PNDC Professional Stories with Comments & Tips:

When we remember the story, we recall the lesson …

…and so story has always been a profound vehicle for learning. I believe that a crucial way for people to begin to take in what it means to use Powerful Non-Defensive Communication is to read stories about how people have actually applied it in their own lives. I built my book around stories, even to the extent of putting in an index that lists every story in the entire book. Unless permission was given to use someone's real name, names have been changed to protect individual privacy.

Send us your own examples if you like and we'll consider publishing them, with an alias, unless you wish to have your own name on the story.

1. The Board Meeting: A Complaint that Diminished Board Members' Efforts

2. A Conflict Over Standards for a Software Development Project

3. Professor Deals with a Student's Repetitive Complaint of Inability to Learn

4. Potentially Unfair Project Job Assignment

1. The Board Meeting: A Complaint that Dimished Board Efforts

Marta belongs to an organization where a difficult decision was being made by the board after putting in great effort to gather opinions from the whole group. During a discussion between the board and the organization members, one member, Gregg, was asked what his needs were. He said, "I don't care, the board is going to do whatever wants to do anyway."

Marta said that after all the effort the board had put in, his comment shattered the atmosphere in the room. It seemed to Marta and others that Gregg was suggesting that the board had no intention of really considering people's opinions. At the moment, she couldn't think of what to say, but days later went up to Gregg, whom she perceived as often having a negative attitude. She asked, "Do you think that the board was not going to take people's opinions into account when they made their final decision?" Gregg looked startled, and said, "No, I just didn't have a strong opinion and thought that the board would make a good decision either way."

Marta said that while she still thought he had been negative and was to some extent denying it now, it felt very good to ask the question, and he backed off. She added, "It would have been so powerful if I could have asked that question at the moment he made his comment, while the whole group was there. Maybe next time." She indicated she was very glad she had followed up instead of just letting it go.

Comments & Tips

Gregg's Motivation: It's likely that Gregg was covering his tracks and had truly meant his comment as a vote of no-confidence. Or, perhaps to some extent, his tendency to have a negative attitude simply colored how he expressed his desire to not state an opinion. Either way, he took more accountability for how he answered. If he doesn't want to admit his motives, he'll probably back off. It's also likely that he'll be more careful the next time.

Following Up on an Interaction Later: What happened to Marta and others at the board meeting is common, and often has a very negative impact, resulting in resentments that can carry over time. Yet Marta changed the outcome with one question, days later. I suspect, next time, she will have stronger skills in the moment. I believe that going back to situations "after the fact" is one of the best ways to strengthen our skills. It's too hard to "think and act differently" when under pressure. By going back after thinking through how you'd like to handle something, you get practice, as Marta did. With one question, she turned the situation around, and next time, she'll be more likely to think on her feet.

2. A Conflict Over Standards for a Software Development Project

Background Information, as told by Janet: The software development team at one of our sites is comprised of a group of chemical engineers who have no formal training in software development. They have, however, successfully developed several systems that are currently used within their group. These systems were not developed using corporate development standards — i.e., user-friendly standard function keys, menus, screen layouts, report layouts, etc.

This team is now developing a system that will be used corporation wide. Their targeted users are accustomed to employing systems that conform to standards — i.e., they "look and feel" alike. I have been assigned to the team to ensure that corporate development standards are followed. I am not being well received.

Earlier Meeting, Defensive Diaglogue

Prior to my Powerful Non-Defensive Communication training, a typical review session with one of the developers, Jack, went something like this:

Me: After reviewing the screens you have developed, it appears that you did not follow standards. Why not?

Jack, guarded: We've never followed standards in the past and our systems work just fine. I don't have time to follow your standards now.

Me, irate: Sorry, but you're going to have to re-do these screens to make them meet standards.

Jack, raised voice: Your stupid standards are impacting my deadline! I'm not going to work overtime just to please you!

Me, raised voice: You will change these screens! I'll be talking with your supervisor tomorrow morning!

At that point, the discussion was over and both of us would leave mad. Looking back at that conversation, I now realize that nothing was accomplished and we only made things worse.

Next Meeting, Non-Defensive Dialogue

Janet said "After taking the Powerful, Non-Defensive Communication workshop, I went back to a review with one of the engineers. The discussion went like this:

Me, calm: I have reviewed your screens and noticed that there the changes we discussed to conform to standards haven't been made yet.

Jack, irate: I told you that I didn't have time to do it! The program is fine as it is!

