PNDC for the Field of Diversity & Culural Competence

Using This Information Packet: This packet includes (1) an overview of the training focus; (2) short biographies for Sharon Strand Ellison and her daughter, Ami Atkinson Combs, who are the primary master teachers of the Powerful Non-Defensive Communication™ process developed by Sharon; (3) signed and unsigned comments from participants; and (4) comments from professionals about the value of the process in enhanding cultural competence and creating effective communication among people with different backgrounds and life experience.

The overview starts with the introduction from the landing page and then continues with more information. You can start with "More . . ." if you've already read the introduction.

Training & Context Overview
Biographical Information
Partial Client List
Comments from Educators in University Settings

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Training Context & Overview:

Introduction from Landing Page:

Our understanding of how essential it is to learn to communicate across lines of difference has been rapidly developing in recent decades. Once focused primarily on differences in culture and experience for people from various races, definitions of diversity now commonly include groups of different ethnicity, religion, gender, and sexual orientation, as well as age, profession and even personality. While diversity is not classified as a "professional field" in the same sense as education or business, it is now an ever-expanding field of study. Countless people devote their professional lives to research and training that can bring about the changes we need to function effectively across these many lines of difference in the 21th century. Currently, an increasingly wider spectrum of organizations are responding by putting significant energy and resources into enhancing cultural competence.

At the same time, far too many people still hold the limited view of "diversity training" reflected in the phrase, "I already had Diversity 101; I don't need more." As another saying goes, our "world is getting smaller" and our relationships are increasingly more heterogenous. This is true not only at work and in our communiies, but often, in our own homes. Fifty years ago, marrying someone from a difference branch of the Christian religion — such as a Protestant marrying a Catholic — was considered to be highly unacceptable, by many Americans. Now, primary and extended and/or merged families are much more likley to have members who are from, for example, a different religion, such as budhist, or parents of different races who have bi-racial children.

It's hard enough to create understanding among homogenous groups of people. When we communicate with people who have significant differences in beliefs and ways of reasoning, as well as what is considered acceptable expressions of emotion, it can be overwhelming. Being open to an expanding cultural awareness can challenge our sense of security, where tradition and habit feel like a comfortable pair of old slippers — blocking us from any awareness of the richness of experience that can come with the change. In addition, traditional communication methods often lead us straight to judgment, before we have a chance to consider what might be possible. In families, as well as at work and in our communities, misunderstanding can lead to mistrust and even hatred. With the level of increasingly available destructive technology, learning to communicate in ways that have the power to disarm defensiveness becomes imperative.

More . . . The model of communication we have used in Western Culture for centuries — inherited from philosophers like Aristotle — leads us to communicate with the assumption that truth is "objective." Thus in any argument, one person is right and one person is wrong. As a result, people find it very difficult to disagree without feeling a need to somehow convince the other to change. It causes many of us to try in various ways to control others. This is true whether the differences are about life perspective, spiritual beliefs, or forms of reasoning about an issue. Much of the time, when we say to someone, "You aren't listening to me," what we really mean is "You aren't agreeing with me." We even tell others how they should and shouldn't feel, such as when say to a family member, coworker, or friend, "Oh, you shouldn't feel hurt by what she said, that's just how she is with everyone." Or, "You shouldn't be sad about your son going to college; think of the freedom you'll have now."

Trying to convince others to change their thinking, feeling and/or behavior causes power struggle. And defensiveness is at the heart of power struggle. We know now, from scientists like Dr. Joseph LeDeux, that the moment we get defensive, the brain fires right past the complex problem-solving part of the brain to the emotional alarm system that sets off fight or flight adrenaline. It's why intelligent people can "say such stupid things" when they get defensive. It makes it difficult, and in many cases, impossible to resolve conflicts even with people we respect or love deeply.

How then, can we expect to resolve differences with people who have vastly different life experience or express themselves in ways we find contrary — even offensive — to what we know to be true, what we hold dear?

