what not, because if you don’t have the members’ commitment agreed in writing, what will you refer to when something comes up?

The well-being group can safeguard these agreements and request changes to them, if necessary. They have to be flexible.

BeeTime
I have four questions lined up.

Laughter

Nora
Come on then, let them all loose, machine gun style.

BeeTime
You have mentioned restorative circles, what are they?

Nora
This is a very important tool for conflict resolution. The man who introduced it, Dominic Barter, started work in Brazil, in Rio de Janeiro, with the conflicts that arose in the favelas. Sociocracy needs ways to resolve conflicts when they come up in the circle, and this is one of the tools that helps. It is explained on his web page (www.restorativecircles.org), but basically, it is a community process that consists in bringing together the three parts of the conflict: the active part, the affected part and the community. A suitable space is created for a process of dialogue and then group work takes place in order to be able to find an alternative and a way out of what they have experienced, through actions that involve mutual benefit.

BeeTime
I wanted to ask you about the role of silence and the role of active listening in decision-making in sociocracy.

Nora
Why is silence so important in sociocracy? Because when Gerard Endenburg began to think about how he could make a design to help groups of people work more harmoniously, apart from his knowledge of systems theory, cybernetics and biology, there was a human component that came from where he had studied, in a school with Kees Boeke which had Quaker roots and foundations. The Quakers were a branch that separated from the Catholic Church because they would not accept hierarchy, in the sense that they thought the voice of God was not exclusive to certain people who then convey God’s message, but that each person can connect with that inner voice and with Spirit. When they gather, they spend an hour in silence, and any person present may receive a message and communicate it to the group. (The name Quaker comes from the idea of trembling.) But they don’t meet with the idea of receiving messages; in fact they meet to enter into a profound contact with themselves. Really they create a space where you expect nothing and you simply connect with your inner light, with the god within each of us.

In the silence you sometimes recognise that there is a greater intelligence than that of your brain and your mind. When you are facilitating a sociocracy meeting and you realise that each part is trying to convince the other of their truth, the best thing to do is to listen to the two parts, and then ask the group to sit for a moment of silence and help them to find a path that is somewhere between the two positions. When the ego is very upset, it is hard to get out of your box! And then silence comes.

We now have the opportunity to begin to think that there is a greater intelligence, that there is a quantum level, which physics has already acknowledged, and that when we come together our intelligence is greater than when we are alone. If I’m able to listen to you without having already prepared what I am going to say, then I can start to grow and go beyond what my concrete and limited mind has inside.

BeeTime sighs
(This brings to mind our sister bees)
Can we talk briefly about the relationship between systemic thinking and sociocracy?

Nora
Well, we can look at this in different ways.

Because sociocracy is based on systems theory, it is understood that there is always an input, a process and an output. The input, basically, would be: we come together to decide something, then we implement what we have decided and we evaluate it. When a baby starts walking, she doesn’t do it because she knows she’s not going to fall. When a baby starts walking she launches herself with the confidence of “let’s see what happens”. Likewise, in a sociocratic group we launch ourselves with an attitude of “let’s see what happens”, and then there are those who take care of you, which in this case would be the group, who will hold you so you can continue.

Sociocracy, therefore, it is very fluid and progresses very fast because it also makes many mistakes. What happens is that the mistakes don’t feel like mistakes, but more like sources of information. And that means that we can do more things. Because there are only two principles when carrying out actions: “good enough for now” and “safe enough to try”.

BeeTime
In what we have been reading there is a word that crops up many times – semi-autonomy.

Nora
The circles (which are the basis of sociocratic organisations) have autonomy to make their decisions. They can meet whenever they want, they can do what they have to do using the exercises they want, the resources they have and the way they take decisions. They can also achieve their goals as the group sees fit. But we don’t call them autonomous because, if they were, they would be a cell isolated from the system. So this semi-autonomy refers to the fact that the group has to stay within the shared common vision, with the entire system. The person who coordinates the group may vary, but the common vision will only change if, when we meet within a specific period of time, we feel that we have already achieved what we wanted, or that there is another vision that we are more interested in or that we feel better about.

That is why we are not completely autonomous, but rather “semi-autonomous”, because all our objectives and all our work has to be in agreement with that shared common vision.

BeeTime
Penultimate! What changes do you see between I and we?

Laughter

Nora
It is about moving forward at the same time, bringing together the people that you have most affinity with and those with whom you have less; those with whom you share certain things and those who you don’t agree with. If there is someone who is left behind, the entire group loses. These are middle points of encounter. In sociocracy what I have noticed is that there is no way to move forward unless it is along with the rest.

It’s true that there are people that find this part of sociocratic thought very difficult, and there are people who withdraw from the group, because it is too painful for them to leave their individualism, and in sociocracy that is no longer possible. We can practice emotional management, we can have circles of well-being, we can shorten the evaluations… there are many things we can do, but we have to do it together and move forward at the same time.

BeeTime
Being a bit of a kill joy, sometimes I see the tail of the devil peeking out from behind the angel, when maybe there is no devil or angel or anything… and I think that capitalism has the capacity to go on devouring other options. Do you think there is someone behind all this, sort of like the tail wagging the dog?

Nora
Sociocracy was born in the business world and has been working since 1970, and capitalism much longer. I believe there is truth in the saying “the teacher appears when the student is ready.” Not all groups, today, especially not in all businesses, are going to have leaders who will say, “we’re going to be sociocratic,” because they don’t want to let go of power, and they don’t want to have real quality and transparency. But the groups that are ready, well, yes. And the good thing is that there is also a change of consciousness that is increasing and, therefore, is spreading, because people no longer resonate with the other way.

Many people no longer feel good about supporting certain systems that are not equal, whereas before, perhaps they could live with that. And now many people cannot live with it. The good thing is that there is an alternative, and I hope there will come a time when it’s normal, and the other way seems prehistoric.

Laughter

In other words, I hope we will be saying: “do you remember the time when there was one person who was the boss and everyone else obeyed him?”


beetimers

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