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Collective Awareness: A Non-defended Stance

by Donna Fyffe, Ed. S

Our world is very complex, ambiguous, and vulnerable, and it is undergoing major transitions on multiple levels. Humanity is shifting to greater consciousness unleashing creativity and a deeper care for Earth, our common home.  At the same time, this massive shift is generating insecurity and fear that is polarizing our countries, communities, and families.  This reality calls us to embrace a life stance of being a non-defended and non-violent person. It invites each of us to do deep transformative soul work in order to live out the fullness of our humanity and our oneness with the God of Love.

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The following reflection will outline how humans respond to unsettling changes and social challenges.  It outlines characteristics of a defended person seeking to preserve his/her own identity and well-being, and it offers a counter-cultural approach of embracing a non-defended stance to life.

Human Responses to Social Challenges

Chris Argyris, longtime Harvard University social and organization psychologist, studied organizations around the world.  He wondered, how is it that incredibly intelligent people with significant resources failed miserably when they needed to work well together.  He observed that often well-intended people have trouble in attaining the good outcomes they seek. They experience conflict between themselves, and perceive factions within their communities.  He came to believe that we humans have certain characteristic responses when we feel our goals are endangered, we experience conflict, and fear embarrassment or outright failure. 


Argyris identified four motivations or guiding values that he observed influencing most human interactions.  Following these motivations or guiding values often causes us to relate in ways that ultimately lead to failure, disempowerment, and an inability to collaborate well.


These motivations or guiding values are:

  • Seek to win or assure the outcome one wants

  • Control or unilaterally influence the situation (take charge, direct, fix or change another)

  • Attempt to hide our doubts and fears lest others lose confidence in our plan or in them (not to let others see my frustration or anger lest they over-react)

  • Appear rational and reasonable throughout


Pause and consider:

  1.  Are there situations where these motivations are strong in you? 

  2.  Focus on a recent situation and ask yourself which value dominated?

  • What was the situation?

  • What was triggered in you?

  • How did you engage/react in the situation?

  • What was the outcome?

  • What do you wish would have happened?


Argyris described two patterns or ways in which these motivations tend to show up in our relationships. He speaks of these patterns as a defended stance because they attempt to defend or protect outcomes or relationships that we care about. The intention is not necessarily bad or selfish, but the problem is they are unilateral or solo choices.  Meaning in reality - I or my group decides and then we work to assure the outcome.

Pattern One: The Dominant Model or Strong Defended Stance

This dominant or strong unilateral stance may reveal itself along a continuum from being dictatorial to persistently being helpful.  It can be authoritarian: Do it my way.  I make the decisions here. It’s my way or the highway. But it can also be benign, like a persistent friend who won’t take no for an answer.  It can hide beneath good intentions and gentleness that nonetheless has decided what the outcome will or should be and will not allow another outcome. 

Characteristics of the Dominant or Strong Defended Stance

  • Seeks to define and direct others towards one’s preferred outcomes

  • Works to change others to create one’s preferred outcomes

  • Doesn’t want to reveal doubt or uncertainty about the goal or one’s leadership

  • Often uses reasonable explanations or names a worst-case scenario to justify one’s position and/or goal

Pattern Two: Nice Defended Stance

Argyris further identified characteristics of people who project a persona of cooperation, inclusion, and collaboration, who may not be at all dominant, but who nonetheless act out of unilateral goals or intentions.  He calls this the nice defended stance.

Characteristics of the Nice Defended Stance

The nice defended person 

  • Seeks to avoid offending others

  • Wants others to feel included or considered

  • Emphasizes the language of feelings and values

  • Does not want to be perceived as hierarchical or powerful


In themselves, these desires are all good, but problems arise when they are applied to situations where there are differences or limiting circumstances so that not everyone can get what they want.  When we live together, we must resolve situations that can’t always be win-win.  The problem arising from the nice defended stance is it can lead us to avoid directly engaging and lead us to secretly work toward our unilateral or individual goals.


Some common comments that a nice-defended behavior is operative are, "I know how she feels so let’s not go there."  "They aren’t ready to talk about that, so we’ll avoid that conversation."  "We don’t want to upset the group." 


At times, fear of naming the difference but wanting to influence the other and/or the outcome can cause the nice defended person to attempt to lead the other with questions.  This behavior stems from an assumption that if I asked the right question, surely, the other person would see what needs to be changed.  Part of the question asking is often an implicit denial that I want the other to change.  More often, a common response made by a nice defended person is silence.  They do so because it avoids letting the other person know what they think or feel. It can seem like the safest course though it dooms the other to guessing what and where they really are. Such questioning and silence shut down conversations and cause mistrust and defenses to escalate within a group or community.