Even if we have a great desire to communication effectively, with understanding and compassion, most of us look at human history and the continuous stream of violence — not only among nations, races, and religions, but in families as well — and find little hope that it could ever be different. However, if we look at the model of communication we've been using for centuries for what it is — a model based on the "rules of war," with defensiveness being our primary method of self-protection and power struggle being a common means of achieving our goals — then we can consider the option of changing our model of communication and getting a very different result. It's like getting rid of a computer program that doesn't do what we want it to and getting a new one.

Powerful Non-Defensive Communication (PNDC) training programs in the area of diversity/cultural competence offer a model of communication that moves away from using the Rules of War as the infrastructure for verbal communication. These new communication skill sets have greater power because they allow us to remain non-defensive, even in the face of insults or verbal attacks, including those based on prejudice. We can think more clearly in the moment. Even if others don't respond as we would like, we can walk away with dignity and personal strength, which is often witnessed by other people. Formats for non-defensive questions, feedback, statements, and boundary-setting also frequently prompt others to drop their own defenses — sometimes instantly — which can open real conversation even in high-conflict situations with people who come from different cultures. Using these skills our understanding of issues related to our diversity and our enhanced cultural competence can come from the heart.

PNDC workshops and training programs also focus on specific areas of awareness and skill with regard to enhancing cultural competence, such as:

• Developing greater understanding about current research regarding various layers and types of diversity;

• Gaining deeper awareness of the insidious nature and functioning of stereotypes and micro-inequities — that often remain invisible to the speaker — while creating discomfort, embarrassment, and/or pain for the recipient, thus alienating us from each other;

• Becoming more aware and able to identify when we make comments and judgments based on conscious, unconscious, or semi-conscious stereotypes — before, during and/or after we speak;

• Identifying common responses that people have — when trying to "apologize" or repair damage and instead "make it worse" — after having said something hurtful to someone who is of a different age, gender, mental ability, personality, profession, race, religion, sexual orientation or size;

• Learning to ask questions that draw out assumptions regarding culturally insensitive comments made by others without creating or accelerating power struggle, thus turning destructive conflict into constructive conversation, raising consciousness and creating stronger individual and group bonds; and

• Enhancing skills in taking personal accountability for ourselves and for what happens in any group in which we are participating.

Currently, much of the time, when someone makes an inadvertent culturally insensitive comment based on an unconscious stereotype or even one that is based on deep prejudice and aggressively hurtful, people have a hard time knowing how to respond. They see the only choices as either remaining silent while the "invisible elephant" sits in the room, or getting into the kind of open conflict that involves argument, point-proving and blame.

We are used to seeing someone do great damage with a single comment that lands like a bomb. Using non-defensive skills, we can have the same kind of power to achieve the opposite effect — healing. We can communicate with grace, competence, and wisdom, maximizing the possiblity of turning the potential for richly diverse relationships into reality.

Biographical Information:

Sharon Strand Ellison is an internationally recognized pioneer in the field of eliminataing defensivenss and an award-winning speaker. She was a Scholar in Residence at Saint Johns University while writing her book, Taking the War Out of Our Words. She and her daugher, Ami Atkinson, produced the audio book, Taking Power Struggle Out of Parenting, winner of a  Benjamin Franklin Award. Sharon was a nominee for the Leadership for a Changing World Award, sponsored by the Ford Foundation and the Advocacy Institute. Sharon is committed to being a continual learner in the field of diversity/cultural competence. She has provided training for white audiences on enhancing a deeper understanding of the intricacies of developing relationships with people who have different ways of communicating and different values systems based on combined factors such as ethnicity, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age, and personality. She has also had the privilege of offering keynote addresses and other training programs for groups of people from various ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds. Sharon often works with a diverse team of outstanding consultants and is dedicated to enhancing performance, creating leadership with integrity and building strength of community in every environment.

Ami Atkinson Combs, Director of IPNDC, is a graduate of Mills College and co-author of the audiobook Taking Power Struggle Out of Parenting. As Sharon’s daughter, she has been an active participant in the years of discussion as Sharon envisoned and refined the PNDC Communication model. Ami has done psychosocial research at Stanford Medical School, been on the Newborn and Parent Advisory Board at Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital, and worked with severely emotionally disturbed children.

