Taking the Defensiveness Out of Communication: An Interview with Sharon Strand Ellison

Mother and daughter sit in windowsill while holding mugs

Clear communication can be challenging to maintain in any relationship, yet it can be even more so when the stakes feel so high. This is the case for many co-parents as they share information related to raising their children across separate homes. If tension exists in the relationship, the act of sharing one's beliefs and feelings with the other person can often lead to conflict. However, the way co-parents communicate, and the delivery and tone that they use to share information can have a significant impact on how it is received.

Sharon Strand Ellison is the creator of the Powerful Non-Defensive Communication™ (PNDC) process, a model of communication that departs from traditional methods, which, as Sharon explains, are based on the "rules of war." Instead of becoming defensive and falling into conflict, the PNDC process creates a model through which participants can achieve their communication goals without inciting a power struggle.

The foundations for what would become the PNDC process were formed during Sharon’s childhood. She wondered why people’s communication incited violence, why people wouldn’t just say when someone else was making them feel bad. Through her career as a social worker in a juvenile court, she continued to have these thoughts. "There must be something more systemic," explains Sharon, "And somewhere, I just carried this whole idea that there was something wrong, there was so much needless misunderstanding, pain, and conflict in people's lives."

Interrogation vs. Curiosity

Words, body language, and facial expressions can all lead a person to become defensive, even if we did not intend to make them feel that way. For example, Sharon points out how when we ask questions, we often frown or raise our eyebrows. In doing so, we're sending messages we may not have intended to express to the other person, and already, we are affecting their response.

Looking up the word "question" in the dictionary lead Sharon to realize that not once was that word associated with "curiosity." Instead, it's defined with words like "doubt" and "mistrust." Through this research, she began to consider how questions are often used to interrogate rather than to satisfy curiosity.

In formulating the process, Sharon asked herself, "What would a question be like and how would it function if it made people want to open up? What would it be like if we could give feedback and people wanted to listen and felt respected? What would it be like if we could say our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs as our story instead of trying to convince people to agree and alienating them?"

The PNDC process invites you to change four simple aspects of communication: intention, voice tone, body language, and parts of phrasing. Keeping questions purely curious—as opposed to interrogative—is important in this model, as is maintaining a neutral tone and facial expression. Sharing beliefs and feedback in such a way that does not cause the other person to feel criticized or limited is also key to this communication model.

PNDC and Co-Parenting

Raising children with another person—married or not—isn't always easy. Clashing views and disagreements on the upbringing and well-being of the kids can create discord between parents and lead to conflict in various forms.

Sharon mentions one example of conflict in which parents are competing to get their child's approval. One parent may try to win their child's affection through allowing extensive freedom in their home, while the other parent may implement rules, like doing chores, in their home. In this situation, a child could become frustrated with the parent who isn't giving them what they want in terms of freedom, comparing the rules in each home and trying to argue in favor of one.

"Here, the conflict between the parents is getting passed through the child who starts getting angry at one of the parents," says Sharon. She explains how that parent will often defend or blame, saying "I don't care what your Dad does, this is how I do it," or, "Your Mom spoils you so that you'll like her better."

If focused on positive values, a parent's response to their child might be to explain their stance on why they implement rules, saying, "I expect you to do chores because I believe you'll be more competent and happier when you do your part." Taking this stance allows the parent to have a more positive influence on their child rather than engaging in a power struggle.

Using PNDC in Written Communication

Having worked with many divorcing parents and having experienced a difficult divorce herself, Sharon believes that the PNDC process can be used to improve co-parenting communication. Even if there is currently no face-to-face or verbal communication, parents can still utilize the PNDC process in written communication.

Sharon has helped many co-parents write letters to one another, and in doing so, she notes how blame and superiority often come into play as part of the power struggle happening between parents.

"As soon as you move into blame in writing as well as verbally, then the other person will become much more defensive," she says. So when using the PNDC process in writing, Sharon says that the same principles come into play as when speaking: ask questions from a curious place, describe what you're seeing and feeling without blame or judgment, and say how you will react depending on what choice is made by the other person.

Apart from traditional forms of written communication like letters or emails, the PNDC process can also be implemented when communicating through tools like OurFamilyWizard. "Ever since I heard about OurFamilyWizard, I feel like the attitude you have, the compassion, the care, and also the structure you've created is actually helping to eliminate the very thing that I'm talking about in terms of defensiveness," she says.

"The very structure of OurFamilyWizard is designed to create a safety and a process that actually, by its very nature, is eliminating a vast amount of the defensiveness that will go on for people when they're having to manage these kinds of things themselves," says Sharon. With tools that take opportunities for conflict out of requests and information exchanges, the risk of power struggles and defensive communication can be reduced.

Sharon Strand Ellison is the Founder and Executive Director of the Institute for Powerful Non-Defensive Communication™. She is the author of Taking the War Out of Our Words and co-author, with her daughter Ami Atkinson Combs, of Taking Power Struggle Out of Parenting, winner of a Benjamin Franklin Award. You can learn more about Sharon, Ami, and the PNDC process at PNDC.com