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Taking the “War” Out of Our Words with Non-defensive Communication
You’re sitting down to dinner with friends, when one looks over and asks, “Do you always butter your bread that way?”

Ha, ha, you laugh. But inside, your story is going like this: Who does he think he is, Mr. Manners? What’s wrong with the way I butter my bread? Jerk. He’s always so critical.

Freeze frame.

If something as minor as buttering bread can provoke such feelings of defensiveness, imagine what can happen with emotional issues at home, boundary issues at work or ethical issues in our larger community.

What happens, says Sharon Ellison, M.S., is essentially war.

Ellison, founder of Powerful Non-Defensive Communication, teaches that the way we communicate with each other uses the same principles and tactics we would use in physical combat, based on the belief that we must protect ourselves by being defensive. As soon as we feel any threat, either of not getting what we want or of being harmed or put down in some way, we choose from among the three basic defensive war maneuvers: surrender, withdrawal or counterattack.

“It’s a sad commentary on our use of human imagination,” Ellison says, “to realize that for centuries we have essentially used a war model as the foundation upon which we have built our entire system for spoken and written communication.”

O.J. Harvey studied this connection between language and violence when he was a psychology professor at the University of Colorado. Using random samples of pieces of literature from countries around the world, he tabulated the frequency of words that classify and judge people—the types of words that often provoke defensive reactions. Not surprisingly, he found a high correlation between the frequent use of such words and the incidence of violence.

The myth, says Ellison, is that defensiveness will protect us, that to be open is to be vulnerable and weak. On the contrary, it is being defensive that weakens us. Consider this: When you are defensive, do you feel safe? Competent? Confident? Do you learn well? Power struggles and unnecessary, destructive conflicts are the more likely outcome.

Ellison, who estimates that we use 95% of our communications energy being defensive, describes the six most common defensive reactions as follows:

Surrender-Betray. We give in but defend the person’s mistreatment of us, taking the blame ourselves.

Surrender-Sabotage. We cooperate outwardly but undermine the person in some way. Passive-aggressive behavior falls into this category.

Withdrawal-Escape. We avoid talking to someone by not answering, leaving the room or changing the subject.

Withdrawal-Entrap. We refuse to give information as a way to trap the other person into doing something inappropriate or making a mistake.

Counterattack-Justify. We let someone know she is wrong to be upset with us, explaining our own behavior and making excuses.

Counterattack-Blame. We attack or judge the other to defend ourselves.

Changing how we communicate as individuals—learning that we can protect ourselves and have greater influence without using a war-based language—will not only shift our own personal and professional lives, but can ultimately lead toward a more peaceful world.

Author’s content used under license, © 2008 Claire Communications

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