The idea of ”resistance” quite often pops up when talking about processes of change, whether this relates to conversations with one person such as in coaching, or working with groups. In my work as a consultant, coach, and process facilitator, I fairly often experience what in the traditional sense appears to be resistance; towards the content of the conversation, and towards the changes a person or group is facing.

I think you will find this text interesting if you work with people, for example as a manager, trainer, coach or consultant. It’s also an advantage if you are curious about alternative perspectives that might open up for more useful ways of viewing the concept of resistance.

Is it resistance or just a bad excuse?

In 1989, American Steve de Shazer wrote the article “Resistance Revisited”, a follow-up to an earlier article – “Death of Resistance”.

The point of both articles is that the idea of “resistance” is something we coaches, therapists, consultants, etc., construct, and that in reality, it’s merely a bad excuse for those situations where things aren’t going the way we want them to.

“There was resistance in the group, so of course I couldn’t get anywhere!” – “the client wasn’t answering my questions”. Roughly speaking, one can read the article to say that it is really about our personal ego when the situation doesn’t develop the way we want it to.

So what is it, if it isn’t resistance?

I think we’ve all experienced the phenomenon of resistance many times in our lives, both privately in our families and in relation to our work with colleagues, managers, clients or customers. And I think you’ll agree with me that we would prefer to avoid it. It’s actually pretty annoying.

So… what?

Well, Steve and his wife, Insoo Kim Berg, who also worked within the same field, literally went out into their backyard and buried “resistance”, as a symbolic gesture that from now on they would no longer concern themselves with this idea.

Instead they developed the principle that the people they met in their conversations all have their own unique ways of trying to cooperate. And that the task of the therapist, coach, trainer, or consultant first of all is to notice this unique style of cooperation, start from there, and then work on those terms with what is there.

Eh – what?

That sounds simple enough, but how can one escape that resistance-stuff in practice? Especially when there’s three minutes left of the meeting, and someone bursts out: “By the way I don’t agree at all, and I think all of this is stupid!”

If we assume that everyone is trying to cooperate and is merely doing this in each their special way, and if we further assume that it is the task of us who set the framework or facilitate the process to find and take care of that way, what can we do?

First of all it’s good to start before you begin. That may sound like gibberish, but stay with me a bit longer, and let me explain.

To experience being recognised

Feeling safe is key to creating a constructive framework that will enable momentum in a process, whether this is in a coaching conversation or a group process. If each person feels seen, heard and understood, it makes sense to be present, and the yield from the process will be much larger. Additionally, the clients will feel motivated to continue working on the topic even when the topic might be a difficult one to handle.

So how can one transform these fine, acknowledging words into practice? I have three principles I always try to follow in my role as coach and facilitator in order to create a safe framework.

1. The best outcome of our time together

In every beginning, may it be a conversation or process, it is crucial to find out what is important to my client or group. It is called creating a shared platform or creating a shared project.

In a coaching situation this is straightforward. The best hopes for the conversation is about clarifying what the person or group would like to be able to act on after the conversation as a result of the conversation. To some this can sound too abstract, so it’s important to be very specific: “What would you like to be able to do differently as a direct result of our conversation?” – “What difference will that make for you – and for people around you?”

The questions are the same in a group, but naturally there can be different answers. Here, it becomes especially interesting to talk about what others – within the group and with affiliation to the group – will notice as different as a result of a good process.

2. Check if you are on the right track

Make sure to regularly check where you are in the conversation. Does it make sense? Are you asking the right questions? What other questions would be (more) relevant to ask (yes, you can ask directly about this!). Is the goal still the same?

I quite often experience that the goal changes in a coaching conversation, because if I’ve done my work well enough in the beginning (clarifying the best hopes), it is much easier for the client to continuously assess whether what needs to change is in fact what needs to change.

To me, one of the very big, positive side effects of doing this is that the client has the opportunity to check whether the goal is in fact attractive enough. And if not, well then the conversation luckily changes direction and in that way stays relevant to the client.

3. Look for resources and make them visible

Listen and observe what happens. Where do you experience qualifications and skills that can support what the client is trying to achieve? As always, it is important to be sincere and honest here. Don’t make something up just to be friendly and acknowledging. [note 1]

In a coaching conversation I continuously tell the client if there is something that impresses me or makes me curious. My curiosity usually relates to how a certain qualification or skill can be of help in terms of fulfilling the best hope.

In working with groups, this can express itself in for example the written material the group produces, such as flip overs, action plans, lists, post-it notes etc.

I also walk around a lot and listen, and in those instances the feedback is often more individually tailored, even though I at times point out something I have experienced repeatedly or that I find especially relevant to the theme of the meeting.

And that should make resistance of no relevance?

No guarantees given, but it helps me a lot. I can return to what was mentioned as the best hopes for the conversation, meeting, or process. I can stay out of discussions of who misunderstood what and when and who is to blame for having done (or not done) something.

I can check if the best hopes are being handled correctly, in other words:

  • are the right questions being asked?
  • are things going in a relevant direction for the client(s)?
  • is it at the right pace?

[note 1]

Look for ressources. If you find this difficult, well then gear up and start practicing! It is about developing your awareness. You can even make a “scorecard” and start noticing your colleagues, family, friends, etc.

Note when you notice a qualification or a skill, for example: how many did you notice at a meeting? In the conversation you had with a good friend at a café?

When you feel more comfortable spotting the good qualifications and skills, you can think about in what situations this can benefit you and your surroundings. Where and when is it appropriate that you mention what you have noticed?

This blogpost was first published on Linkedin August 13th 2015