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Powerful Non-Defensive Communication

This article was previously published in the NCMA Quarterly Newsletter, Spring 2002, Number 63. Republished with permission.

Most conflict resolution practitioners have had their fair share of communication skills training. Communication after all is at the heart of conflict prevention and resolution. For the most part, communication skills training focuses on active listening skills and the delivery of “I” rather than “You” statements.

At the Northern California Mediation Association conference in 1998 Marshall Rosenberg spoke about Non-Violent Communication. His ideas built on the basics of active listening and needs theory and were well received. It was against this background that I attended this year’s (2001) conference on the art of powerful, non-defensive communication.

What did Sharon Ellison have to say that hadn’t been said already?

Our Current Communication Reality: The Words Of War

For starters she was clear in her description of the ways in which we have transferred military logic into our everyday conversational practices. She dissected the notion of war talk with the goal of understanding the ways in which we attempt to protect ourselves through defensive action and words.

In war our choices are limited to surrender, withdrawal and attack. Ellison noted that these practices flourish in our every day conversations. Each of these defensive reactions was explained, in both their passive and active forms:

Surrender-betrayal: We give in and take responsibility for a situation that we are not directly responsible for. We betray ourselves.

Surrender-sabotage: We fake our sorrow, and through our deeds demonstrate our bitterness. Passive-aggressive behavior is an example.

Withdrawal-Escape: We avoid, or simply leave the situation.

Withdrawal-Entrap: We avoid in a way that forces our ‘opponent’ to do something inappropriate.

Attack-Justify: We rationalize and make excuses for what has happened.

Attack-Blame: We don’t hold back and use our resources to attack and judge.

What I found helpful was the detailed analysis that accurately described the range of defensive reactions I find myself using. I also learned that I was not alone. The room was full of people who had no problem acknowledging how they used these same defensive maneuvers themselves, despite the best of intentions. Having a good sense of the ways we mis-communicate is a depressing but very useful starting point.

Our Communication Vision: Authentic Communication

As conflict resolution practitioners, we like to take a forward-looking view of the future that can be created, especially when our current communication reality is bleak and misguided.

It was in Ellison’s prescription of a process for effective communication that I was most impressed. What she shared represented a pushing of the communication envelope. A push that already feels awkward and that will take practice until the skills and knowledge have been internalized.

It was not that she introduced a new communication tool. Rather she examined the ways we already communicate (by asking questions, making statements and predictions) and made suggestions so that we can start to take the defensive war talk out of these otherwise useful techniques.


I learned that there is a lot more to questions than the difference between open ended and closed questions, and the common injunction to favor the former. The tone of our voice as we ask a question is crucial (our tone should fall, not rise at the end) as is our accompanying non-verbal behavior (it should not answer our question).

Asking questions is not an opportunity to make a statement or express an opinion. Nor is it a way to communicate how we are feeling. Rather, it is a way to discover information that well help us understand accurately what the speaker means, believes or feels.


I have found that using “I” statements doesn’t guarantee a non-defensive response. In fact, the mere suspicion that you are ‘using’ a communication formula is often perceived as manipulative and justification for defense.

So much emphasis is given to listening and the use of “I” statements that one often wonders if there is a productive manner to speak your truth. Ellison presented a new way of approaching the delivery of statements: a way that does not require you to suppress your own views. In fact, it requires that you share your subjective interpretations.

As I understood Ellison, there are essentially two ways to approach statement making. The first is if you are unaware of any contradictory information (whether it be in the body language, past history or outside data). The second is when you do sense a contradiction.

In the first approach you would (1) summarize what you have understood the speaker to say, and then (2) fully express your own reactions, feelings, beliefs and reasons.

In the second approach, where you perceive a contradiction, she suggests that you add two additional steps after the first. After (1) reflecting what you have heard the other saying, you (2) note the contradictions in the person’s tone, body language and words. For example: ” I hear you saying that you are not upset, and at the same time I see that you are rolling your eyes.”

You then (3) share your own subjective conclusions: ” I believe something is wrong, and that you don’t want to tell me about it.” The first two steps reveal how you came to the conclusion. Importantly this step prevents you from trying (usually unsuccessfully) to hide from what you are in any event thinking. It is a powerful way of being vulnerable.

The final step is the same as with the first approach: (4) you fully express your own reactions, feelings, beliefs and reasons. “I feel frustrated and unsure whether to ask you more questions or leave you alone.”


There is something comforting in being able to ignore reality. We just wish it away. In mediation, disputants are often forced to face the consequences of doing this or that. Most mediators know that it takes tact to reality check without being threatening.

Rather than ignore reality, Ellison suggested that we communicate how we will react in regard to certain choices. We need to say two things: how we will react if the choice is made and also how we will react if the choice is not made.

This enables us to create healthy boundaries, and to be clear and firm in a neutral way. The danger is that it is heard as a threat.

Continuing with the example above:
“If you would like to tell me what is going on, I’d like to hear it.” And “If you don’t want to tell me, then I won’t make you.”

As I understood Ellison, our culture is afraid of being vulnerable. Vulnerability is associated with weakness. Hence the need to defend. However, as most of us have discovered in our own lives, being defensive doesn’t bring peace of mind. Rather, it takes us to a place where we are the victim, where we feel threatened, and where we are dis- empowered.

My sense is that powerful non-defensive communication is an important contribution to the challenge of human communication.

For those who are interested in learning more about Powerful Non-Defensive Communication you can read Ellison’s book: “Taking the War out of our Words” and visit her web site at


John Ford

 John Ford is the author of Peace at Work and founder of the HR Mediation Academy. He mediates; trains; and consults to organizations that have accepted the inevitability of conflict and are seeking to approach it with greater clarity and confidence. He was the managing editor of from 2000… MORE >

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