Sharon Strand Ellison’s, Taking the War Out of Our Words: The Art of Powerful Non-Defensive Communication gives new meaning to the old adage “you catch more bees with honey than with vinegar”. Ellison describes communication in the United States of America as combative. Our everyday conversations have turned into power struggles resulting in defensive reactions. 

The good news is we can shift this! Ellison offers three conversation tools to diminish the power struggle: questions, statements, and predictions. In Non-Defensive Communications Part 1 and Non-Defensive Communication Part 2, I discussed the value of asking and forming non-defensive questions to unlock information, disarm defensiveness, and interrupt the power struggle, while increasing self-awareness and changing attitudes and behaviors. 

Now I turn to ‘the statement’. Sharon Strand Ellison explains how stating our reactions to what another person is saying in a neutral, sincere, honest way, eliminates defensiveness, achieves clarity and fosters progress. Speaking truthfully and openly, without fear and without hiding, can strengthen communication and elicit a positive response. Conversely, when we are guarded and hide information, our ability to resolve problems and work creatively with each other is impeded. The goal, be vulnerable and direct at the same time. It increases effectiveness. 

Easier said than done. Why? Because our natural tendency is to make statements we deem powerful. You’ve heard them, and probably made them yourself, statements removing any doubt and concessions. In other words, statements that avoid vulnerability, which tends to keep us in conflict rather than help resolve it. 

Consider Pat and Chris. Pat is Chris’s supervisor. They have worked together for a little over a year. Pat asked Chris to complete a report by the end of the week. Funding for a large department project relied on the report. A payroll system error came up during the week, which Chris spent the week fixing. Chris felt badly that he didn’t complete the report as Pat requested and in hindsight wonders if that was the right decision. 

Following are two examples of how a conversation between Pat and Chris might go.

Example 1:

Pat: The assignment was due today, why haven’t you completed it? 

Chris: I didn’t have time; I have been working on the payroll system problem that needed to be fixed right away. 

Pat (getting red and pounding on the desk): You never meet your deadlines! You don’t know how to multitask; you need to get your act together or you are not going to make it here. 

Example 2:

Pat: The assignment was due today, why haven’t you completed it? 

Chris: I didn’t have time; I have been working on the payroll system problem that needed to be fixed right away. 

Pat (grinning): Everybody has an excuse. Some people just don’t know how to complete work on time. 

In the above examples, the first is aggressive and the second is passive aggressive. Neither provide corrective feedback in an appropriate way, which would include letting Chris know the consequences of not getting the work done on time and ways to deal with similar problems in the future. Here is a third example:

Pat: The assignment is due today, is it complete? 

Chris: I didn’t have time to complete it; I have been working on the payroll system problem that needed to be fixed right away. 

Pat (with a serious face): I understand the payroll problem had to be fixed and I was counting on you to finish the report I asked you to complete by today. Not having the report ready means we will not secure funding for project xyz. We can’t let this happen again. Next time you find that you won’t be able to meet a critical deadline because of another high priority competing project, let me know right away so we can discuss it, work out the priorities, or get someone else to help get both projects done.

Here, Pat assertively, kindly, and directly addressed the issue with Chris. The feedback is straightforward and clear. 

Following are four different formats for making non-defensive statements, the pitfalls of each, and tips to use them effectively. The four formats can be used alone or in any combination thereof.  

  1. Reporting what you “hear” the other person consciously saying. It is important to recognize this only addresses the overt message. It is not an opportunity to share our perception or interpretation of the message given tone, body language, etc. You are simply paraphrasing what you hear someone saying to convey your understanding of the overt message. 
    1. Pitfall: Parroting back what was said. This can be problematic because parroting back may sound insincere, which leads the other person to believe they have not been heard.  
    2. Tip: Make a clear statement of your own assumption of what the person means – then let them confirm, deny, or make it more accurate.
    3. Example: 
      1. Pat: You spent the week fixing the payroll system and did not have time to complete the report. 
  2. Making observations about anything you “see” in the person’s overt or covert message that contradicts what you heard them say – conveys our perception of any covert message (aka reading between the lines). Make detailed observations of what you hear and see rather than general statements such as you look upset.
    1. Pitfall: Using the word ‘but’. When you use the word ‘but’, you negate anything positive you said prior. 
    2. Tip: Instead, use ‘and’ or use two distinct statements. 
    3. Example
      1. Pat: It sounds like you are saying you felt fixing the payroll system took precedence over completing the report. I noticed that you looked away when you said that.  
  3. Describing your experience (thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and behavior to the other person). Offering what you believe to be the cause or motivation that underlies the person’s statement or what makes it contradictory. Describes any additional meaning we attach to the message such as underlying cause or motive.
  1. Pitfall: This is difficult because it is not something most of us have learned to do effectively. It often comes across as judgmental. 
  2. Tip: Use the facts (past incidents, behaviors, observations, etc.), state your conclusion, and don’t repeat yourself. If the other person does not want to hear your observation, stop. Perhaps seek permission before sharing it. 
  3. Example: 
    1. Pat: You knew we needed to complete the report to get funding for project xyz. I believe you were truly conflicted about these competing priorities and are now second guessing how you handled the situation. 

The three formulas above allow us to interpret the situation, examine our assumptions, and provide insights. The fourth and final formula allows us to express our own reactions. 

  1. Describe our own personal beliefs (values), feelings (emotions), thoughts (reasoning), and action (behaviors) related to the issue at hand. The goal is to gain clarity then seek to find solutions.
    1. Pitfalls: Trying to persuade the other person to do, or not do, something, becoming defensive and attacking the other person, and expecting solutions.
    2. Tip: Be sincere, focus on your own feelings, strive to seek greater clarity (which may make it easier to later come up with satisfying solutions).
    3. Example: 
      1. Pat: I understand it is difficult when there are competing priorities and yet, I wish you had come and talked with me so we could have found a solution to fix the payroll error and complete the report meeting everyone’s needs and interests. I am grateful the payroll error is fixed and am disappointed that the report was not completed. I am also sad and confused about why you didn’t come to me to discuss the dilemma when the conflict presented itself. I would like to understand what prevented you from coming to me and discuss how to avoid these situations in the future. 

Abbreviated statements also work well because they are succinct and feel more natural. For example: in one or two sentences we can describe the overt message, the covert message, how we perceive the meaning of a contradiction (or their motive) and our reaction to what the person is saying. 

When you say…

And I see …

Then I think…

And I react…

Example: 

Pat: Chris, when you say you didn’t complete the report I asked you to complete and I see that you spent the majority of the week fixing a payroll system problem, then I think you didn’t care enough to come and talk to me about the situation and I become frustrated.

Elements of Non-Defensive Statement. 

Characteristics: vulnerable, direct, subjective, and descriptive.

Purpose: clear the air.

Tone: Aim for a neutral tone that does not attribute emotion to the observation.

Effect: states a position, disarms, separates, holds accountable, and clarifies. 

Result: While this may not produce immediate results, it ultimately results in personal growth.

Non-defensive statements are important because they reflect our conscious awareness of the implications and effects of someone else’s behavior, both negative and positive. They allow us to give and receive information about how others affect our lives and how we affect their lives. When we don’t do this, the health of our relationships deteriorate. Using non-defensive statements disrupts the power struggle keeping the information flowing more freely and sustaining healthy relationships and communities. 

By: Elizabeth Hill, Associate Director, University of Colorado Boulder Ombuds Office