Overcoming Polarisation in Crises
The Research Report
In April 2022, the Pocket Project, in partnership with the German NGO ‘Mehr Demokratie’, offered an online workshop “Collective Trauma & Democracy,” led by Thomas Hübl, PhD, along with a support team of 20 facilitators. Throughout the weekend, 350 participants engaged in dialogue (German only) and reflection as part of the Collective Trauma Integration Process, working through the complexities of perceptions and understanding of conflict, polarisation, and divisiveness that is all too common in our democracies today.
We are happy to share the new research report (link below) on the workshop process, which was conducted by the Cynefin Centre (using their quantitative data tool called SenseMaker), the Institute for Integral Studies, and the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies. Adrian Wagner, Judith Strasser, and Dr. Niko Schäpke led this research endeavour and the writing of the report. The launch event for the project took place on April 12, 2022 with more than 1,000 participants.
The fundamental question underlying this research is:
Does a collective trauma awareness and integration process help to strengthen democracy and overcome polarisation?
The markers of a healthy democracy are its capacities to support open communication and encourage dialogue and diverse viewpoints among its citizens, including in times of crisis and change. However, failing democracies struggle with divisiveness, misinformation, and other factors that can cripple this process. What is the reason for this and how can polarisation and fragmentation be overcome? Our research project is based on the assumption that unintegrated collective trauma from the past influences the way leaders and citizens deal with current conflicts and crises. Integrating the trauma of the past then becomes fundamental to restoring the tenets and guiding principles of democracy.
We are happy to share this comprehensive research report which outlines the scientific findings and other key elements of this work. Below we note more details in a Q&A format.
What is “trauma”?
Trauma (from the Greek, meaning “wound”) can be understood as an “injury of the soul”. Trauma arises from a very stressful event, an experience that cannot be processed and integrated. Such trauma can have its roots in catastrophes, violence or accidents, but also in developmental experiences where basic human needs are left unanswered by caregivers or in situations when people repeatedly experience being at the mercy of others.
The term “collective trauma” refers to the simultaneous traumatization of numerous individuals in the context of experiences of slavery, war, colonization, systematic oppression, genocide, etc. In an effort to achieve a differentiated understanding of the phenomenon, scholarly approaches often refer to cultural and social processes of remembering and shared meaning. Thus, “collective trauma” can be understood as an event that could not be processed by the collective memory and that often affects people and the societal architecture across generations. Unprocessed traumatic experiences can be activated by new crisis situations.
What does trauma have to do with democracy?
Meaningful conversations are at the heart of well-functioning democracies. However, conversations easily polarize and fragment in times when multiple crises challenge us. Then, points of view – on the war in Ukraine, Corona, the climate crisis, for example – seem to become increasingly irreconcilable and social fissures emerge that run through families, friendships, and social and political networks. The open communication and dialogue that is necessary for an open democracy is often no longer possible. And democracy itself is increasingly being called into question.
One approach to countering this is to ask: Why do people react the way they do in crisis situations? Why do divisive tendencies arise? Our research project assumes that past negative experiences (and the ensuing individual, ancestral and collective trauma) influences the way people deal with current conflicts and crises – and are thus relevant to a society that wishes to respond appropriately to the challenges of our times. If such collective or individual experiences are split off and remain unprocessed, they cast their shadows on current conflicts and prevent appropriate solutions. Conversely, if the collective trauma of the past is consciously integrated, a whole society becomes more able to have a meaningful discourse and creatively innovate as needed.
What is the focus of this research?
To answer our primary research question stated above, we took a closer look at current crises and divisive tendencies, and listened to individual narrations and viewpoints through a trauma-informed lens, thus gaining insights into the deeper roots behind the words and feelings expressed. The project does not claim universal validity. We have identified patterns, trends, and connections at the intersection of trauma, democracy, and polarization, and are thus doing pioneering scientific work.
How did the process work?
The large group process took place as an online event from April 28 to May 1, 2022. It was preceded by an introductory event with process leader Thomas Hübl, and Claudine Nierth, board spokesperson for Mehr Demokratie. The trauma-informed large group process (Collective Trauma Integration Process) was developed under the leadership of Thomas Hübl over two decades. It uses meditative, dialogical and practical methods of process design. The focus is on conscious awareness of personal emotional, cognitive and physical processes as well as the relationship to others and to the group as a whole.
