The Powerful Art of Non-Defensive Communication

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?”

A: I strongly believe in expecting children to be competent, responsible and reciprocal. It’s all about how we exercise control. If a child simply knows that there is no TV or video games until the dishes are done, the child will quickly learn to make the choice that offers the most freedom. We are exercising control over clarifying choice and consequence, rather than trying to dictate which choice the child makes.

Q: Can you give an example of how a parent can set firm boundaries, yet still be nurturing? Is it all in voice tone?

A: There are several elements that are vital. First, I believe it is essential to give predictions that outline both the choices and consequences if a child does what he or she is asked to do and the consequence if he or she does not do as asked. The hardest part here is to not try to control which choice the child or teen makes. If we do, we are not offering a “real” choice. Second, our voice tone must be relaxed, with no urgency; firm and warm. Any tone of threat will convey a punitive attitude, which is more likely to be a recipe for failure.

Q: How do you give feedback to kids without making them feel bad about themselves and therefore defensive?

A: When we lecture our children, it carries judgment and a message that strengthens the possibility that the child will “hear” us saying he or she is bad. Sometimes parents avoid that by not giving feedback. Either way the child suffers. When we learn to treat feedback as a gift and give honest, direct feedback, without trying to convince the child to change, and doing it as if we are speaking to an equal who is no better or worse that we are, it can transform how the child receives the feedback. I teach three steps for giving feedback that helps to achieve this tone.


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