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Sept. 8, 2010
Sharon Ellison, the founder of Powerful Non-Defensive Communication, explains how professionals use techniques from war to defend themselves.

You’re sitting down to audit your charts, and a colleague looks over your shoulder and asks, “Do you always start with the radiographs?”

You laugh. But inside, your mind thinks: “Who does he think he is, Mr. Organized? What’s wrong with starting with the radiographs? Jerk. He’s always so critical.”

Freeze the frame.

If something as minor as a question about chart auditing can provoke such feelings of defensiveness, imagine what can happen with emotional issues, boundary issues, or ethical issues at work.

What happens, says Sharon Ellison, is essentially war.

Ellison, founder of Powerful Non-Defensive Communication, teaches that the way we communicate with each other uses the same principles and tactics we would use in physical combat, based on the belief that we must protect ourselves by being defensive. As soon as we feel any threat, either of not getting what we want, of being harmed, or put down in some way, we choose from among the three basic defensive war maneuvers: surrender, withdrawal, or counterattack.

“It’s a sad commentary on our use of human imagination,” Ellison says, “to realize that for centuries we have essentially used a war model as the foundation upon which we have built our entire system for spoken and written communication.”

The myth, continues Ellison, is that defensiveness will protect us, that to be open is to be vulnerable and weak. On the contrary, it is being defensive that weakens us. Consider this: When you are defensive, do you feel safe? Competent? Confident? Do you learn well? Power struggles are unnecessary; destructive conflicts are the more likely outcome.

Ellison, who estimates that we use 95% of our communications energy being defensive, describes the six most common defensive reactions as:

Surrender-Betray. We give in but defend the person’s mistreatment of us, taking the blame ourselves.

Surrender-Sabotage. We cooperate outwardly but undermine the person in some way. Passive-aggressive behavior falls into this category.

Withdrawal-Escape. We avoid talking to someone by not answering, leaving the room or changing the subject.

Withdrawal-Entrap. We refuse to give information as a way to trap the other person into doing something inappropriate or making a mistake.

Counterattack-Justify. We let someone know she is wrong to be upset with us, explaining our own behavior and making excuses.

Counterattack-Blame. We attack or judge the other to defend ourselves.

Changing how we communicate as individuals — learning that we can protect ourselves and have greater influence without using a war-based language — will not only shift our own personal and professional lives, but can ultimately lead toward a more peaceful world.

Kristine A. Hodsdon RDH, BS
Director, RDH eVillage
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