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The Powerful Art of Non-Defensive Communication

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Living with other people is hard, even when you love those people very much. The most difficult aspect of living with others is that they don’t always do what you want them to do. When frustration is expressed in our tone of voice, our choice of words and our body language, the other person gets defensive, and soon a battle for power erupts.

Sharon Strand Ellison, international communication consultant and founder and executive director of the Institute for Powerful Non-Defensive Communication, has made a career out of teaching people the fine art of non-defensive communication—communication that expresses what needs to be said, but in a way that doesn’t put the other person on high alert: “I’m being attacked! Defend self immediately!”

Here are Sharon’s answers to some questions I had about non-defensive communication: 

Q: What do you mean by “using the rules of war” as a basis of conversation?

A: In war we defend whatever we are trying to protect and we struggle for power to get control over “the enemy.” I believe that we have literally used these “rules of war” as the foundation for how we talk to each other. We can easily get defensive when our child or another adult hurts our feelings. Also, we often get in power struggles when we try to get our kids or anyone else to do what we want.

Q: What situations do you see most often result in power struggles between parents and children?

A: Traditional ways of talking to our children causes power struggle over many issues, like responsibilities, such as chores and homework; attitudes, such as defiance or rudeness; and conflict with siblings. Even just trying to convince our children to listen to us too often prompts them to be defensive and resistant. 

Q: Why is it important not to try to control the outcome when communicating with children?

A: I think most of us have trouble with the idea of “letting go of the outcome” because it feels like not caring about what happens to our child or teen. Or, it feels like not trying to help them be responsible, compassionate people. I think what is important is to let go of the myth that we can force another person to do what we want. The child always has choice. We can’t make children eat their vegetables. We can only tell them the consequence that will happen if they don’t — perhaps no dessert.

Q: What do you mean by “security of predictability?

A: In the War Model for communication, we predict consequences for our children as a way to control or even punish them if they don’t do what we want. This causes kids to fight back and/or feel unloved. If predictions are made as a promise, with firmness and love, it creates security because children then feel safe and are more likely to learn how to make wise choices. 

Q: What do you say to parents who say, “But I want to exercise control over my children in certain areas such as homework, good manners, brushing teeth, etc. What’s wrong with that?”

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