Dealing with Resistance
by Jamie Showkeir and Maren Showkeir
People in organizations must constantly manage difficult and unwelcome changes and other demands that emerge in unexpected ways. Individuals faced with such circumstances are going to have strong feelings, particularly when the changes affect or threaten them. And they are likely to respond—one on one or in groups—with the camouflaged or indirect expressions of concern known as resistance, which can make it difficult, if not impossible, to face difficulties, navigate change, reach decisions, and resolve problems.
To deal with resistance, you have to recognize it, decide when to confront it, and then learn effective ways of calling it out and refocusing on the content of the pertinent conversation. Ignoring resistance never makes it disappear—it persists and usually gets stronger until it is confronted.
The purpose of dealing with resistance is to get a direct expression of underlying emotions, concerns, or reservations, so that everyone involved can focus on the content of the conversation, or to explicitly change the conversation’s content to something that is relevant and clear to all. It is not therapy. Nor is it an attempt to persuade someone to feel different or get over their feelings.
Addressing resistance requires three actions: identify the resistance, choose connection and goodwill, and decide what to do about it.
Identifying the resistance. If a behavior distracts from the content of a conversation two or three times, treat it as resistance. At the first appearance of potential resistance, respond in good faith.
For example, if someone asks, “What background do you have for leading this change?” answer the question with goodwill. If the person then goes silent, you can treat it as thinking behavior. But the third time a distraction to the content occurs, recognize it as resistance and address it. If the behavior is so disruptive that the conversation can’t continue, confront the behavior immediately.
Choosing connection and goodwill. In the face of difficult behavior, it is challenging to summon up goodwill and extend yourself to someone. But it is essential to stay connected. Anger, placating, lecturing, or counterattacks won’t overcome resistance; they will strengthen it. Your feelings in the moment aren’t the point here. You must focus on getting the conversation back on track.
We are not recommending that people be allowed to be abusive. However, another person’s emotional reaction to content typically does not have anything to do with the person delivering the content, so it is important to try not to take it personally. The emotional responses that characterize resistance have to do with harsh realities, vulnerability, fear, and perceived loss of control. If you are unable to confront the underlying emotional concern appropriately, it is better to delay the conversation.
Deciding what to do about it. It is important to show support by understanding the difficulty a resistant person is experiencing. You can display this understanding in your tone of voice, eye contact, facial expression, and other body language that is compassionate and engaging. Confronting the behavior requires using direct language and as few words as possible, and getting quickly to the point in a nonjudgmental way. When the underlying concern is expressed directly, extend understanding and agreement to show support and validation. Once this has been done, return to the content level of the conversation.
Four Steps to Take
Sometimes good-faith statements aren’t enough to return people to the content level of a conversation, and it is helpful to use a four-step process to determine whether to continue with a conversation, relationship, or project.
Step 1: Ask for Reservations
Because it is important to deal with your own resistance first, begin by stating your reservations openly. Put what you are experiencing into words and support the legitimacy of everyone’s reservations. If others do not initially raise their reservations, ask for them directly with goodwill and compassion, in a way that makes it clear you want to hear the truth.
After dealing with the first reservation, ask for others. Continue to ask until you are reasonably certain all the reservations have been aired. When you have worked through the reservations, test the willingness of the individual or group to return to the content of the conversation.
Here are ways you might ask for reservations:
“How’s this going for you?”
“What reservations do you have?”
“What other concerns do you have?”
“That was a worthwhile discussion. Before we go on, what other reservations do you have?”
Step 2: Raise Issues of Control and Vulnerability
It is important to state directly what is getting in the way of the conversation’s content. Describe; don’t judge. For example, don’t say, “You have been inattentive and rude since we started, and it’s clear that I am wasting my time talking to you.” That type of statement is a judgment and is likely to lead to defensiveness and more difficulty. Instead, describe the behaviors you have seen: “Since we started talking, you have been in a hurry, distracted by papers and the phone, and now you are polishing your shoes.” The key is to keep your statements simple and to the point. Don’t go into great detail. Don’t offer explanations.
Things you could say include:
“It looks as if we are spinning our wheels. I keep asking the same questions and you are responding with silence or one-word answers.”
“It’s difficult to continue when people constantly interrupt and change the subject.”
Then ask for acknowledgement, perhaps saying something like this:
“It seems like you are angry or disappointed or worried about the changes I have presented. Am I on target? Tell me what’s going on.”
