Frequently Asked Questions

By Sharon Strand Ellison

  1. Do you think defensiveness is genetic?

  2. How do I ask a non-defensive question when I'm feeling angry or upset about what the other person has said?

  3. When you use PNDC does it always have a "happy ending"?

Note from the Question Asker: It seems in almost every case in the book, greater understanding of the other person has lead to some healing or "calmness," so every story has a happy ending. What can you say when someone has really screwed you over or admitted to using you for their own purposes?

Page numbers listed in the answers are from Taking the War Out of Our Words.

1. Do you think defensiveness is genetic?

I do believe that we have a strong automatic physical and psychological response to perceived danger. In fact, in my CD, PNDC Principles and Practices, I include new information about the physiology of defensiveness which demonstrates that it is clearly an instant response to danger that changes the chemestry in our body and shuts down our capacity for problem solving. Most of us recognize it as the "fight or flight" Adrenaline rush. At the same time, I believe, and have seen often in my work, that when we have tools for protecting ourselves and responding more effectively to conflict, our brain begins to trust that, and is less likely to push the adrenaline.

I think a number of factors have affected our defensiveness. I don't know which one(s) have the most influence, but I suspect most of them are relevant.

I think we have a long-standing "fight or flight" response to danger, which can cause defensiveness when we feel threatened in conversations just as when we feel a physical threat.

The War Model for communication is built, I believe, on a hierarchical concept of power, from the top down. Bernard Loomer talks about two kinds of power: "Unilateral Power" where one person controls another, and "Relational Power" where each person influences the other, resulting in "give and take." (Conclusion, pp. 264-269)

Historically, matriarchal societies have been more focused on relational power and patriarchal societies — such as we have had for centuries — have focused more on unilateral power. It makes sense to me that if any of us think another person is trying to get unilateral power over us, we might automatically resist by becoming defensive.

I believe defensiveness is an inherent part of power struggle, which, in turn, is central to any communication based upon a War Model. (The Making of Power Struggle, pp. 15-19)

I believe that, whether we try to control others and react defensively against their attempts to control us, or whether we simply express our own position with integrity and confidence, we have a conscious choice. (Chapter 12, The Non-Defensive Mind and Heart Set)

I think that we have been using the War Model for communicating for so many thousands of years that we have little idea how quickly our defensiveness might disappear if we were to begin to communicate non-defensively on a wide scale.


Becoming non-defensive requires practice and conscious application. It can be a difficult and long-term process. However, regardless of what causes our defensiveness, we can "unlearn" it and replace it with new skill sets for self-protection. I have watched people drop their defensiveness instantaneously when asked a single non-defensive question. One man commented that he felt the other person's defensiveness disappear so fast, it was as if the sun had just evaporated a cloud.

I have also seen people progress to the point that they no longer have an automatic defensive response to things that would previously "push their buttons." They report feeling more free, either in individual situations or in their lives as a whole, than ever before.

2. How do I ask a non-defensive question when I am feeling really angry or upset at what another person has said?

I can think of a number of answers to this question, but I will focus on three basic ones.

If you are too upset to ask a neutral, curious question, then go ahead and make a statement first in order to express some of your frustration. This is the simplest approach.

Example: "I am feeling really defensive when you say that because I think you are implying you know more about how to do this than I do, when, in fact, I have been doing it much longer than you have." Then, you can switch and ask the person, "Are you thinking you know how to do [this task] better than I do?" (p. 120, Questions about Attitude)

Usually, what we are angry about and reacting to is our own assumption about what the other person means, which is often not correct. As we ask more non-defensive questions, and discover how often we misinterpret others, we find it gets easier to not be so initially reactive before we find out more specifically what the other person means. Consequently, the problem of feeling too angry to ask a question doesn't occur as often.

Example: When asked, "Are you thinking you know how to do it better than I do?" the other person might sincerely respond, "Oh no! I was just trying to understand why you do it [this way] instead of [that way]." In this case, the person might simply have posed the question ineptly, and given the impression of thinking he/she knew a better way to perform the task at hand.

Because a non-defensive question asks the other person to affirm, qualify, or refute our interpretation of what he/she meant, that person will be held more accountable for the clarity of her/his meaning. Thus, as we practice asking non-defensive questions, we experience our own power more, which makes us even less inclined to revert quickly to an angry defense.

Example: The person mentioned in point one might have been arrogant about thinking he/she knew "a better way," but when asked directly, may say, "Oh, no, I wasn't thinking I knew more than you. I just wondered what your opinion was about doing it this way." Now, that person has shifted from what may have been an implied put-down, or inept question, to speaking respectfully and asking for your opinion. If, on the other hand, the person said, "Yes, I think my way of doing it is better," then you can deal with him/her directly about the issue, and clarify why you believe your method is more effective. In some cases, you might discover that someone with less experience has some insightful points.

3. When you use PNDC does it always have a "happy ending"?

Note from Question Asker: It seems in almost every case in the book, greater understanding of the other person has lead to some healing or "calmness," so every story has a happy ending. What can you say when someone has really screwed you over or admitted to using you for their own purposes?

I think people associate being non-defensive with being the kind of "nice" person who doesn't stand up for her or him self, and/or who doesn't always give firm, honest, even difficult feedback to others. However, I think that a "nice" person is actually using a passive defense mechanism based on the traditional "war model" of communication.

Using the non-defensive methods I teach, we can be very honest, even angry. If I came to the conclusion that someone was lying to me, or manipulating me, or being self-serving, I would use the four steps in the non-defensive position statement and compare what the person says to anything I'm aware of that contradicts what he/she is saying. Then I tell the person my conclusions about what the contradiction means, or their motives. Lastly, I express my own reactions, which include my feelings, beliefs, and reasoning and/or my own behavior.

So I might say, "When you say that you are always truthful with me and then I find out that you told me X, Y, and/or Z (you need specific examples here) then my conclusion is that you are not telling me the truth. Also, by denying your own dishonesty, you are actually lying again instead of being accountable and making any effort to change."

A key here is that I would not say "I know you are a liar." I always speak from a subjective position, but I can do it very strongly. I might say, "I feel absolutely confident that you have lied to me." This subtle change moves it from an accusatory judgment, to a strong statement about my own experience. When I give the other person feedback, I must also be neutral, or what I say will be accusatory in tone and cause defensiveness. While I'm speaking my truth as I experience it, and it is the other person's choice about how to hear or whether to be defensive, I want to do my part non-defensively so I'm not actively causing defensiveness.

I don't just say, "We are on different wavelengths." I say very clearly, "I believe your behavior is unethical for the reasons I've named, and I feel… angry, depressed, disappointed, unwilling to tolerate it." Here I express my emotions in depth. There is a fine line between expressing emotion in a accusatory/abusive way, and in a clear non-defensive way. To be non-defensive I must express what I feel after identifying the problem, but not with the goal of punishing the other person or trying to force her/him to see my point or to change.

In addition, I can set some clear boundaries with the other person, which are one of the three steps in non-defensive communication.

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