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Do Feelings Have a Place in Governance?

How to Deepen Our Connection, Trust and Respect

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April 3, 2017
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cross-posted from Sociocracy For All (SoFA)

Sometimes we get asked whether feelings are “allowed” in sociocracy. We are guessing that what people have in mind is a scenario like this:

Are you allowed to be upset when someone proposes to raise the membership fees because you are afraid you cannot afford the membership, or that others can’t? Of course you are allowed to be upset. Does that justify you yelling, name-calling, blaming in a meeting? Of course not.

So, what does that mean? Are feelings not allowed after all?

In our world (informed by Non-Violent Communication), feelings are indicators of needs that are met or not met. If your need for belonging is not met and you fear having to leave the organization because you cannot afford the membership fees, you might get sad, anxious or upset. Your feelings will be important data that will lead you to even more important data: looking beyond feelings and seeing the underlying needs. Once you identify the need(s) that are unmet, you will be able to share your concern:

What is the difference between the first example and the second? In the first example, there is no inner distance from the feelings. They are interpreted as absolute truth, not as data. When we experience feelings in a righteous way, we will not be able to be intentional about what we do with our feelings. Many people, like in the first example, discharge feelings by using blame. Blame often triggers defensiveness and can easily throw a group into an emotional back and forth that is not related to content and that disconnects us — a very ineffective way to spend a meeting. The opportunity to see feelings as an indicator of a need gets concealed, and we might have to restore trust and respect in the group. Since restoring trust and respect takes a lot of time, we have just lost time and energy in two ways: by losing track of valuable data, and by creating the necessity to do emotional “clean-up”.

A full statement like in example two might provide insights on many levels: someone’s feelings, the underlying need or value at stake and a description of how this need relates to the idea on the table. A statement like that does not hide or ignore the fact that feelings rise when something is important to us. But we are not victims of our feelings. We use them as data, not as truth. We are in choice about what we do about the need that underlies the feelings. That way, we as a group can jump directly to finding out whether this need is important enough to change the decision. If we decide it is, we can think about how the need that might be left unmet could be met so more needs can be considered in the decision we make. We are now using the feelings in the best possible way: to learn about needs and values that might inform our decisions.

We don’t always get input from circle members that is as clear as in example 2. But we can work together to complete the picture. A good group will be able to deal with just “something here leaves me anxious but I can’t put my finger on it” and will try to guess the underlying needs together. An even more advanced group will be able to deal with the raw feeling, will help the group member to calm down, identify their needs and formulate their concern, if style does not make it impossible to stay connected in a conversation. This might take time. So the question is not whether feelings are allowed in sociocracy, but the questions are:

  • Are group members able to be respectful and responsible even if they are emotionally triggered? > If feelings are owned, they can be expressed without harming the group dynamics.
  • How quickly and effectively can we go from experiencing feelings to naming our concern? > The faster we understand the underlying need, the sooner we will get to the meat of the issue.
  • Are we able to let our decision-making be informed by concerns or objections people bring up, so we can make better decisions? > The better we listen if someone has a concern, the more ground we will cover in our decisions.

This also answers another question we get asked from time to time: if I am upset about something, who is responsible to deal with that? Me or the group who made a proposal? The answer is: both. You can make it as easy as possible to use your data as input by giving a complete picture of what is going on for you, and by leaving out anything that will require the circle to restore a good working culture. You can express your feelings anytime, if you own them. The group’s responsibility, whatever you say and in whatever way you say it, is to hear the need underneath and to consider that need in their decision-making. (Remember that “considering a need” does not mean automatically that we meet the need.) If the individual that is triggered and the group both make it easy, this will save time and it will be a smooth process.

Let us say a few words on what happens if we ignore feelings – or pretend to ignore feelings (because we cannot ignore feelings, really). It is a reality of humanity that feelings come up. Only if we are completely detached from the cause and the contribution we make, we will be without feelings. (We cannot believe anyone would want that.) Feelings will come up, and if we ignore them, they will leak. People will be sarcastic, discouraged, disengaged. They will withdraw, lack accountability, work to rule, slow processes down or undermine the system. Ignoring feelings is not worth it in the long run.

In sum, it is not a question whether feelings are allowed or not because they will be there, inadvertently. There is also not a question whether feelings are good or bad because, again, they just are. Depending on how we react to our own and other people’s feelings, they can contribute or distract from the group’s goal to make decisions together. The only question is: how effectively can we use our meeting time to transform feelings into data for good decisions while staying connected as a group, based on trust and respect?


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