My Blog

My blog is meant to inform but its primary purpose is not to be informative. It is about the law but it is not solely about the law but also about those places the law does not go. The law is the platform from which I dive. My blog is about my opinions but is not primarily about my opinions since I often temper these to the subject matter on hand, not to mention the imagined audience. Quite often when I open a subject which is related to the law for discussion, I find myself in a place I never meant to be, or to go, as if the subject takes on a life of its own. I write articles based on what I do for a living, and I am a family lawyer, but of course that is not all I am. I find that when I engage with a subject, and use writing to express my thoughts, that quite often the journey is more interesting than the end and that what I thought I was writing about is not what I wrote about at all. This seems to me to be a metaphor for life. I write, therefore, to throw some light into the dark, to increase my understanding and by extension hopefully, other people’s understanding of what often seems incomprehensible, to enliven the dull so my spirit does not sag and to throw some humour at what is often deeply sad so that I can, or maybe, dare I say hopefully, “we”, can gain perspective. I doubt I succeed but the effort is honest.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Taking the War Out of Our Words by Sharon Strand Ellison: A Review.

We say that we won’t allow words to hurt us and yet they hurt us all the time. Sharon Strand Ellison in her book Taking the War out of our Words says “I was appalled by the amount of needless conflict and pain in people’s lives”. This was the motivation for her to write this book. In doing so she offers us a new way for people to talk to one another and she calls that Powerful Non-Defensive Communication (PNDC). The first one third of the book is devoted to an exploration of how we actually speak to one another. Her thesis is that we communicate on what she calls a War Model. She maintains that most if not all of our communication is on this footing and this is the explanation for all the conflict we have in our lives.
Sharon believes that we operate from a position of Defensiveness because we believe that we need to protect ourselves all the time even from our friends and family. Our defensiveness is our way of protecting ourselves. We believe that to be open is to show vulnerability and to show vulnerability is to be weak. Sharon identifies this as our War Model of Communication. She maintains that this mode of communication is virtually global. All our communication with few exceptions is modelled on War ie attack, defend, retreat, protect, counter attack and so forth. She proposes a new model namely PNDC. In proposing this she says that she believes that we have the capacity for phenomenal change as beings and in that regard she comments on our Technological Advancements. The question she then poses is do we have the wisdom to contain the destructive potential of our technology? She believes as the says in her introduction that learning to communicate non-defensively is our next evolutionary step, an essential key to our survival.
Her book is peppered with anecdotes and powerful examples of how we might change conversations that we frequently have. She identifies 3 forms of communication
1. Questions
2. Statements
3. Predictions.
Sharon says that our questions are very seldom asked from a position of genuine curiosity or openness. We usually ask questions to catch people out or as covert statements, to make a point indirectly or to attack? Seldom do we actually ask for the joy of learning the answer. We lawyers can identify with this given our training,which is to never ask a question to which we don’t know the answer. She suggests that we try asking questions about the topic under discussion, genuine open questions of enquiry, so that we can get the story straight. Questions should be innocent open and neutral and inviting. A non defensive question helps people to crystallize what they think, feel and believe. A genuine question is disarming. Enquiry or content questions which are questions asked to get the story straight, would usually start with Who What When, Where, How and Why. However, the questions need to be framed in a particular way to make them non defensive. We also need to enquire a particular tone and to ensure that our body language does not send a contrary message to our professed intention. Sharon suggests what she calls a musing tone and dropping your voice down slightly at the end rather than raising it which can sound querulous. Looking at the way of framing questions , if we ask “Why didn’t you do that”? it is likely to sound accusatory as opposed to “Why did you decide not to do that “? Of course the tone has to managed in asking this question too. Because tone and body language is very hard to convey in a book, I would recommend that those of you interested in this, should listen to the book in CD form as well as having the hard copy which is a very useful reference book for your library. To make a question sound clear, gentle and non-judgemental she suggests that we might use “what” instead of “why” depending on the circumstances and so “What made you decide not to do that”? Of course speaking like this and thinking about how you are going to ask things, adopting a particular tone and so forth takes enormous practice. There is a great deal of information and analysis of different types of questions and how to ask the questions to elicit genuine honest information and so respond accordingly. At the end of each section there are handy summaries which are very useful as references and also help to imprint the ideas and information into your mind.

The second broad category of questions are process questions ie looking behind the scenes. These focus on a person’s involuntary reactions which they may be having quite apart from the content of what they are saying eg tone of voice and body language. For example, Why did you grimace when you said “Ok”? Secondly there are questions about attitude. For example “Do you believe you know how to do this better than I do? There are also questions about motivation and intention ie what caused a person to react in a certain way or what the person is seeking to accomplish in the interaction.

As well as question, there are statements. Statements should be open and direct. A fully open statement is vulnerable and unguarded and has no hidden facets. Directness means that we state needs goals and desires directly. Statements should also be subjective. Expressing ourselves through non defensive statements is a very different way of living from concealing information as if we were holding back a trump card. With non defensive statements we gain power by providing as much information as possible. Formats for making non defensive statements are:
a. Describe in your own words the speaker’s conscious or over message. She criticizes the use of “I hear you saying...” She says that many people use this phrase as an automatic response to what someone else says, rather than first asking sincere questions. She believes that our feedback sounds much more natural when it uses phrases like:
What I think you are telling me is....
It sounds like you are saying
It seems to me you are saying
How I understand what you are telling me is
She says that when we initially begin our feedback format we should focus solely on the overt statement rather than address any covert or double message. When we react to covert messages we just respond to the covert message and often ignore the overt one.
b. Share covert messages – your perspective. This would include discrepancies between his words and non verbal communication and behaviour. When describing a person’s covert message we are better of with
I see
When I look at you
It seems to me
What I perceive
I notice that
c. Describe what you perceive as the cause or motivation for other person’s reactions ie your interpretation. Stating our interpretation of another person’s motives aloud can be difficult. Even when we do so meticulously and sincerely we are taking the risk of exposing our misunderstanding. However if we do not verbalise directly, we may do so covertly. We should present the interpretation respectfully. To do this we should speak only in terms of the specific issue at hand rather than making a generalized statement, avoid repeating yourself and if the other person does not want to hear, stop.
d. Describe your own reactions, thoughts, feelings, beliefs and behaviours. This should be done with integrity and passion. We need to stay focussed on ourselves because when we emotionally focus on the other person we usually become defensive and attack. The initial goal is clarity and not solution.

Predictions. The nature of this is protective and firm. They are foretelling and neutral. They create security through predictability, establish clear boundaries.
Third category. Using “if-then” construct which tell the person how you will respond to various choices he or she might make in a given situation (ie limit setting)
Using “if-then” to tell the person what consequences you believe he or she will experience in live as a consequence of certain choices (challenge- choice).
Using a variety of examples and situations she demonstrates how to use these formats. She acknowledges that the use of these skills may be time consuming and awkward at first but suggests that the time investment is much less than time spent in conflict.
Sharon says that the Non Defensive mindset is consistent focus on being more sincere and open. The most difficult part of the practice is to unlearn old habits. We have to recognize and understand our own reactions. She suggest that we should slow down and pace ourselves and remember that learning how to recommunicate may be a life long process “one that will result in less suffering and more clarity”.

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