Embrace Resistance

Q – How does a pilot know that he’s over the target?

A – They’re shooting at him.


An old joke, but one that a fighter pilot friend of mine swears is true.  Another saying that goes with this joke is “nobody guards an empty hole.”  Unfortunately, these sayings, while certainly funny and possible even true, also help sustain a dysfunctional model of resistance and conflict in organizations.


Conflict isn’t bad or good, and conflict certainly isn’t about “winning” or “losing,” however you define those terms.  Most people don’t resist your ideas simply to annoy you, and those few that do often prove to be inept in their resistance.  In our group, we talk about conflict as a “clash of viewpoints,” and most conflict occurs whenever people block each other as they pursue their purpose and goals.


Resistance is simply an overt conflict, someone doing his/her best to say no to you.  The trouble begins if you see that resistance as an obstacle that blocks your path to success.  Obstacles (or objections, in classic selling language) are something you must overcome – dismiss, explain away, or even attempt to knock down.  But, getting past an obstacle is never the same as getting a true commitment to action.


Instead of seeing resistance as something to fight, a better approach might be to look at resistance as something to embrace.  Resistance can be extremely valuable, if you learn to manage it effectively.  Resistance helps you discover when people aren’t committed and why.  It can help you determine when you didn’t communicate your ideas as intended.  And, it can even help you uncover if people they don’t know what to do or how to do it once they say yes.  In short, I’ve never accomplished anything of significance in an organization without surfacing and managing a lot of resistance.


Following are some steps to take if you want to start embracing the resistance you find.

  1. Never discount resistance.  If you discount the resistance you will never bother to understand or address it, and likely struggle to get the commitment you need.  Remember, the path to personal success runs through the swamp of resistance.
  2. Listen authentically.  Once you choose to engage, the most important step is to listen “authentically.”  Stop talking, stop judging, stop preparing your response and simply understand the other person’s viewpoint as she sees it.
  3. Ask questions.  In our collaborative leadership skills training, we teach people how to surface and manage resistance skillfully.  The single most important tool to manage resistance is questions.  There is almost no poor question as long as it’s not a leading question (don’t you think…) and it’s intended to help you learn about the other person’s viewpoint.
  4. Offer a different viewpoint.  Reframing is a powerful skill that can help people change the way they see a situation.  Reframing is never substituting your view for theirs.  Instead, it’s about taking the other person’s viewpoint and expanding it with new, relevant information.  If the other person accepts that new viewpoint, you often have a path forward to a shared approach.
  5. Explain natural consequences.  If you stick your hand on a hot stove, you will get burned, it’s a direct effect of your choice.  We call this direct effect a “natural consequence” and it can be a powerful tool to help you manage resistance.  Unfortunately, few organizational choices have such an immediate and powerful consequence.  Problems often don’t arise until long after choices are made.  However, if you can learn how to “pull the future into the present” and explain the possible consequence, you can often get people to change their decisions.


Obviously, these ideas are just the beginning, but I hope that they will help set you on the path of learning to embrace the resistance you find.