Features > Politics

4 February 2021

Eva Schonveld is a climate activist, process designer and facilitator. She worked on community arts with very vulnerable people, co-founded Scotland’s first Transition town and networked to inspire the Transition movement across Scotland. Co-founded Starter Culture and Heartpolitics, co-convened the Transformative Conflict for Transition Network summit, supports sociocratic system development, decision-making and facilitation in many contexts including XR Scotland.


Justin Kenrick is an anthropologist working on community land rights in Kenya and Congo for Forest Peoples Programme, and on land reform in Scotland. He chairs Action Porty which undertook Scotland’s first successful urban community right to buy, is on XR Scotland‘s Political Strategy circle, co-founded Heartpolitics, writes extensively, and is a Quaker committed to peaceful direct action.

More politics …

Relational politics

Part 2, the practice of transforming toxic power relations

In the second and concluding article, Eva Schonveld and Justin Kenrick examine the practical measures that can support better decisions

GRASSROOTS to Global is exploring how political decision-making is shaped by our emotions, and how we can ensure it is shaped by empathy not trauma. Here we outline possible key factors that support better decisions. We think these are true for Scotland and the UK. They may hold true elsewhere too.


Mitigating our least social aspects, supporting our best

Despite great social and cultural differences, we think the following is true of people in general:

  1. Group thinking: We tend to in-group out-group thinking – this can often be effectively addressed by informal, relaxed social contact and sharing of life experience because ...
  2. Empathy: We have an innate capacity for empathy, for intuitively understanding others’ experience and wanting them to have a good life. As mentioned below, trauma inhibits our ability to empathise, particularly with those outside our social group, so it is essential that our political processes have methods to deal well with trauma and conflict when they (inevitably) arise, in ways that ensure everyone feels safe and the sources of trauma can be addressed if need be.
  3. Trauma and reactivity: Painful childhood experience continues to affect us as adults. Stress triggers these traumas, which we feel and express in unconscious ways, making us more reactive and less able to be empathic. We need to consciously develop greater transparency to ourselves and one another with new social processes that can support us when trauma is triggered and which help uncover the transformative potential of conflict.
  4. Diversity not dualism: We learn and develop our understanding in a wide range of ways – we are creative, intellectual, practical and spiritual. Our political processes need to engage us through a range of different modes of thinking and being, not just those most socially valued. We need to value everyone’s potential to contribute in a way that releases the energy caught in dualistic (superior/inferior) thinking.
  5. Healing colonialism: in cultures that have experienced colonisation, attitudes such as urgency, paternalism and individualism are often normalised and need to be unearthed, understood and alternative ways of being developed.

Essential elements that relational decision-making processes need to include:

  1. Inclusion: Ensure all marginalised groups are included – ideally as partners in developing processes – to ensure the whole picture is addressed and that everyone is included. Given experiences of co-option and marginalisation, people may start out sceptical, and the proof of inclusion will be in the practice not the promise.
  2. Power: Have strategies for managing those who are conditioned to take, or give away, personal power, e.g. ensuring those used to speaking listen, those used to listening speak.
  3. Empathy: Strong input to support the development of relational skills e.g. listening, confidence, self reflection and expression, emotional self management, empathy.
  4. Trauma: Deal early and well with conflict and trauma responses when they are triggered, and take a transformative approach to trauma, reactivity and conflict (they are complex, nuanced and full of incredibly useful information) while also maintaining safety to ensure care for anyone re-experiencing trauma, and to limit triggering of others.

There are different types of process and stages needed for democracy to work well:

1st stage: Connecting processes: as wide as possible

    • So many are marginalised and left behind by current decision-making. It is essential to reach out widely, and build relations of trust as early as possible to ensure mutual confidence and shared ownership.
    • It is also essential to maintain connection between all involved in decision-making right the way through a process – only with trust and mutual understanding will we be able to create the solutions and decisions we need.

2nd stage: “People’s Assemblies” – Creative thinking/solution generating processes: open to anyone who cares about the issue

    • Can be done with very large groups (though splitting into smaller working groups is needed for many aspects, see structured working working groups below).
    • Effort should be made to call in as wide a range of people as possible (see connecting processes above).
    • Should have a range of input from “expert witnesses” (ideally with lived experience, and including those able to think outside the box) across the spectrum of opinion with methods to ensure their evidence is accurate.
    • Should be facilitated by people with good self awareness and who value good process over any specific outcome.
    • May have a range of outputs including skills building, improved understanding and relationships, local action, proposals for decision making processes.

3rd stage: “Citizens’ Assemblies” – Decision-making processes: needs a “good enough” representative sample, randomly selected from the population involved

    • Are a locus of power, so must be protected against co-option by vested interests.
    • Should be set up and supported by a facilitated stakeholder/stewarding group from across the spectrum of opinion on the subject at hand (with those directly affected – the rights-holders – strongly represented e.g. young people if climate crisis, black people if racism, etc.).
    • Selection of participants needs to be a random yet representative sample, and also needs to ensure that those likely to be directly affected are well represented.
    • Should be informed by “expert witnesses’” (ideally with lived experience, and including those able to think outside the box) across the spectrum of opinion with methods to ensure their evidence is accurate.
    • Should be facilitated by trustworthy people dedicated to ensuring good process over any particular outcome.

4th stage: Structured working working groups to make sure decisions are implemented

    • Are a locus of power, so must be protected against co-option by vested interests – including periodically opening their work to people’s and citizens’ assemblies to enable wider understanding, engagement and input.
    • Need to be accountable to and report back to decision makers.
    • Should contain a majority of those who work in the area they are dealing with.

Decision-making processes must be kept clear and clean so that they don’t become co-opted by special interests. Ways to do this include:

  • Ensuring that those at the margins are central to our processes.
  • Facilitators with a dedication to the process over the outcome together with others skilled in conflict transformation, trauma and other essential skills.
  • Emotionally intelligent design ensuring the process is safe and engaging for participants, that trauma responses and conflicts are well held when they arise and that colonial cultural damage is collectively identified and addressed.
  • Work in groups rather than as individuals, specially with representation.
  • Ensure these processes transform power structures so that everyone’s “special interest” is in ensuring the well-being of everyone, an everyone that includes themselves.