Me, calm: Do you believe that it would be easier or harder for a user if the new system had the "look and feel" of their other systems they are used to, or that it doesn't make a difference?

Jack, seeming confused: Well, I guess it would be easier.

Me, calm: Did you know that these standards were developed by a team of folks that have talked to the users about what is easiest for them to use?

Jack, still looking confused: No, I didn't know that.

Me, calm: Did you know that the users have been having trouble with this program?

Jack, sighing: Yeah, I guess I did. I just thought they should get their act together.

Me, calm: Do you think it takes more time in the long run to develop something using standards than it does to develop something without standards?

Jack, calmer: Probably not.

Jack, grudging laugh: Yeah, OK, OK. You're making more sense this time. I'll have these changes ready in a couple of days.

Me, Relieved: Great. Thanks.

Janet's Concluding Comments

These tools really work! I do have to admit that the first time he started raising his voice, I took a deep breath and concentrated on keeping my voice calm and without emotion so I could ask the questions non-defensively. Of course I wanted to get a little defensive when he implied that he was going to comply because I was making more sense than before! But I was in a way. I was saying it without pushing his buttons. It was hard, but I did it and it worked!

I can't believe the difference the tools you gave us made. We actually carried on a civilized conversation. There were no raised voices, and I believe he actually saw the importance in using standards. The next time I saw him, he had done a great job on making the changes. I complimented him and he said, "Well, my blood pressure went down a little during that last meeting. I know I can be a hard ass sometimes." Amazing.

Comments & Tips

Who Is Causing the Problem? Blame is a Two-Way Street: As a rule, people initially see the problem as being created by the other person, so if the situation changes, they think it was because the other person started behaving better. I suspect in this case, the engineer did not see his own part in creating the problem. Likewise, Janet had blamed him for the problem, until she realized how her own reactions were also pushing him to get more defensive. When Janet changed her behavior, without any expectation that he would also, she was surprised at how much he shifted. He even owned that he could be difficult.

3. Professor Deals with Repetitive Student Complaint of Being Unable to Learn

Mac, a professor, told the following story: Every time I presented new material in my logic class, a returning student, Samantha, would complain to me that just when she had begun to understand the previous material, we'd move on to something new. I used to jump into what I now call "cheerleader mode" [convincing] and tell her that she could in fact understand the material. She would get more emotional, and blame other students in the class, her job, and her children for her inability to understand logic. Eventually, she would leave with a bit more understanding but also, it seemed to me, emotionally drained.

Today, she again let me know that just when she was beginning to understand something, we had moved on. I could see her emotions building up. I said calmly, "I think that you learn in cycles. You start off not understanding something, but gradually you take it in, until you understand it all. I think that's what's happening now. You've likened yourself to a light bulb that is on sometimes and sometimes off. I think that's right, and I also think that you're like a fluorescent light, and you just need to flicker for a while until you're warmed up." As I said this to her, I could see her frustration melting. When I was done, she said with a confident smile,"'Yeah, I think that's right.'That is what I do. I'm just flickering now, but next week I'll be on!" She left after that in much better spirits than usual.

Comments & Tips

The Danger of Reassurance: Often when we reassure others, we are actually trying to encourage them by convincing them to think differently. Whenever we try to convince others that they are "wrong-headed" in their thinking, even when we are trying to empower them, we increase the odds that they will resist and stay locked into defeat. By expressing our own viewpoint without trying to get the other person to change, he or she is much more likely to be able to hear what we say and feel genuinely encouraged.

Mac's New Response: This time, instead of doing what he usually did and trying to convince Samantha that she was able to learn the material, he just gave her feedback in a neutral tone about how he saw her pattern of learning. By giving her information without trying to convince her, she was able to hear him better and recognize her own pattern. In that moment she gained more confidence.

4. Job Assignment: Potentially Unfair Division of Labor

Mark's Introductory Remarks

I felt quite defensive during this interaction, but instead of reacting in my normally defensive manner, I applied some of the non-defensive communications techniques we learned in the workshop. I am very pleased to say the techniques worked, and that a situation that almost certainly would have resulted in bad feelings turned out well for all concerned. I'm convinced there was a definite turning point in the conversation when I took on the non-defensive posture.

Background Information

The interaction involved a meeting between my boss (James), my co-worker (John) and myself (Mark). The objective of the meeting was ostensibly to review John's task load and see what, if anything, he could off-load from project A, so that he could spend more time on project Z, which had higher priority. I am the project manager of project Z. The reason that I was to attend this meeting, I was told, was not only because I managed the project in which John wished to get more involved, but also because I worked with John on his other main project, project A. We worked quite well together on project A.

