The Democracy Learning Lab Guide



Long ago in the 1980s a group of everyday people with unusual motivation and interest, along with an experienced leader, devoted 20 years of their lives to finding out how they could hear and understand each other as well as they could, so they could both think together and care for each other as well as they could.

It wasn't just for themselves, however. They were pretty convinced that whatever they found out in this living experiment would be useful for all of us. 

I have adapted it here because it presents the primary learning objectives of the Growing Democracy Learning Lab briefly but in great detail.

There are no grand reports about this project, nor any inspiring memoirs. (However, I do have a short chapter on these years in the Growing Democracy Workbook.) There was only a paper handout of two pink legal-sized sheets folded in half making eight pages altogether. So we called it the "Pink Paper."

It lays out the required motivation, rationale, and purpose for making hearing and understanding others a core disposition for living your life and relating to others.

This disposition, together with a set of practices that were also included, can make democratic conversation and efforts at conflict resolution work well.

On one condition: 

“This process won’t work unless your primary purpose in expressing differences of perception, memory, opinions, or preferences is to find out more of what the others think about your ideas and perceptions. It’s important to express yourself spontaneously, clearly and as briefly as you can — in order to get responses as clearly and as often as possible.”

The job of a Growing Democracy Learning Lab is to enable participants to develop this disposition, the motivation to live it, and the practices to make it part of daily life. Passing the torch for sure, but in an updated way. Much understanding and many methods for what I call adult transformative learning have emerged in the past 40 years. It is a dynamic field. 

In what follows I reproduce the text of the “Pink Paper” in various ways, which are organized into three parts:  

  • The “Pink Paper” and Democracy, which is a long selection interspersed with my commentary; 
  • The Practices, which presents the specific practices advocated in a visual structure not done in the original; and 
  • What To Do When… a final selection reproduced pretty much as in the original.


The “Pink Paper” and Democracy

What the “Pink Paper” does is to layout the core of a democratic and loving way to live and relate. The Democracy Learning Lab immerses the participant into that core along with collective reflection and experienced guidance.

For example, the key learning objective:

“Learn to give higher priority to hearing and understanding than to being heard and understood.

We are in a permanent struggle to override our powerful bias to keep seeing as we see, to stay convinced of what we know, and to keep doing what we do. The extraordinary pace of change in today’s world has driven this bias up the wall. The bias is part of our nature. We can’t get rid of it, but we can learn to manage it creatively and joyfully:

“When you feel misunderstood, unheard, or threatened, and think that the others would agree with you if they understood you,

  1. assume that they probably think that you don’t understand them — and they’re sure that if you did you’d realize that they’re right.

  2. want to find what you can agree with in everything said to you. Discover what you can enjoy and value in every speaker you interact  

with, and show your pleasure.” 

As you begin to develop this disposition and its practices, you also begin to note that you can learn to 

avoid investing too heavily in what you’ve said or plan to say — or in proving it or defending it to the others.” 

Here are two traps to stay out, but they are very challenging:

“a) try not to fall in love with your own ideas or you might use them to push other people’s reality out of your consciousness. Really want all the new information you can get.

  1. b) stay out of verbal contests designed to fight for dominance or control and ultimately to intimidate others and shut them up.”

There is a radical dimension to this democratic path. It turns the Win/Lose paradigm on its head:

“Remember — if you are wrong and they are right— you can know more and do better than you did. If they’re wrong and you are acknowledged to be right, you’ll probably feel good, but usually nothing very useful has happened to you.”

Here’s another radical turn. Freedom of speech is a core democratic value. However, how well do you understand it. Almost everywhere and almost all of the time is framed as ‘you can’t stop me from saying what I want to say.” Left to stand alone, this leads into Babel. Free to say what you want to say is only one side of the coin. Freedom to hear is just as fundamental to freedom of speech. Our need to hear others is an overwhelming part of a good life. Our democratic disposition and practices are essential for making this work well:

“You can afford to let go in interaction and allow mistakes as long as you want to hear responses and profit from them. Regard mistakes as a source of learning.