Non-defended Learning Stance

A counter-cultural approach to being dominant or a nice defended person is a non-defended learning stance. The non-defended learning stance helps us see that the reality we are in is about the “we”.  I need you, the congregation, and/or the organization.  I need your knowledge, insight, and wisdom. 


Non-defended learners practice transparency when sharing assumptions, revealing their thoughts and/or position. Being non-defended leads one to be genuinely curious about other’s opinions and assumptions.  It values exposing one’s own thinking to the review of others even to the point of finding out that one’s view might be wrong.  A non-defended person holds themself and others with compassion, and highly values shared learning and freedom of choice.


This can feel like a very vulnerable place to be, but in fact, it makes higher degrees of shared and individual safety possible.


The practice of being non-defended makes it safe to look at different viewpoints.  It invites people with diverse opinions to articulate them, and in so doing come to know one another more truly as we are, and our situation more accurately as it is. 


A non-defended life stance helps people share their assumptions with one another, and together to notice and uncover shared beliefs and assumptions.  This life stance of being non-defended and transparent creates the ground for others to feel safe to share their insights, assumptions and/or concerns.


A non-defended conversation might start like the following:

  • I know we are short of cash and the economy is in a downward spiral; however, I believe we need an infusion of cash in this ministry…can we explore these assumptions together?

  • Last week when we discussed this issue, I couldn’t listen or focus with an open mind. Would you be willing to revisit that conversation?

  • Could you help me understand your thinking?  I’m not yet seeing your perspective and I don’t want to miss your insights around this issue?


Practicing the non-defended learning stance, a person:

  • Reveals where they are starting from regarding an issue or situation

  • Shares assumptions and checks them out respectfully

  • Works to make meaning with the other person

  • Strives to be curious

  • Trusts the other person’s capacity to take care of themselves

  • Works toward a collectively free and wise decision, whether they personally agree or not with the decision.

Learning Experience

Take time to watch the movie Invictus that features the life of Nelson Mandela who is a prime example of a non-defended leader. In the film, Mandela shows us in many diverse situations what a non-defended stance looks like.  Throughout the movie different characters: political leaders, bodyguards, parents, and staff illustrate what we are like when we are defended.  You also will see how transformation takes place through the modeling and conviction of a leader. 


If time is limited, another option is to watch a video clip of the movie from YouTube.


Steps for Creating a Non-defended Conversation

Steven Wirth, Executive Director, of the Centre for Contemplative Dialogue, developed the following steps for assisting those who want to engage in non-defended conversations. He notes that recognizing the need for a non-defended learning conversation, and then preparing for it may feel confusing and artificial at first; however, practicing the following steps consistently over time will strengthen one’s capacity to engage non-defensively. 


1.  Noticing defended situations and energy

The first step is to recognize situations in which defended behaviors or energies are affecting us. You may recognize that a situation or interaction is uncomfortable. The way in which something is happening may make them hesitant to speak, or even fearful about talking with the person involved in the situation.  This strong or even subtle hesitancy is usually a clue to an encounter with a nice defended person. 


Alternately, in an encounter with another person, you may notice a desire to correct or straighten the other person out. These felt clues may occur from emotions that range from any angry response to an intent to protect the right outcome, all the way to a benign desire to help.  Noticing this energy within us can be a clue that strong defended energy is at work.  Noticing these energies or temptations in both oneself and others is a vital first step.


2.  Taking a long compassionate look

The next step is to notice your feelings about a particular situation in a compassionate and unhurried way. Unhurried here does not have to mean taking the day off and go strolling in the garden.  In practice, it may simply mean that one draws a deep breath before responding. The sense of being unhurried is vital.  If one’s inner sense of urgency gets going, one will be unable to notice contemplatively what is happening in the moment.


Noticing in the moment may simply be observing something nonjudgmentally.  For example, when coming to the end of a meeting and an issue arises that needs thoughtful conversation, you can say, “Joan, I’m aware that the issue you’ve just raised is both important and complex, however, we only have nine minutes left in the meeting which doesn’t seem like an adequate amount of time to give justice to the conversation.  Can we place it at the top of our next agenda?”  


This type of mindfulness enables us to observe without judgment and to share honestly what we are thinking and/or feeling.  Being nonjudgmental and non-defended allows us to be open and compassionate with one another.  Choosing to look without being biased by one’s own hoped-for or fear based outcomes may allow us to see more of what is happening.  Recognizing our own assumptions about the situation, our role and the roles of others in it may help us to better recognize what is happening.