Ami’s innate understanding of systemic patterns in communication is alsp a cornerstone of her work with organizations, helping individual teams as well as the organization as a whole to strengthen their communication internally and with their client base. She offers coaching and trainings for educational institutions, nonprofits, corporations, and community organizations. Her clients include: General Dynamics, CA; Lockheed-Martin, CA; Habitat for Humanity, CA; the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals, Toronto, Canada; The Wisconsin Council of Churches; The Association for Early Childhood Education, National Conference; and CCG Systems, VA.

Sharon and Ami are dedicated long been dedicated to social change and shares the belief of millions that our human survival depends on the skill we develop in creating a social evolution process that honors and protects our resources, as well as our capacity to live peacefully in a diverse global community. Sharon and Ami are dedicated to creating leadership with integrity and building strength of community in every environment.

Partial Client List:

Keynotes have been provided for conferences such as:

  • "Diversity: Tools, Action and Accountability," Multnomah County/City of Portland, Oregon
  • The Global Women’s Health Initiative, leadership development for selected women scientists working with women’s health issues in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe
  • Facing a Challenge Within: A Progressive Scholars and Activists Conference on Anti-Semitism and the Left, Oakland, CA
  • Nordstrom Regional Diversity Managers annual conference, Denver, Colorado
  • Women's Leadership, Lifting as We Climb, California State University, Pomona, CA
  • Violence Prevention Association of Contra Costa County, CA, Annual Associaion Meeting
  • Latino Medical School Association, Annual Regional Board Conference
  • Skills for Success, National Women's Leadership Conference, sponsored by the Women's Forum of the Canadian Bar Association
  • Diversity Pipeline, Women of Color in Health Sciences, annual conference, Oakland, CA
  • Center for Dipute Resolution, London, England

Training programs ininPowerful Non-Defensive Communication™ have also been provided for organizations
such as:

  • UC Berkeley Staff Diversity Facilitator Network
  • Hewlett Packard, Harassment, Discrimination and Diversity training (in conjunction with HP attorneys)
  • Society for Intercultural Training Education and Research, annual international conference
  • The Women’s Funding Network, annual international conference, San Diego, CA
  • Women’s Funding Network program for Women of Color in International Development, San Francisco, CA
  • New Community Meeting, bringing together GLBT people with conservative Christians
  • Women Leaders 2006: A Symposium for Women in University Settings
  • The National Association For Women In Education
  • The Multicultural Education Association
  • Women of Color in Action (WCAN), Annual San Francisco Bay Area Conference for business women
  • Kahneeta Tribe, Dental Program
  • Warm Springs, OR
  • Indian Health Services, including regional managers, leadership program and dental hygienists, nationwide annual conference
  • San Francisco Jail, Empowerment Project for Women Prisoners
  • The Power of Nonviolent Language and Action: From the Individual to Global Settings, Annual AHIMSA Conference, UC Berkeley, CA

Sharon has also been a part of a number of special projects focused on empowerment for groups of people who have been oppressed, as well as for creating greater understanding across lines of difference. Below are three exampes.

In conjunction with a selected team of Native American women leaders from Indian Health Services Dental Programs, Sharon developed a nation-wide  training program for Native American dental assistants who are often supervised by white dentists. Training included issues of differences in culture and power differentials.

Sharon was called into a San Francisco Bay Area high school subsequent to a gang murder in a project for teaching 450 freshman how to (a) translate the use of non-defensive communication methods to their own culturally defined ways of thinking with an emphais on how to gain power instead of losing it by being "non-defensive," and (b) to find ways of using their own words and style of communication to diffuse conflict and violence rather than accelerating it.

Sharon also co-authored the questions for white people for the workbooks that accompanied the diversity films produced by World Trust, Light in the Darkness, and Making Whiteness Visible.

