Have you ever noticed that when you push against resistance that you generally get even greater resistance in return? For example, you ask someone to do something and they refuse. You then apply additional pressure for them to comply and the cycle tends to escalate with both parties digging in to defend their position in an attempt to “win” the conflict. It is like pushing against a spring: at first it is easy but the more you push the harder it gets to get the spring to compress.
Over the past few months in my coaching practice, this idea of dealing with resistance has been a bit of a theme. Clients will present a situation for discussion that involves trying to get another person such as an employee or a colleague to embrace a change (a recent example was a change to a reporting system) and they find the other person less than supportive in making that change.
The discussion usually starts with some pretty standard questions, the most relevant of which is usually … what have you tried so far?
If we think about how we deal with someone resisting change, our first thoughts are usually that we need to explain the need and/or rationale for the change more thoroughly. After we PowerPoint the person half to death and ask if they need any additional information we often find that they say no … they have everything they need. And many times they still resist the change more strongly than when we started.
The work of Richard Maurer in his book Beyond The Wall of Resistance is quite helpful in understanding what is going on. In it, he suggests that there are three progressive levels of resistance to change as follows:
- I Don’t Get It
- I Don’t Like It
- I Don’t Like You
Resistance might be solved at any one of these levels of resistance so it is right to start at the first level and try to get past it. If we feel that we have done a good job at that level and resistance still exists, we need to move on and assume that at least the next highest level of resistance is in play and therefore change our techniques. Here’s what is going on at each level.
I Don’t Get It
At this level we can assume that the resistance is largely about information, lack thereof, disagreement over interpretation and confusion about how it all comes together. So starting with providing information, logic and guidance is a good first approach and may actually work to have the person embrace the desired change.
The risk is thinking all resistance can be solved with information and logic. We believe that we have done a good job explaining why and when resistance comes we take it personally perhaps because we start questioning our effectiveness. Instead, what is often happening is there is a higher level of resistance at work asking us to try a new approach.
I Don’t Like It
Level 2 resistance isn’t logical. It’s emotional. Generally that emotion is fear … fear of loss of control, status, face, their job, etc. Fear is a very powerful and the oldest, deepest seated human emotion. We can’t just tell people to get over it or tell them why their fears are unfounded. Adrenaline has been released and people have shifted into a fight/flight stance. It is also likely that we, as the change sponsor, are also activated emotionally so the first challenge is to recognize the situation and shift gears.
Start by knowing that you won’t always see the emotion in others. Organizations aren’t usually all that open to emotional responses to requested changes, so people can often shift to a much more passive resistance mode, continuing to ask informational questions as demanded at level 1. It is up to us as the change sponsor to recognize that higher level resistance is at work.
First, we need to discover and acknowledge the source of these strong emotions for the person resisting the change. They need to know that we see the impact it is having on them as a human being, and then engage them in exploring solutions. This is anything but a push strategy. We need to draw out the issues, and then go further to draw out ideas for getting around the issues. We’re not looking for openings to shift back to information mode, we are listening for new answers and may in fact find a better way of implementing the change. The key here is don’t resist. Ask and listen, then go with the flow to see where it takes you. Make sure as you do so, you are checking in at an emotional level with those doing the resisting. Questions like: “how would you feel about this if we made these changes you’re suggesting?” or “what’s going on for you now that we have explored these ideas?” Often allowing people to contribute will help them express their fears and give you something new to address and adjust.
I Don’t Like You
Sometimes resistance isn’t about the change. In fact a person can like the change that is in front of them but resist because of past history with the change sponsor. “You” in this case can be you personally, the organization, a segment of the organization, or a group you represent (e.g. management). What’s happening here is that there is a lack of trust or confidence in the leadership behind the change. This is make or break. There’s no sense trying to push forward with the change until trust is re-established, and that often is not a short-term fix. You have to go back, understand the break in trust and get it back.
I can think of a time in my career where level 3 resistance was at work. The seat of it was a deep distrust between the heads of two different business units, which prevented any actions by one of the units from being accepted by the other. Until there were changes at the senior level, nothing happened. When one of them left then the necessary changes could be made to allow the trust level to be improved.
The overall learning from this is that when we sense resistance from another person, stop and look at what is really happening. So often, we get caught in the trap of trying to find better ways to explain why the change is such a good idea for us or the organization we are supporting that we forget to look for deeper levels of resistance. See what happens when you move into exploring level 2 or level 3 resistance.
A bit more of an advanced exercise is to apply this theory to ourselves. When we find ourselves resisting doing something new … step through the levels. Do I know enough about the change? If yes, what feelings do I have about this change that remain unresolved? If we still find ourselves resisting, the last question is: what stops me from trusting that this change will have me end up in a good place?