3.  Holding all parties nonviolently

Taking time intentionally to hold each person nonviolently can feel like a challenging step.  Sometimes we imagine this means we can’t be angry at another’s behavior and choices.  In fact, it doesn’t.  Honoring and acknowledging the anger we feel, is sometimes a part of holding ourselves nonviolently.  What nonviolence means is that we cannot allow our words and choices to be blindly driven by our anger.


Pausing to look nonviolently may require you to take time to look at your strong emotion, listen to its message, and step back enough from it to respond freely. This free, nonviolent response must consider what in this situation is the common good.  Common good here may not refer specifically to an outcome but may point to the way in which we engage one another. We may be a long way from solving a problem, yet how we engage one another may make a difference in the outcome. 


4.  Preparing to engage non-defensively

Taking time to reflect on what you do or don’t know about a situation, about the people involved, and what your assumptions are regarding the situation is a way to prepare to engage another.


Focusing on the good of the relationship and/or the community is a way to approach the conversation from a learning stance. This may be where you practice revealing your assumptions (not conclusions) and checking them out for the common good you each share.  This common good may be the future of the congregation amidst a time of radical change or resolving something as fairly as possible.


This may be a place to script out your opening comments, or to practice what you want to say with a friend.  This practice is in the service of effective engagement.  It is also a moment in which to check out your motives or assumptions as you approach the other.  Are you attempting to change, fix, or otherwise manipulate the other? 


5.  Dying to outcomes

A final piece of preparation involves dying to the outcomes of the conversation.  It is being aware of what you hope will happen and what you fear could happen.  It is making peace with both so that your desire or your fear do not unconsciously distract or control you.  This allows you to engage the other with less defended energy and can ease anxiety. When desire for a specific outcome and the fear of not attaining it move unchecked within, we often assume that in the response from the other there is an underlying agenda when that was not the intention.  A non-defended stance not only calms tension, but also creates a space of trust where in mutuality there can be genuine sharing and engagement.

Contemplative Pause: 

What of this reflection resonates with you?

Which of the practices do you think would be most helpful for you to focus on? 

Where are you feeling reluctant or hesitant in practicing this way of being non-defended?


Creating a Practice

During the next three weeks, take time to engage in the following exercises as a way of being more conscious of defended behaviors.


Week One: Creating Awareness

During week one, identify and journal situations where you felt defended.         

  • Describe the situation.

  • Identify what caused you to be defended.

  • Notice your part in the conversation. 

  • What were you feeling or sensing?

  • Ponder what were you defending?

  • What were you afraid of or what was causing you unease?

  • Journal your insights.


Week Two: Understanding Different Viewpoints

During week two, repeat the same process that you did during week one, but this time take a compassionate look at the situation and at the participants. 

  • Spend quiet time holding each person’s viewpoints in a non-judgmental stance.

  • Stay with your feelings holding both the light and dark feelings.

  • See if you can come to an alternative perspective that respects those involved and your own integrity. 

  • Journal your insights.


Week Three: Reconciling Differences

During week three, ask yourself if there is any conversation from the previous two weeks that you would like to revisit.  Call that situation to mind.  Repeat the processes from week one and two. 

  • Script out what you would like to say to the person or persons.

  • Practice alone or with a friend. 

  • Test to be sure that you do not have a hidden agenda that distorts your effort. 

  • Take time to notice your hopes and your fears about reopening the conversation. 

  • Sit with these opinions and feelings and consciously make your peace with them. 

  • Allow yourself to make your peace with both failure and success, so that your hope-filled outcome and your fears do not distort your effort.  


Journal your experience and your insights.



Throughout our human journey, we are hurt, and we hurt others. However, we have a choice as to how we will respond and how we will reconcile the hurt, the conflict.  Given our strong instincts towards survival and self-preservation, to respond differently we need to embrace a counter-cultural stance of living non-defensively and non-violently.  Because it is counter-cultural to live non-defensively, that way of living takes constant vigilance and practice. It requires an act of will on our part and a reliance on God’s grace. 


As you take time to be with these thoughts, sit in the quiet and let the song Healing is Your Touch wash over you.






Healing is your touch O God
Renewing the spirit of the broken
Healing is your touch O God
Renewing the spirit of the broken.
© 1986 Monica Brown

© September 2022,  Donna Fyffe, Ed.S. CommunityWorks, Inc.

Monica Brown - Healing Is Your Touch
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