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Improving Connection When it Counts - using the PEN Method

Shifting from disagreements to connection during holidays and beyond.

"The PEN is mightier than the sword"

- Edward Bulwer-Lytton, playwright (1839)

If your family is like mine, the holidays are a time for stretching our capacities: for eating, of course, but also for patience, love, and harmonious co-existence.

That's because, from politics to sports to child-rearing, there is so much potential for both disagreement and discovery - for both gaining and losing connection.

If we are lucky, we emerge on the other side of December feeling warmer and closer to each other, our hearts filled with bounty. If unlucky, we stagger into the New Year with our emotional pockets feeling a bit emptier and our minds filled with some choice regrets.

Fortunately, family gatherings do not have to feel like an emotional casino!

While it's true that you cannot control the behavior of others, using the PEN method, YOU can respond in a way that helps to nudge a conversation from fruitless disagreement to connection - increasing the chances that everyone wins.

The idea behind the PEN method is that most disagreements happen on the surface level - at the level of "strategies" (e.g., "We need better prepared soldiers!" - "No we need better prepared students!")

Going beneath these differences, the PEN method invites you to connect around your deeper human commonalities, like "we both want our children to be safe and successful".

To be clear, I am not implying that disagreement is somehow undesirable, in and of itself. If you are both having a great time and moving forward in understanding each other, all is well. However, if you feel stuck in a familiar loop or notice that things are escalating towards a non-winning situation, get out your PEN and give it a try.

To illustrate, let's take the example of the "better prepared soliders vs. better prepared students" argument and try to apply our PEN to it.

Note: For the purposes of this illustration, I have sped up how quickly the two people may come to a place of connection. When you try this out, it may go this smoothly or take a bit more work. The example is meant to give you a flavor of what it means to shift a conversation to the VALUES and HOPES level of things.

photo courtesy of Ryan Scott

PEN stands for:


P = PAUSE (and breathe!)

When you feel your blood pressure rising in response to a comment - or when you hear your disagreement with someone escalating or getting "stuck" in one of those endless loops, PAUSE and take a deep breath.

Do not say the next thing on your mind.

Take another deep breath. Think: I know how this usually goes. I don't want to go there again. I'm gonna try this PENS thing.

E = EMPATHY (listening for THEIR hopes)

Don't let the word "empathy" throw you off.

It's shorthand for shifting the conversation from strategies to deeper commonalities.

The goal is to let the other person know you are now hearing the "values" and "hopes" underneath their argument.

You begin with empathy in order to (a) lead the conversation to this deeper level and (b) hear them enough so when it's your turn, you can be more fully heard.


baby feet in mother's hands

photo courtesy of Olga (Nezemnaya)

For this to work, you will need to temporarily suspend your belief and pretend the other person is human, just like you, and that, deep down inside, they want the same things you do, like:

- for children to have the chance to be healthy and thrive
- for people to feel safe where they live
- for everyone to have enough to eat
- for people to have the right to express their creativity and make choices
- for everyone to have a chance to feel loved and to contribute to their world


girl listening

photo courtesy of Renata Dodell

This is your chance to listen with innocence, to listen to the hopes and dreams underneath their words.

To get them to hear you in this new way, you will typically need to make 3-5 guesses about their hopes and values before you get to move on to yours.

Reminder: what you'll be doing is GUESSING.

Some of your guesses will land just right and some will be way off. That's ok.

The idea is not to be "accurate" but to simply shift to the "values" level. The other person will clarify if you are off - and will appreciate the attempts.

EXAMPLE (with PEN in bold):

"Ok, ok. Hold on just a minute. Let me see if I understand this. [pause. breathe]. Basically, you want the people of this country to be safe."

"Yeah! Darn right. I don't want some foreign invaders blowing us to pieces ever again!"

"So, you want to make sure there are no surprises? Like our country is prepared for anything?"

"Yeah. I don't want to ever be caught with our pants down again. That's right."

"So, you want us to be safe and also, like, not embarrassed?"

"No, nothing about embarrassment. Ummm. Just wanna make sure we cover all the bases. There are no loopholes and such. That takes money, you know."

"Ok, so just wanting to be very well prepared. Like weatherproofing a house for the winter?"

"Yeah. Yeah. That's it. Just like that."

[ok, the person is sitting back in their seat now, their voice and shoulders are relaxed. they feel understood. now it's your turn; OR things may not go quite this smoothly and you'll need to make 2-3 more empathy guesses; hang in there - you know how it goes the OTHER way!}

N = NEEDS (sharing YOUR hopes)

photo courtesy of Mike Seidel

Now that the other person feels heard, they will be more able to hear you fully.

You will now express the deep human values and hopes which are underneath YOUR argument.

If possible, start by sharing ONE hope that you have in common. Every time you do this, you increase your connection.


"Ok, so do you wanna know where I'm coming from with this education thing?"

"Yeah, sure. Go for it."

"I guess I want the same things you want. I also want our country to be safe. And I want our kids to get really well educated so they grow up and represent our country well. I mean, they will be our future leaders. And our future problem solvers."

"Yeah, yeah. Sure. That makes sense. We just can't do that at the expense of being left vulnerable."

"Yes, a balance would be great. Of safety and education. I guess we are worried there is not enough money to have both? I hope there can be. I think you and I actually want the same thing - for our country to be safe and prepared - but just using different ways."

"Yeah. Could be, I guess."

"And for our kids to grow up and have the tools to survive in this crazy world with all it's problems!"

"Yeah. True enough. I'm with you on that part. Speaking of crazy world, did you hear about that nanny that left the kid in the supermarket while she went across the street to rob a bank?"

Congratulations! You have passed into the connection zone and may now enjoy the rest of your meal.


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Want to learn more about this way of communicating?

The PEN tool, just like my popular post on Moving from Destructive to Constructive Conversations, is based on the principles of non violent communication (NVC).

For more NVC skills, I recommend the show Conflict Hotline, which you can watch at:

For NVC workshops, click on the training link on the page or visit the NVC academy for videos, mp3 courses and telecourses at


Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Copyright Elaine Shpungin 2010