Resistance Can’t Be Good, Right?

When giving a, TED or TEDx speech on anything, you can expect people to watch you to see if you are actually living your subject.  So was the case with me last week. I was doing a short workshop with a group of Women in IT (Information Technology) at a Fortune 50 company.  First, I gave my 2015 talk titled “From Raging Bitch to Engaging Coach; The Power of Positive Intent” to the group live. After giving the speech, we had a session to start putting the idea of “assuming positive intent” into practice.

The group immediately had several examples where they could use this idea.  Then one of the women asked this question:  “What are you supposed to do when you are in the middle of a big change and someone is resisting?” All heads in the room nodded; this was clearly a sore spot for the majority. She went on to say something that could be summarized like this:  “Resistance is bad.  Let’s get rid of it.”

“You need resistance in order to get traction on your change.  Imagine trying to get somewhere in your car on pure ice.  The only way you are getting anywhere is to have traction.” I answered.  The conversation that ensued held to this theme:  resistance is neither good or bad.  However, it is necessary.  In order to “assume positive intent” about resistance, there are two things that have to happen. 

First, you recognize resistance as the source of traction in the change.

Second, to get that traction, you get curious in order to get behind the resistance and better understand it. 

Resistance is full of very useful information.

From the curious vantage point, a leader can begin to use resistance as a source of traction.  (We will save working with your own resistance for another day….like losing those last few pounds, quitting smoking, apologizing to that friend, reaching out to help in a difficult family situation – you know, little things like that.)

In a corporate change setting, leaders frequently deal with resistance in many forms.  So what does it look like to come from a curious vantage point?

Here are some examples of the shift:

  • Instead of trying to bury resistance, you allow it to exist right out there in the open
  • Instead of insisting on your way, you illuminate choices and consequences
  • Instead of framing emotions and undercurrents as personal, you frame emotions and undercurrents as data and information
  • Instead of getting distracted by resistance, you stay focused on your goals and objectives

It is normal for people to resist doing something they don’t want to do.  You will hear things like this  “That won’t work,” or “I’ve already tried that.” The reactive counter to that resistance is usually “Yes, it will,” or “Did you do it right?” and so forth.  It’s like a big ole game of verbal Ping-Pong and nothing changes.

Go with the resistance instead.  Ask “What would work?” or “Are you willing to try x?” When the resistance is extremely strong, it’s helpful to have the other person (or yourself) think through where they are and are not committed.  Daniel Pink has an interesting way to unlock some positive thinking about this.

If you are leading change, it’s hard to allow resistance to exist.  It seems like your role is to overcome it. However, trying to overcome resistance actually makes the resistance more elusive. Consider this instead: Your role is to set the conditions for change and make clear requests for people to take appropriate action.

For more on using resistance to accelerate change, read the full article “From Drag to Lift; Using Resistance, Complaint and Conflict to Accelerate Change.”

If you are still stuck on how to assume positive intent in the face of tons of resistance, set up an OnDemand Coaching call with me.

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Lynn Carnes accelerates change and unleashes leadership performance in organizations, especially in context of challenges without easy answers. She loves to hear about how your experiments with these ideas turn out. To contact her or share your experiences email