After confronting the behavior, shift the responsibility for proceeding to the other person. When you have confirmed and aired concerns, ask questions to determine whether the individual or group is ready to return to the content of the conversation.
For instance, you might say:
“I want to figure out the best way to respond to the changes. Where do you want to go from here?”
“I’d like to get us refocused and on topic. What do you suggest we do next?”
“It’s important for me to know if you are disappointed. I am a little disappointed too. How do you want to proceed?”
Keep in mind that the goal is to get the underlying emotional concerns expressed, not to resolve them. If people continue to feel stuck and you are feeling powerless or about to give up, it is a signal that it’s time to move to the next level.
Step 3: Process the Conversation
If the conversation is going so badly that the content is getting lost, it is critical to talk about what is happening. Describing what is happening in an empathetic, compassionate, and authentic way can be a powerful means for refocusing.
At this level, you want to:
Explicitly stop the conversation and change the content:
“Let’s stop. I feel like we’re stuck.”
“Let’s take a time out. It feels like we’ve hit a wall.”
Briefly recap the original goal for the conversation or meeting:
“My intention was to tell you about a difficult situation and enlist your help in how we are going to respond to it.”
“The purpose of this meeting was to tell you about a new work process that will affect our jobs, and to work with you to iron out potential problems.”
Describe what has happened that resulted in things getting off track:
“Since we started this conversation you’ve been silent or attacking me, and now you are assigning blame.”
“This conversation has had constant interruptions since I described the new process. It has made it difficult to focus on the topic.”
Name your own contribution to the problem:
“I’ve been spending way too much time defending my position, and now I’m starting to agree with anything you say just to get through this moment.”
“My responses to your questions have become defensive. I can feel myself getting irritated, and that’s not helping.”
Name the underlying concerns and admit you are at an impasse:
“It seems like you’re upset and worried that I think you were the cause of this difficult situation, and it feels like we’re not getting anywhere.”
“My guess is that we are all upset, scared, or angry about the impact this is going to have on us, and it feels like we are stuck.”
Make a good-faith statement of positive intention and directly ask for help:
“I want us to figure out how we can resolve this difficult issue, but I can’t do it alone. I need your help.”
“My intention is to work with you to find the best way to proceed in the face of this news. We need to help each other. I can’t do this on my own.”
Shift the responsibility back to the individual or group:
“Where do you want to go from here?”
“How do you want to proceed?”
Be silent until you get a response. This can be very difficult, but silence allows others to reflect on the situation and what you have said. It may feel uncomfortable, but by talking now you will prevent others from processing the conversation.
If several moments pass and the silence feels intolerable, say something like:
“I don’t know what to make of your silence.”
“It’s difficult to read your silence.”
Step 4: Raise the Possibility of Not Proceeding
Sometimes no matter how hard you try, things become so difficult that it is necessary to discuss the possibility of not proceeding with the conversation, relationship, or project. If you feel you’ve explored every option and haven’t found a way to productively continue, be willing to discuss the possibility of termination. When you present this option, be sure it is not framed as a forgone conclusion, a subtle manipulation, or an outright threat. Though emotions are likely to be high, emphasize authenticity, connection, goodwill, and honesty.
You might say:
“I think we ought to look at the possibility of ending this conversation [or, not proceeding with this project]. We seem to be going over the same points again and again. I think we are stuck. What do you think?”
“This meeting seems to have stalled. It feels like we’re arguing rather than discussing, and I think it’s time to talk about ending it for now.”
Name the behaviors you’ve seen in the individual or the group and in yourself that are getting in the way. Ask for views about not proceeding, with language such as:
“It looks as though I am trying to force a discussion that you don’t feel ready to have, and I am feeling frustrated and a little out of control. What would happen if we postponed this conversation?”
“I’ve been getting defensive, and you appear angry about the way this is going and how it might affect you. Let’s talk about the risks involved in not doing this right now.”
When you have worked through these steps, you can come to an agreement on whether, or how, to proceed that will serve you well.
Jamie Showkeir and Maren Showkeir are principals of Henning-Showkeir & Associates, Inc., whose clients include 3M, Hewlett Packard, and the Nature Conservancy. This article is derived from their new Berrett-Koehler book, Authentic Conversations: Moving from Manipulation to Truth and Commitment. To learn more, visit bkconnection.com.