John, my co-worker, had originally wanted to manage project Z. On a few occasions John has "joked" about how he should have been the manager because he is more proficient in certain technical skills that I have to go hunting for when I need certain things done. In fact, John has spent almost no time getting up to speed on the new tools we need for project Z and at this point does not have the technical skills that I now need to determine what approach we should take.

My not-too-kind suspicion is that, because project Z is not his, John did not want to contribute to its success for fear it would end up making me look good. I have since located other willing and capable resources who can give me the technical expertise I need for programming these tools. This fact has not escaped John, who, it seems, has suddenly realized these tools are the future, and if he wants to be a part of that future, he needs to get up to speed — fast.

Non-Defensive Response

So now we're at the meeting I mentioned earlier. John has listed on the whiteboard all of his current projects and is lamenting the fact that he has not had time to get up to speed on the tools we are using in project Z. He says that he wants to be heavily involved in the project as a key technical resource. In order to do that, he wants to give up project A. He says he's done the past three major parts of project A, which have consumed his time for five straight weeks. He's paid his dues. He doesn't want to do the next two builds because they use old tools and the new stuff will be on project Z.

James, who became our manager only five months ago and who is at this location only six days a month, turns to me and says, "Well, Mark, John is right. He's paid his dues. Maybe you should do the next two builds." At this juncture I nearly said, "Now wait just a @#$%^&* minute! I've put in as much time coordinating each phase of project A as he has doing the builds!"

But I didn't. Instead, I paused, took a deep breath, leaned back in my chair, tried to look very earnest (instead of very pissed, which is how I was feeling), and said, "So, do you both believe that John has had an unfair share of the project A burden?" I tried to drop the intonation at the end of the question, but truthfully, without a tape recorder, I can't be sure how well I did. In any case, they both scrambled to say that, "No, of course we realize you've shouldered your share of it, and have done a good job of it, too, and yes, we know that the coordination end of it can be equally time-consuming."

So! With one well-placed non-defensive question, I got them to say what I wanted to shout at them. From that point on, we focused on how we could share various aspects of project A without either of us totally off-loading it on the other. It turned out to be a quite constructive meeting.

Comments & Tips

One: Mark used a type of non-defensive question that falls in the category of asking the other person a question designed to draw out the assumption behind what he is saying. In this case, when James, the manager said, "I think John has paid his dues and maybe you should do the next two builds," Mark believed he was implying (erroneously) that John had done more work on project A than he had, so John should take over the rest of it.

Mark asked what I consider to be a fine non-defensive question abaout his assumption. The only change I'd make to to take out the "so" because it can sound leading:

"So, do you both believe that John has had an unfair share of the project A burden?"

The question then becomes:

"Do you both believe that John has born an unfair share of the project A burden?"

Two: Although Mark's internal feelings were still defensive, he was able to take a deep breath (always helpful) and ask a non-defensive question in a calm tone.

Three: If, by any chance, Mark is unaware of information that would confirm John had done more than his share on project A, his (Mark's) question would allow Mark to find this out.

Four: If the other person does not want to admit to holding a questionable or incorrect opinion, he or she will back off. This is what happened in this case. James and John knew that John had not actually done more than his share, so while they were willing to imply it, or even saying it initially, when asked directly to confirm it, they backed off right away.

Five: If Mark had argued back angrily, as he had an initial urge to do, he would most likely have prompted a defensive reaction in James and John; he may well have ended up with the unfair job assignment. Even if he had managed to avoid the assignment, residual hard feelings could have affected John's and Mark's ability to work together on both projects.

Six: If Mark had not questioned the proposed change in job assignments, the change would have been enacted.

Seven: Mark's saying he was able to "get" James and John to say what he wanted to scream at them violates the intent of a non-defensive question. While such questions are often disarming and cause others to respond non-defensively, they must function as an invitation to the other person to provide information, not as a way to manipulate or get someone to do what we want.

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Powerful Non-Defensive Communication is a trademarked name. © 1994-2017 Sharon Strand Ellison

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"I can't believe the difference the tools you gave us made. We actually carried on a civilized conversation. There were no raised voices, and I believe Jack actually saw the importance in using the standards. The next time I saw him, he had done a great job on making the changes."

—Corporate Quality Assurance Manager





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