During the process, participants practised “meta-communication,” i.e., exchange ideas about what is happening in the here and now. In this way, contents and dynamics that are normally unconscious become visible. Also, participants are invited to expand their “witnessing awareness” in recognizing and acknowledging personal and collective realities. The following techniques and elements were used: meditation and perception exercises, guided writing exercises, surveys or mood queries, one-on-one conversations between volunteers and the process leader in the presence of the whole group, conversations between professionals and the group leadership, reflection in small groups.
How did the research proceed?
The research combined three methods: The main instrument for data collection was the SenseMaker software and app. Using this tool, participants were invited to enter short stories or narratives at various points of the collective trauma integration process and rate them according to different criteria. The software shows if and how the narratives and their evaluation change during the process. By combining the over 600 narratives and their evaluation, patterns, trends and tendencies within the social change process become visible.
In addition to participant narratives, process observation was conducted by 16 trained individuals who observed and coded the entire process using predefined categories (e.g., activation, integration, strong emotions). Focus groups with participants were also held before and after the process. They explored the question, “What qualities/competencies do we need to build a sustainable democracy in the face of current crises?” Our team of researchers analysed and interpreted the data.
It is important not only for citizens, but also in politics, the media, science, and business to process, communicate and integrate difficult experiences that occur throughout our societies. We need new formats and tools that support our communications, especially in working through crises in co-creative ways. Spaces for exchange and discussion seem to be particularly important in this context.
- Overall, the participants’ felt experience of ‘democracy’ became more positive over the course of the collective trauma integration process.
- At the beginning of the process, “mixed feelings” predominated in the narratives, ranging from distance and disenchantment with politics to trust and a desire to help shape society. By the end of the process, confidence in self-efficacy, compassion, and courage to develop democracy strongly prevailed.
- Through the process, abstract concepts such as politics, participation, democracy and society became concretely tangible and alive for the participants.
- After the process, the participants had a more precise understanding of the qualities and competencies that are helpful for democratic crisis management.
- The capacity to relate to oneself and others in dialogue was recognized as an essential skill for the strengthening of democracy and for overcoming crises.
- Through the deep work during the whole group process communication blocks were dissolved and emotional or repressed issues were more readily integrated.
- The trauma-informed process made it easier for participants to relate to their own own stressful or difficult experiences and to grow in compassion and understanding for the difficult experiences of others.
Trends and theses
- Trend 1: During the collective trauma integration process, participants recognize how strong the impact of individual and collective trauma is on the way we deal with current crises.
- Trend 2: The motivation for engaging in democracy increases through participation in a collective trauma integration process.
- Trend 3: The collective trauma integration process enables participants to experience the many different voices that make up a true democracy. Participants experience resonance: they feel seen and experience their agency.
- Trend 4: As a result of feeling seen and a sense of agency, participants become more able to stay present with differences and disagreements. Thus, participants become more able to respond appropriately to current crisis experiences
Images of the future: A new quality of democracy
- Vision for the Future 1: Feelings of separation and polarisation in the context of the Corona pandemic and other crises are processed both individually and socially. This strengthens social and political trust, social cohesion and the willingness to help shape democracy.
- Vision for the Future 2: Democratic communication processes benefit from becoming trauma-informed. Through a more conscious awareness of the individual, ancestral and collective aspects of trauma, greater relatedness to other people and to the world can be established.
- Vision for the Future 3: Society needs spaces where people can meet on a deep level. People wish to participate, and they wish to receive feedback on their thoughts and actions. When this succeeds, democracy becomes tangible and alive.
- Vision for the Future 4: A Collective trauma integration process, accompanied by the mapping of changing narratives (e.g., through SenseMaker) is a promising way of making diversity tangible and enabling shared sense-making. Such a process strengthens the ability to engage in dialogue, including on critical issues, and counteracts the drifting apart of social groups.
- Vision for the Future 5: In a next step, such trauma-integration processes are initiated with citizens at various political levels.
