Resistance is in the Eye of the Beholder

Before I start, I have to give credit to Esther Derby for nearly 100% of the value of this post. She does a free (free!!) monthly Q& A conference call.  During one such call a little over a year ago (“Reframing Resistance for Positive Outcomes”), she opened my eyes on a critical point.  Here’s the very first sentence of Esther’s discussion that day (not verbatim, but close): What resistance really means, if you look beyond the frustration, is a person not going along with your suggestion as enthusiastically or quickly as you would like.

Just this sentence sparked a major perspective shift for me.  The last four words put attention on the part the initiator of the change plays in the feeling of resistance.   Think of it like Newton’s third law: if I punch someone in the face, their face pushes back on my hand.  My hand might really hurt, but would it be fair of me to think ill of them for pushing back on my knuckles with their cheek?  I’m obviously heightening my role as aggressor in this situation, but even in this extreme example, I might have good intentions (e.g., it looked to me like they were about to hurt my friend).  Regardless: I took part in creating the pain I felt in my hand.

While this analogy is silly in some ways, I really like that it highlights something huge that I used to overlook when complaining about resistance: how does the other person feel about it?  Just as focusing on the pain in my hand is unfairly ignoring the pain in the other person’s cheek, complaining of resistance is ignoring the position that I have put the other person in.  They very likely don’t like pushing back, but I am forcing them to do so.  (Of course, they have the option of just giving in, but neither of us does well in that outcome.)

Esther went on to cover some very useful techniques for working through how to approach perceived resistance.  These techniques both involved shifting ones perspective: in one case re-framing the perceived resistance to find its potentially positive components, in the other case seeking an understanding of the other person’s perspective.  Doing the exercises really drove home the truth of her opening statement. Every example of resistance I could think of fit that definition.

One might consider this massive self-deception: if I always slide around to the other person’s perspective, am I simply explaining away resistance that actually exists?  Well, if my interest lies with progress that respects people for who they are, and if understanding their view helps me achieve progress, I don’t think I really care.  Regardless, I truly have come to believe that–in all but very rare cases (e.g., deep personal animus)–resistance is just one’s own view of the feelings one creates by pushing on someone else too fast, too hard, or too insensitively.

The tools Esther shared that day are great, but the really cool thing she did was helping me see the futility in fussing over so-called resistance.  Since then, I’ve stopped using the word in this context.  That’s a pretty damned good result for a free Q&A call.  Thank you, Esther!!

2 thoughts on “Resistance is in the Eye of the Beholder

  1. That’s a good quote. I’m going to use it.

    I’m often puzzling over how I can change someone’s opinion over a matter, whether its convincing my daughter she needs to do her homework or convincing our team the importance of self organization. Lots of resistance. And it can be quite demoralizing. Thanks for the perspective.

  2. Glad you found it helpful! Sparking change can indeed be demoralizing. What I found so liberating about Esther’s insight is that you can let go of the often enormous self-applied pressure to succeed in selling your idea. Once you commit to co-creating an outcome with the person/team, you may still run into frustration, but you can then learn/grow together instead of stalling.

    Best of luck!

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