  1. a) Use new ideas wherever and however you can in order to test them, integrate them, and ultimately decide to make them your own — if they’re useful to you.
  2. b) Want to change your mind and your feelings — every time you’re lucky enough to hear something better than what you had before.”

And the “Pink Paper” doesn’t pull any punches. It’s relentlessly demanding:

When you check to be sure you were heard accurately, want to believe that they have understood. When they’re checking — want to be corrected until you really do understand. 

Want to hear and tell the truth. Try not to distort your perception or memory to make a point, and be glad that you are told about it when you do.

And it is all-in regarding one-step at a time is the best we can do:

“Aim at better reality perception and accurate memory, but know you will never be sure of your own accuracy.”


The Practices



(Repeat as necessary)

Exploring A Difference a) What do you think about…? 

b) How did you arrive at that?

c) How do you feel about it?

When you disagree with or are upset with someone  a) Repeat what you think 

    they’ve said and say how 

    you think they feel.

b) If they think you are  

   inaccurate — listen to  

   their corrections &  try 


c) Keep trying until they 

    agree that you’ve heard 

    & understood them.


(Repeat as necessary)

When someone disagrees with you or is upset with you a) Ask the others to say what they think you said or did and 

b) how they think you feel about it.

c) if you think them inaccurate — correct them and 

d) they’ll try again until they hear you in your context.

When the Issue(s) Stay Unresolved a) Set aside your own 


b) Don’t argue; just look for  

    anything you can agree 


c) Keep repeating what you 

    hear to check your 

    accuracy, and

d) do Practice I with anyone 


When you are stuck in Mr./Ms. Negativity

[Withdrawal or non-action can be passive aggression.]

If you still feel threatened, angry, and/or aggressive about people’s statements or their responses to your statements, ask the following questions of yourself (speak them & your answers aloud, if possible):

a) What bad things might  


b) What am I angry about?

c) What non-aggressive 

    action is possible?


What To Do When…

[NOTE how demanding each underlines word is, and know that all of this can evolve one step at a time.]

In any of the following events, the first action is always to:

  1. Change your posture, breathe, check your body for tension, drop your shoulders and relax.
  2. Reaffirm your decision to listen because the situation, the person, or the thing is worth it.
When You Feel Criticized
  1. Find out everything that anyone has to say before reaching any conclusions or making any decisions.


  1. a)  Check the accuracy of your hearing.
  2. b)  Say what you think/feel about what’s been said
  3. c)  Check whether you’ve been accurately heard


  1. Remember that it’s in your interest to find more value in what you are hearing than in what you are saying.


  1. If you still feel threatened — follow the instructions on [page two above] until you can drop your negative feelings and make the most of the information you’re getting.


When You Are Inattentive
  1. Reaffirm your decision to listen because the situation, the person is worth it.


  1. Reaffirm your decision to control and increase your attention span. 


To accomplish this:


  1. a)  Make eye contact. Be sure you really see the other(s).
  2. b)  Stop talking to yourself — learn to keep your mind quiet.
  3. c)  Respond verbally to everything that is said.
  4. d)  Try to let your face and your posture express your response.
  5. e)  Tell people how you feel about what they’ve said as

     well as what you think about it — and know the difference.

  1. f)  Always get responses to what you've said.


  1. When you haven’t heard, or haven’t grasped meaning, ask what was said, if you possibly can.


  1. Acknowledge your inattention and apologize for it when possible. 


  • Never cover it up. 
  • Learn to do this without feeling bad about it, 
  • Just determine to maintain attention, to hear, and to catch up on whatever you missed.


When You Feel Negative
  1. Identify fear of trusting people, or enjoying situations, and of liking and loving too much.


  1. Find and try to express a positive for each negative you think or say. Let people know that you want to resolve the problems between you because they’re worth it — they matter to you.


  1. Imagine the worst possible outcome, and let it go by working it through. Ask yourself:


  1. a) Can I handle this at its worst? How would that look?
  2. b) Can I get help?
  3. c) Can I separate if necessary, and how?
  4. d) Can I cope with being rejected, failing and losing?


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