Trainings have also been provided for community based organizations engaged at many levels in the process of meeting community needs and working toward equality and peace such as:

  • The Center for Volunteer and Non-Profit Leadership, Marin, CA
  • District Attorney's Victim Assistance Program, Eugene, OR
  • I Have a Dream Foundation, San Francisco, CA
  • Diablo Peace Center, Walnut Creek, CA
  • The Napa Peace Table, Napa, CA
  • Vista Youth Program, South San Francisco
  • Youth Enrichement Now, Richmond, CA
  • United Way
  • Head Start
  • Rape Crisis Centers
  • Shelters for Domestic Violence Victims
  • The Human Rights Coalition

Participant Comments About the Applicability of PNDC to Issues of Diversity & Cultural Competence

An innovative and practical process with unlimited potential. Ellison has developed a powerful method which will strengthen interpersonal relationships, increase organization effectiveness, and contribute greatly to building a more productive and harmonious society."

Diana Chesterfield, Corporate Diversity Affairs Manager, Nordstrom

Having the non-defensive tools is so important for us as an organization, as a county. All of us work in teams in various ways and team members have such a diversity of ideas as well as diversity of background and experience. You were so accurate when you talked about how we get into a war mentality, and then people think, "I have to win," and they get locked into power struggle, which can be like an addiction.

With regard to your keynote, in speaking to a large group of about 700 people, you used humor very effectively and engaged the audience immediately. You used yourself as a teaching tool and they could see you as human. You used imagery and painted a scenario which people could visualize. I found myself envisioning the people in your stories as you spoke and you linked the scenarios to the teaching points in a way that was moving. The beauty of your approach is that you showed us how to speak with clarity without being defensive or attacking. I have already used the skills you taught us.

Mohammed Abu Zayed, Ph.D., Speakers Committee, Chair, Multnomah County/City of Portland 9th Annual Diversity Conference: "Diversity: Tools, Action and Accountability

Sharon has the remarkable ability to convey her message about the power of non-defensive communication to absolutely any audience-regardless of their primary language, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, or educational experience.  When Sharon conducted a workshop for the mostly Latino immigrant parents and guardians of "I Have a Dream"- San Francisco, she presented the components of non-defensive communication, using PNDC role plays and personal examples to get her point across. 

As I translated the presentation into Spanish, I could see that our families were really enjoying and learning the PNDC process, and that Sharon's natural graciousness, humility and humor helped make the material accessible, helpful and relevant to their lives as busy, working, immigrant parents of rapidly americanizing adolescent youth.  They left smiling and equipped with realistic, practical new tools and strategies for talking and listening, setting boundaries, communicating their values and perspectives, and building strong, healthy, reciprocal and respectful relationships with their sons and daughters.

Abby Rovner, Project Director "I Have a Dream" Foundation - San Francisco

As Executive Director of the UCSF Center for Gender Equity, I invited Sharon to speak at a leadership conference for women of color students in the health sciences which was also attended by some of the university medical school deans. The conference was designed to increase the pool of women in career,
academic paths in the UC Health Science system with a particular emphasis on women from underrepresented backgrounds. As always, Sharon’s presentation was engaging, participatory and highly valuable. She was able to communicate effectively across lines of culture and received the highest ratings from the attendees. Comments included:

“I believe everyone would benefit from hearing Sharon’s message and practicing her techniques.” 

“As a woman of color, I thought this was outstanding. She brought me to tears!”

"Amazing information! Very powerful. The best and most practical workshop of the conference.” 

“I think this was the best talk I have been to in my entire medical career.”

 Amy Levine, Director, Gender Equity Center, University of California Medical School, San Francisco, CA

As a facilitator of what typically are challenging topics (sexual assault, date rape, stalking, relationship violence), I was paying close attention to your facilitation. I deeply appreciate your authenticity and continual sharing and self-observation of your own process and rhythms. I learned so much from watching your style and listening to you. Thank you for the energy, caring and sensitivity with which you facilitated - throughout the two days of the training you did for our UC Berkeley Staff Diversity Facilitator Network .

—Nancy Chu, Title IX Compliance Officer, U.C. Berkeley

The non-defensive communication techniques that Sharon Ellison teaches are truly an innovative contribution to the world. Lecturing in an Independent Living Program, an educational program for foster parents, foster youth, and social workers, she opened up the possibility for accurate and non-defensive communication to take place.  She related exceptionally well to all participants; gay foster parents, traditional foster parents, family care providers, grandparents, single parents, social workers, foster youth and probation youth. In turn, they responded exceptionally well to her as an individual and to the supportive environment she established. By directing participants through intrinsic challenges, scenarios and questions, the groundbreaking workshops left those that attended with a wealth of experience in communication.

