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. You may also watch my March 30, 2020, Ombuds Office Lunch and Learn recording Non-Defensive Communication: What’s in a question?

In Non-Defensive Communications (Part 3): The Statement, I discussed how stating our reactions to what another person is saying in a neutral, sincere, honest way, eliminates defensiveness, achieves clarity, and fosters progress. 

Now I turn to what Sharon dubs “The Prediction”. The purpose of a prediction is to provide clear information about how we will respond to various choices the other person can make. Predictions should not be manipulative or attempt to coerce others to comply with what we want. They must be secure, predictable, and stable. When we offer a neutral and clearly defined prediction, we meet our needs and keep ourselves out of the power struggle. Let’s look at the scenario I used in Non-Defensive Communications Part 3:

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.

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.

Pat (Prediction): Competing priorities and deadlines will inevitably happen again. When it does, let me know and we can figure it out together. If you don’t let me know, and we miss a deadline, I will need to take disciplinary action.

Things to consider before making a prediction:

  • Am I willing to make a clear prediction about how I will react to various choices a person might make?
  • Will I accept whatever choice the other person makes?
  • Is my prediction protective? You will offer accurate information so the other person can make an informed choice regarding the probable consequences of choosing one option over another. 
  • Is my prediction foretelling? The prediction is based on probability.
  • Is my prediction neutral? You are not invested in influencing how the other person chooses to respond. 
  • Is my prediction definitive? You provide precise information about how you will react to a particular choice the other person might make.
  • Is my prediction absolute? The prediction is non-negotiable. 
  • Is my prediction double-sided? A prediction has at least two alternatives. While the second alternative is usually present by implication, verbalizing both sides often result in more favorable responses.

There are two kinds of predictions: limit-setting and challenge-choice. Limit-setting creates boundaries. We predict how we will respond to various choices the other person might make. For example: “If you bring your laundry downstairs by noon, I will do it for you. If you do not bring it down by noon, you will have to do it yourself.”

There are three considerations when making limit-setting predictions:

  1. Evaluate the needs and core issues you want to address.
  2. Discern how to create a specific prediction.
  3. Be prepared to follow through. You must be certain you can live with the consequences.  

A challenge-choice prediction is when we predict for someone what kind of consequences we believe will result in the person’s life if certain choices are made. For example: “I believe that if you keep interrupting your employees during team meetings, they are likely to feel disrespected, not want to participate, and less likely to listen to you. If you start listening without interrupting, I think they will feel respected, want to contribute more, and be more willing to hear what you have to say.”

There are two vital points:

  1. Avoid repeating a challenge-choice prediction as it becomes badgering.
  2. Offer the prediction in the form of a subjective statement rather than an objective fact, For instance, “I believe,” or “I think” before offering the “if…then”.

When used effectively, non-defensive communication allows each person to maintain the clarity of their own position instead of getting caught in power struggle, each person is likely to respond with openness and sincerity, each person is accountable for what they say and do and each person has the opportunity for personal growth.

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