Eliminate Defensiveness, Discover Tools for Peace

By Sharon Strand Ellison

Every day people refer to being “at war” or “at peace” within themselves, in relationships, within communities and among nations. Although many of us have found ways to live more peacefully, it is still a challenge that can be daunting, whatever our level of intelligence, integrity, and commitment. Even those of us who want to live together in harmony can be discouraged by the never-ending violence we see when we look at world history.

I have spent my entire life searching for answers about why we have so much needless pain and violence in our world. I finally found an answer that made sense to me: I believe we have been using the “rules of war” as the basis for human conversation. It doesn’t work to use the rules for one activity for a completely different activity—we can’t play golf with a bowling ball.

A motto in war is “To be open is to be vulnerable, and to be vulnerable is to be weak.” In war, we use defensive maneuvers to protect ourselves as we fight for power to achieve our goals.

Using such rules when we talk to each other is clearly counterproductive. When we hide our vulnerability, we can never be fully honest; our defensiveness alienates us even from those we love; power struggle becomes progressively destructive. Even in our own internal conversations, we often go through cycles of blaming and defending ourselves. Our system of communication propels us into both internal and external conflict.

Using these rules, there is no peace unless everyone “cooperates.” The person who doesn’t “cooperate” is often seen as having the greatest power. Thus, it becomes easy to slide into feeling victimized by others when we can’t “get” their cooperation.

Imagine this scenario:  We ask, “Honey, shall we go out to dinner at the new Thai restaurant?” Our spouse or partner says, “Well, we said we’d stick to the budget.” We respond, ”I know, but it’s been a stressful week—we need to relax.” He or she stays firm, “ I think we need to stick to our decision this time.” Suddenly we blurt, “You are just a couch potato—you never want to do anything!” We have decided our idea was better than his/her idea. Second, we started to see his/her attitude as “a danger” to our plan. Third, we justified our verbal attack.

Ironically, this kind of common scenario at home follows the same pattern hate groups use—a process that involves seeing some other group of people as being morally or intellectually inferior and, simultaneously, being a danger to society—“taking our jobs” or “corrupting our children.”  Then they justify attacking that group’s members. 

How can we go out into the world and work to create peace with the greatest degree of effectiveness when we are still using the “rules of war” in our own lives? In fact, I still hear people talking about “fighting for peace.” When I do training for groups who are working to create a just world, people are often shocked when they realize that even trying to convince others to agree can create instant power struggle.

Audre Lorde said, “You can’t dismantle the Master’s house by using the Master’s tools.” Albert Einstein said it another way: "We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." In other words, established methods for resolving conflict have a very poor track record. They are not going to get us where we need to go.

I believe that in order to-have high level conflict resolution skills that can address the complex issues we face, it is imperative that we shift away from a model of communication that relies on using defensiveness for self-protection and power struggle to acheive our goals.

Once I had the revelation that we have been using the “rules of war” as the basis for communication, I began to systematically develop a new paradigm, which I call Powerful Non-Defensive Communication. This process invites us to become more powerful by being more transparent.

Using non-defensive skills, we ask questions with no agenda other than curiosity. We give feedback and express our reactions subjectively, telling our own story so others can hear us without feeling judged. We set clear boundaries without trying to control which choices others make. Doing so, we move away from being manipulative and controlling, while protecting ourselves as well. The welcome side effect is that others are likely to drop their defenses—often instantly—opening the door to shared wisdom.

When we recognize that defensiveness damages us far more than it protects us, we can learn to communicate in ways that can almost instantly change the reality of our lives. I often say that in using non-defensive communication, small changes get big results. We can change reality one sentence at a time. Bringing together our willingness to show our vulnerability with a commitment to being honest can create a kind of alchemy that fuels our efforts to heal, to work toward justice, to bring peace.

The Institute for Powerful Non-Defensive Communication • Contact Us
Powerful Non-Defensive Communication is a trademarked name. © 1994-2017 Sharon Strand Ellison

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