—Jean Barry, Director, Foster Care Program, Merced College, Merced, CA

Ms. Ellison conducted has conducted workshops at San Francisco City College for administrators, faculty, counselors, clerical and custodial workers, and security staff. Each person became an active participant letting down his/her defenses, asking questions, doing role plays. Everyone learned how to communicate with each other, whether we were colleague, supervisor or subordinate. It built a sense of community throughout the college. I have never seen such a positive response from such a diverse group of people.

Jennifer Biehn, Dean of Student Services, City College of San Francisco

Sharon Ellison did a great presentation, as our keynote speaker for our recent conference for Parent Training and Information Centers in the western states.  Multiple layers of good communication skills are crucial for the staff of our Parent Training and information Centers, first, because they are parents of children with special needs, themselves, who must navigate the complex systems of services in order for their children to benefit. In addition, the parent center staff must model good communication techniques for the families and professionals they are working with.  Sharon’s strategies embedded in the Powerful Non-Defensive Communication presentation provide techniques the conference attendees can use to diffuse some potentially contentious or tense situations, allowing all parties to feel heard and respected.  Even though we only had Sharon for a limited time, we all left with practical nuggets.  We all wished we had the opportunity for the full series!”

—Nora Thompson, Executive Director Matrix Parent Network & resource Center

Sharon Ellison's workshops took the campus and community by storm. I can easily say that in my five years here no speaker we have had, even others with international reputations, has galvanized our community as effectively as she did. Women in the Association of Faculty and Administrators were excited by the presentations. One faculty member told me that learning these skills has revolutionized her interactions with her department head.

Women faculty and administrators at the Babcock School of Business and Management were so impressed with Sharon's knowledge that they have asked their dean to invite her back. A year after her visit, people are still actively discussing and practicing these non-defensive communication skills. I find Sharon Ellison's professional expertise and personal insight to be quite remarkable. She is truly a woman of courage and vision.

—Dr. Mary De Shazer, Coordinator of Women's Studies, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, NC

"Your presentation was wonderful! It touched a nerve for everyone. Your presentation was well received by the more knowledgeable group members, and by those who usually criticize and challenge speakers. It was one of the best presentations in the five years the Forum of Executive Women has been in existence."

—Jeanie Wilkens, Forum of Executive Women

Thank you for the wonderful two-day workshop you facilitated at UC Berkeley for the Staff Diversity Facilitator Network. Like you, deep down inside, I have felt for as long as I can remember that there must be a better way for human beings to relate to one another and to resolve their conflicts. I believe you have found the key. You touched my Spirit and I knew this was the right way for me. 

—Carmen C. McKines, Informal Discrimination Complaint Resolution Officer, U.C. Berkeley

Sharon is one of the very few “white” teachers whom I’ve seen succeed in attracting a significant number of “non-white” learners. Over and over again, I’ve seen her facilitate sensitive communications about difference in race, religion, class status, etc. and leave people feeling connected instead of alienated, and
enlightened instead of embattled.

—Emily Zimmerman, Instructor, Korean Studies, San Francisco State University, CA

People learn so much from stories instead of being lectured and Sharon gave such good examples; she showed the real emotions that people feel when misunderstandings happen and how they can fester inside of you, even for years!

During her keynote people learned that they can have an avenue to address misunderstandings and conflicts instead of having them eat away at their hearts and souls. Sharon got the audience excited about learning something different, and people don't always get excited about wanting to change! It was so clear that this can be used in every aspect of our lives without feeling threatened. Sharon made us laugh and moved us to tears. The audience wanted more.

Beverly Bolensky Dean, EEO Investigator, City of Portland, OR, Steering Committee & Speakers Committee, City/Country 9th Annual Diversity Conference: "Diversity: Tools, Accountability, and Action"

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"I have felt for as long as I can remember that there must be a better way for human beings to relate to one another and to resolve their conflicts. I believe you have found the key. You touched my Spirit . . ."

 —Carmen C. McKines, Informal Discrimination Complaint Resolution Officer, U.C. Berkeley






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