When I got my first career-path job after college, there was a lot I didn’t know about working in an office full of people who came from different backgrounds. I’d just moved to California and my New York communication style could come off as brash and blunt. I was often defensive and I unintentionally put people on the defensive.
To help me be more successful at my job, my manager sent me to a “non-defensive communication” class. I dreaded it, expecting a drawn out California kumbaya experience, filled with group hugs and teary confessions. Instead, I got an intensive skill-building class filled with specific techniques to help me better manage coworker relationships.
Non-defensive communication techniques have helped me collaborate more effectively in my career. I still have some rough edges, but I’ve been told they’re now more charming than alarming.
There’s more to non-defensive communication than these tricks, but these are ones that I still use over a decade later.
1. Be curious
Assumptions are the mother of misunderstandings. When a person feels misunderstood they can feel isolated, unimportant, or unappreciated. These feelings may cause them to act out, become hostile, or get ever more entrenched in their views.
To better understand what another person means or how they feel, you need to gather more information. Ask questions to check your assumptions and get clarification.
By asking questions, you can help the other person feel like you’re trying to understand their point of view. A really good question can even make someone stop and think, and even re-evaluate their position.
2. No excuses
Excuses go hand in hand with blame. People make excuses when they feel they have to defend or justify their behavior. Excuses pop up when people want to avoid blame by convincing someone else that they acted (or didn’t act) appropriately.
People manufacture excuses after the fact when they didn’t do what they said they were going to do. They’re defensive behavior.
Reasons are different. They’re real, rational facts that help people understand why something happened or didn’t. You make an excuse but you have a reason. Reasons are not about avoiding blame—they’re about preventing future mistakes. Work with others to skip excuses and blaming, and instead identify reasons when you need to increase understanding.
3. I’m not sorry
“Sorry” is a filler word that people use even when there’s nothing to apologize for. We’re sorry for everything, even when we’re not at fault. Sorry is often a stand in for what we really mean or a way to soften the blow.
As linguist Robin Lakoff explained, “Sorry is a ritualized form meaning something like, ‘I hope this is O.K. with you.’ It lets people—especially women—get away with saying what the other person doesn’t want to hear.” Being a woman, I’m careful about saying I’m sorry to people already biased to perceiving me as submissive or powerless.
That doesn’t mean that you should never apologize. I will still sometimes say I’m sorry when it can help improve a situation or de-escalate an argument, but only—now this is key—when I’ve actually made a mistake or want to express sympathy.
The class I took was based on Sharon Strand Ellison’s Taking the War Out of Our Words. In the book, Ellison describes many other techniques and in greater detail than I can do here. It’s a worthwhile read.
Have you tried out non-defensive communication techniques? Share your story in the comments.