Saturday, December 6, 2008

Dealing with Resistance

In the last blog entry we took a very quick look at some of the forms of resistance that you might encounter as you embark on a change effort. This topic seems to hit home with many of you, and has raised the natural question of how to deal with resistance when it is encountered in its various forms. Therefore, this blog entry contains a few thoughts about what to do when you find yourself face to face with resistance.

Peter Block says that “there is no way you can talk {someone} out of their resistance because resistance is an emotional process. You cannot talk people out of how they are feeling.” He goes on to say that “the basic strategy is to help the resistance blow itself out, like a storm.” (Flawless Consulting, P. 161)

Block suggests that there are three steps to dealing with resistance:
  • Identify in your own mind the form of the resistance (see the description of the types of resistance in the previous blog entry.)
  • Name the resistance – use neutral language to describe the form that the resistance is taking.
  • Be quiet – let the person respond to your statement about the resistance. Don’t keep talking. Live with the silence and tension.

Use open ended questions or statements, instead of questions or statements that can be replied to with yes or no answers.

If you encounter a situation where the person or group you are working with is avoiding responsibility for the problem or solution, you might say "You don't see yourself as part of the problem." Then, be quiet, and listen.

If you are working with someone who is giving you very little, and one word answers, you might say "You are giving me very short answers. Could you say more?

If you are working with someone who is silent, you might say "You are very quiet. I don't know how to read your silence."

You are probably beginning to get the idea. Your statement begins with a description of the behavior (You are very quiet.) which is followed by a question or statement about what is needed (can you say more?) or how this affects the work you are trying to do (I don't know how to read your silence.).

(Flawless Consulting, P. 163-166)

This process of identifying, naming and being quiet provides a mechanism for getting the resistance out on the table so it can be addressed.

It might also be helpful to think about resistance in terms of the Leadership Diamond model that has been covered a number of times in this blog. This model is based on the importance of vision, ethics, reality and courage. Peter Koestenbaum writes that resistance to vision is blindness. Resistance to reality is denial. Resistance to ethics is indifference. Resistance to courage is fear. (Leadership – The Inner Side of Greatness – P. 29)

Being aware of these concepts may help you identify the form of resistance that you are encountering. For example, someone who is constantly asking for more and more detail may be expressing a lack of confidence, or their fear. Your statement to this person might be "Your need for lots of detail tells me that you are uncomfortable with this project (or change effort). Tell me what is making you uncomfortable." Or more directly, "What are your fears?"

And finally, as you work with change efforts it is helpful to keep in mind the fact that organizations are not mechanical devices that can be changed by removing one part and replacing it with another. Change is an organic process. It starts small with seeds of ideas, a few people with a new vision, or a spark of brilliance, and grows over time into something that will change the organization forever. Resistance to the growth of new ideas, processes, and structures is normal even in nature. But, just as in nature, growth is difficult to stop. Leaders who are unafraid to identify and name resistance can clear the path for healthy growth that will bear the fruits of success.

(See the April 1999 FastCompany Magazine for an article by Peter Senge on this subject.)