“Taking the War Out of Our Words” by Sharon Ellison

Subtitle: The Art of Powerful Non-Defensive Communication

A decade ago, this book, and a one-day workshop on Powerful Non-Defensive Communication (PNDC), helped me get out of an abusive relationship. My copy disappeared, probably on loan to someone, and I just replaced it. This is an edited review I wrote for Survivorship back then.

This communication technique focuses on good boundaries, emphasizing that we can only control our own words and actions, not anyone else’s. On each re-reading, I notice different helpful details. The book is carefully and clearly organized, with section headings for each new idea, lots of example stories, and a review of key points at the end of each chapter.

Part I describes the “War Model,” Sharon Ellison’s name for the combative communication style we learn to call “normal” in our culture. Defensiveness is a natural outgrowth of war-like communication. Six defensive modes are described – the three main strategies of surrender, flight, and fight, with passive and active sub-strategies for each. The passive modes seek to protect oneself, while the active modes seek to damage the other person. The six modes are

  • Surrender-Betray (passive)
  • Surrender-Sabotage (active)
  • Withdraw-Escape (passive)
  • Withdraw-Entrap (active)
  • Counterattack-Justify (passive)
  • Counterattack-Blame (active).

Part II describes the three primary conversational tools of Powerful Non-Defensive Communication (PNDC): curious and innocent Questions, open and direct Statements, and protective and firm Predictions. Each tool is described in detail, with many suggested formats and examples.

Non-defensive questions are used to clarify assumptions, and to learn information about the other person’s position. They also ask the other person to stop and think. Sometimes a single neutral, gentle, curious question can shift years of negative interactions.

One example tells about a couple where the man repeatedly accused the woman of being late, even though she was generally ready on time and met her commitments. They had fought about this for years. One day, the woman asked, “Is it my pacing that leads you to think I’ll be late?” The man stopped, blinked, and said, “You know, you are usually on time.” She tended to get ready at the last minute, while he tended to prepare in advance, and this was the first time the man had noticed that she did regularly succeed in pulling it all together.

Non-defensive statements are vulnerable, direct, subjective, and descriptive. They include all relevant elements of one’s own experience, even when some of the elements are contradictory.

One example tells of a divorced woman who no longer wished to invite her ex-husband to Thanksgiving dinner, but continued to do so because he had a tendency to withhold her alimony check whenever there was a conflict. One year, she chose to state to him that she did not want to invite him, and that she had continued to invite him through fear of the consequences, and that she did not want her alimony check to be delayed. Much to her surprise, he did not show up for dinner, and the next alimony check was on time.

Non-defensive predictions are protective, foretelling, neutral, definitive and double-sided. The intent is to communicate the consequences of both sides of a choice, rather than to coerce one side or the other. Two types of predictions are described in detail: Limit-Setting Predictions, which identify one’s own responses based on the other person’s choices, and Challenge-Choice predictions, which identify outside consequences to the other person’s choices.

An example of a limit-setting prediction is “If you are not ready when it is time to leave for the play, I will drive my own car, and you can join me later. If you are ready on time, we can drive together and enjoy each other’s company.”

An example of a challenge-choice prediction comes from the owner of a printing company, who found that customers often argued with him about color choices, and then blamed him when the results were poor. He started making the prediction, “If you use too many colors, then, based on my experience, this logo will be less crisp and you will not be satisfied with the outcome. If you use fewer colors, it will be more crisp, and I think you will be pleased.”

The section on predictions includes a detailed discussion about how to devise and implement predictions, including strategies for handling negative reactions from people unaccustomed to encountering clear boundaries.

Highly recommended if you want new tools to communicate well.

Available at Powell’s Books.

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