- Vision for the Future 6: Trauma-informed group processes need to be systematically researched in order to better understand them and be able to apply them in a targeted manner.
In cooperation with the Institute for Integral Studies (IfiS), its EU project Leadership for Transition (LIFT) Politics, the Cynefin Centre and the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies e.V. (IASS):
Collective Trauma & Democracy
A Conversation between Claudine Nierth & Thomas Hübl
11 April from 8-9.30pm CET
– THE CONVERSATION IS HELD IN GERMAN WITH ENGLISH TRANSLATION –
Free kick-off event for the workshop in April/May.
“We are able to have a disagreement with someone while remaining deeply related. Having opposing points of view doesn’t mean that I need to disconnect from the other person’s experience. It’s not what we discuss that is painful, it’s how we talk to each other. How can I expect people to listen to me if I talk to them without feeling them?”
Thomas Hübl, Pocket Project
What does collective trauma have to do with democracy?
In crises, pre-existing individual and collective traumas are often activated and limit the democratic scope for action and the ability to responsibly seek solutions. As a society, we are faced with the challenge of becoming aware of the particular dynamics a crisis brings up.
In this workshop, we will examine the current cumulative display of crises. The focus will be on individual work in public conversation with Thomas Hübl. While each individual opinion will be respected, the competence of the process leader is to respectfully bring all participants to be able to see the origins of their own experiences with more precision and clarity.
Trauma is a split-off experience from overwhelming past situations. As long as we do not touch the origin, this energy is transferred as a filter that we look through onto today’s situations. Individual work can help to make this filter more conscious. Through the individual processes in the context of the group, a collective process is set in motion. The ensuing impulses are then further discussed and processed in small groups and culminate in a joint reflection of all participants.
Therapeutically trained assistants are available.
“We have to include insights into resonance, emotions and subconscious aspects if we want to create spaces of listening and find new solutions. Deeply listening means to look behind the words. We need to be sensitive to what moves the other person beyond factual arguments.”
Anne Dänner, Mehr Demokrate e.V.
“Diversity of opinion in our societies is an integral part of democracy. But when polarization casts doubt on the democratic framework itself, social cohesion is threatened. Mehr Demokratie searches for ways to improve people’s participation and for new forms of social exchange and political culture. It is one secret of our success that we explore new fields of experience and provide process-models for others.”
Claudine Nierth, Mehr Demokratie e.V.
The integration process for Collective Trauma
The goal of a Collective Trauma Integration Process is to bring traumatic contents that have been individually, historically and collectively split off back into consciousness. Over time, processing and integration of the contents can occur, ultimately enabling a restoration of the collective relational field.
An essential part of this process is the strengthening of trust, cohesion and compassion in the group. This can begin with a relaxation of one’s nervous system, which allows resonance with others and deeper listening. Once resonance and co-regulation is enabled, sensations and experiences related to trauma fields can also be brought into contact. This, in turn, strengthens communication and empathy with one another and promotes the emergence of a social healing process. Together, we release some of the split-off social intelligence. We thus create conditions for a creative and connected global culture and a sustainable and participatory democratic future.
THE 6 CORE STAGES OF THE INTEGRATION PROCESS
Develop the group's relational and communication skills, deepening compassion and humanity. Deepening access to personal and cultural resources to strengthen resilience in the face of contact with traumatic content.
ColleCtive Trauma LANDSCAPE
Aligning our attention to previously split off content, and allowing deeper experiences and information to rise. Perceiving the symptoms of our unconscious resistance and repression and discharging the first contents.
Deepening understanding of how we as individuals and as a collective have been shaped by trauma. We begin to trace the voices of individuals back to their roots and see the trauma landscape of our culture and institutions shining through behind the polarization.
THE COLLECTIVE VOICE
Together we listen to the essence of what we experience and recognize here together. Through the words of individuals we touch on historical and collective qualities and experience the interconnectedness of collective trauma.
Clarification & Integration
Here, the integration of experiences often takes place in small groups. There is enough time to address the personal ancestral path. Post-traumatic learning begins.
meta-learning & restoring
What we and our ancestors have experienced in terms of trauma is part of us. It is the task of all of us to ensure that the damage done at the time is compensated. First steps of recovery and social change are visible as potential....