I recently attended the Heartland Regional Conference of Mediators where the keynote speaker was Sharon Ellison, author of Taking the War Out of Our Words, and founder of the Institute for Powerful Non-Defensive Communication.
Ms. Ellison’s theory is that much of our communication is based on the “rules of war.” She believes we often adopt defensive strategies to protect ourselves and use power struggles to gain advantage over others and to achieve our goals. Much like in war, each of us attacks, withdraws and/or surrenders, depending on our personality and on the specific circumstances we face.
We attack when we try to justify ourselves or to blame others. We withdraw when we try to escape the situation (physically or mentally) or to entrap others. We surrender when we deny our own needs and defend our attackers, or when we give in and then sabotage the other person (turn passive aggressive).
Since attending this conference, I have been struck by how often my conversations do seem war-like, even when neither I nor the person I am speaking with intend to be. It doesn’t matter if it is at home or with professional colleagues, our default is to respond defensively. When my husband asks why I did something, I launch into a lengthy explanation justifying my behavior. When I’m criticized, I react by harking back to something my colleague did wrong.
I’m not surprised – I was trained as an attorney; I know how to cross-examine. In fact, my kids often accused me of cross-examining them at the dinner table.
But even when I’m not trying to grill someone or to win an argument, my conversations become defensive. My patterns of communication with family and friends, established over decades, can shift from discussion to argument or to scoring a point on a moment’s notice.
And I’m not alone – others do it, too. (Not that I am excusing myself; I am simply pointing out how prevalent the “war model” is.)
Our everyday conversations raise conflict, rather than diffusing it. No wonder our society is so litigious.
Ms. Ellison advocates using non-defensive modes of communication to better understand each other and reduce conflict. In her book, Taking the War Out of Our Words, she describes techniques using non-defensive questions, statements and predictions. But the trick is that when engaged in non-defensive communications, we must not let our tone of voice or body language contradict our non-threatening intent. Our questions must come from true curiosity. Our statements must not be designed to argue or convince, but must be based on fact or our own opinions and voiced calmly. Our predictions (if/then statements) must not be threats of retribution.
I did not master her techniques after four hours of listening to her describe them and role play with members of the audience. Now I can recognize the war model of communications, but I can’t develop my non-defensive questions, statements or predictions when needed.
I think, however, that recognizing my own part in the defensiveness of many daily conversations is a first step. Perhaps over time, I can improve in how I communicate. After all, the only person I can change is myself.
And perhaps someday, I’ll write another post about my success.
Do you see examples of the war model of communications in your daily life?