Embracing Resistance

My colleague, Bill Proudman, said something yesterday when we were working with a Milwaukee-based client that blew my socks off: “What if we embrace resistance rather than see it as a barrier?”

His words immediately conjured up both recent and old memories of conflicts I’ve had with people—when one of us digs firmly into that sacred spot where we spend unlimited energy explaining why a point isn’t valid, why it makes no sense to see it that way, and justifying the sanctity of the rightness so obvious to us.

Don’t get me wrong; as a consultant for nearly 30 years, I consider the healthy embracing of conflict as one of my primary and sacred teaching tools with clients, and just last week I spent considerable energy with a senior team in Newark, supporting their efforts to vastly improve their ability to lean into conflicts for the sake of better results.

But specifically thinking deeply about the role resistance plays is a nuanced but powerful spin that I hadn’t thought about until Bill said it out loud.

What if I really start viewing resistance as something to embrace?  What if I shift my mindset to actually try on a belief that says that my own and others’ resistance is actually a mere source of data, expertly disguised as a booby trap for an unnecessary fight to the death? What if?

Well, if I say it that way, I would have to ask, “tell me more.”  I would then invite my adversary into a deeper understanding of why they see the issue the way they do: What did they notice that I missed?  What do they know from their experience that I don’t? What am I glossing over out of my own desire for tidiness and resolution? I might actually learn something that shapes and informs my own thinking. It is possible that I will see a precious gem of possibility in the problem that I missed before by trying it on with their “resisting” eyes.

And what if when I feel my own resistance to someone’s idea, what if I offered that as interesting information, rather than an invitation to battle? What if I embraced my own resistance rather than giving space for the voice in my head that says, “don’t say anything or you will be perceived an adversarial or threatening?”  By speaking up with compassion and interest, I might even reveal something my colleague really needs to understand if his/her idea has a chance of succeeding.

I was part of the debate team in high school, and as the daughter of white, Anglo-Saxon, educated parents, I learned at a young edge that I must be prepared to justify my opinions and to take sanctity in the knowledge, information and facts around me.  My Dad was big on fun facts and kept a treasure trove of them always at the ready. But increasingly, as I am invited into more and more complex systems, and as I navigate my many roles in life at the speed and ambiguity that affects all of us, I find that my debating skills to combat resistance from others have become a bit thin and dog-eared.

I find that the problems my clients and I are dealing with are not often easily solved by one brilliantly obvious right answer. Leaders I work with are increasingly challenged to build buy-in to the strategies they select as a more important lever than ensuring that they are right. In these contexts then, running towards resistance, as Bill suggested, embracing it and inviting it in for the explicit purpose of exposing the complexity of an issue, seems wise indeed.

Easier said than done, and I can easily picture myself leaning forward in an argument to convince someone that he/she just doesn’t see it clearly as I resist full force—and having to talk myself out of that tired and weak past pattern. But I see amazing potential for trying a new set of tools with some rigor, whereby I notice my own resistance, and the resistance of others around me, and quietly, with care and sincerity, I say “tell me more.” Doing so magically and promptly invites the resistance out of the dark and into the light where we both can see it, look at it, discuss it, understand it, and decide together, in the end, what it really means after all.

Jim Morris