Consulting Building Blocks: Resistance
It was time for my young daughters to learn how to ride a bike. My older daughter, Hannah, was clearly uncomfortable and afraid. She challenged my husband straight on. When he asked for her to get on the bike, she clearly and directly said no. She pitched a fit, engaged in a full one temper tantrum and ran back into the house. My younger daughter Ainsley, while equally afraid, chose a different tactic. She faked sick. She asked my husband to explain over and over again what she was to do before she would even get on the bike. Both children dealt with fears of loss of control and vulnerability. One was resistant, the other was not. And the resistant one wasn’t Hannah. It was Ainsley.
What is resistance?
As a consultant, we encounter resistance all the time. We propose a change, give difficult feedback and suggest alternatives to transform business processes to clients who will do one of three things:
- Accept our recommendations and partner with us to transform suggestions into reality.
- Discuss the content of our recommendations, suggest alternatives, agree with parts, disagree with other parts and make decisions on what aspects of our suggestions they want to go forth with and which aspects they want to table.
- Avoid discussion of content using a variety of different techniques that make us as the consultant feel spun up and stuck – unsure of how to get a meeting that is going horribly off track back on track.
The key difference between the client responses in options two and three is resistance. Option three is the essence of resistance. Resistance is not disagreement of content (our analysis, our suggestions, etc.) Resistance is a masked or cloaked way of indirectly dealing with 1) issues of control 2) issues of self-esteem 3) dealing with harsh reality and/or 4) issues of vulnerability. If the client is open about their concerns about control, self-esteem, harsh reality and vulnerability, it is not resistance.
The faces of resistance
Resistance is happening when a client uses behaviors that distracts from the content level of the meeting.
These behaviors can be put in the categories such as the following:
|Type of Resistance||Behaviors|
|Abstraction||Client stays off content by theorizing and intellectualizing about either why things are the way they are|
|Academic Accusations||Client accuses consultant of being too impractical and theoretical and that the client lives in the “real world” with “real life problems”|
|Claims for Health||When you get near the root of the problem, client claims how much better things are than they were before|
|Confusion||Despite multiple explanations, client claims to be confused|
|Discounting||Client downplays significance of feedback or recommendations by minimizing its importance|
|Lack of Time and Attention||Client can’t seem to find time to meet, or when meeting, allows for constant interruptions|
|One Up-manship||Client uses phrase such as “those people” and “should” and “they need to understand” to make self seem to be an a superior position|
|Overt Attack||Client demonstrates overt anger such as accusatory words, red face, punching fist on desk, etc.|
|Pressing for Details||Client either gives you a mass of irrelevant detail or presses you for more and more detail on your feedback, recommendation or methodology|
|Superficial Compliance or pressing for solutions||Client agrees with you and wants to do what is next without any real discussion of feedback and recommendations or rushes to solutions|
|Withdrawal||Client is passive and won’t respond or engage in discussion|
I was the consultant to David, the CEO of a medium sized nonprofit organization. Employees of a team led by Bill came to David to express extreme frustration with Bill’s behavior. I was brought in to do a 360 degree assessment on Bill and I had discovered that Bill’s leadership style could best be described as a “scorched earth” because of the amount of emotional damage Bill had caused his team.
David and I sat down with Bill to give him this difficult feedback, which he did not want to receive. Bill discounted the feedback and avoided discussion in several ways. He was first confused and expressed over and over again, “I don’t understand.” He then switched into claims for health by stating, “This doesn’t make sense, our department has never been better.” He continued by questioning me as the consultant and my credentials. He attacked his team by expressing anger at them for “seeing him a bad light and not believing the best about him.”
Bill avoided dealing with the difficult reality that he was a very bad leader and that he could possibility lose his position if he didn’t improve by using strategies to keep David and I from the content of our meeting. The key to know when resistance is happening is if you can stay on the content of the meeting and make progress – even if there is disagreement. When no matter what you do, you cannot return to the content and remain stuck in a “hamster wheel experience” of process, you have a resistance client on your hands.
Dealing with Resistance
The objective in dealing with resistance is to return to the content level of the meeting. You do this by helping your client take responsibility for their behavior and how it poses a barrier to moving forward. You help your client by:
- Determine if you are dealing with good faith questions and concerns. If a client is willing to either stay on content OR openly address fears of control, vulnerability, self esteem or harsh reality, your client is not resistant. Address good faith question and concerns and/or address client’s challenges of control, etc.
- Determine if you are dealing with resistance. A sure sign that resistance is engaged is that no matter what your responses are, the client refuses to return to the content level of the meeting.Your first resistance intervention will be to ask directly what issues or concerns the client has with your feedback and/recommendations. Ask questions like:
- “How’s this going for you?”
- “What reservations or concerns do you have?”
- “That was a worthwhile discussion. Before we go on, do you have any other reservations?”
- If that doesn’t work, raise issues of control, self-esteem, harsh reality or vulnerability by telling the client what you see in a neutral, non-judgmental way. Name what you see the client doing and ask: “How can we break out of the cycle?” Acknowledge that the client is facing difficult issues and be silent, ask again for reservations and state what you need in order to proceed with the meeting.
- If that doesn’t work, you will then need to stop and process the meeting. You do this by:
- Stop the meeting in an explicit way – “Let’s stop. We’re stuck.”
- State briefly the original goal of the meeting – “The purpose of this meeting was to talk about this difficult mandate and how to respond”
- Say what you see that has resulted in getting off track – “Since we’re started, you’ve been silent or attacking me…”
- Name your contribution to the problem – “As things went on, I got defensive and it’s not helping…”
- Name the underlying concerns – “My guess is that we’re both upset, scared or angry about this situation”
- Admit you are stuck – “We’re not getting anywhere”
- Make a good faith statement of your positive intentions – “I want us to figure out how to proceed in the face of these new circumstances…”
- Ask for their help directly – “But I can’t do it alone- I need your help”
- Shift responsibility back to the client. Ask how they want to proceed – “Where do you want to go from here?”
- Be silent.
- If that doesn’t work (and it is an option), raise the possibility of not proceeding.
- State the possibility of not proceeding. “It looks like I am trying to force a discussion that you don’t feel ready for. Let’s talk about the risks involved with no doing this right now?”
- State your reasons. Name the behaviors you have seen in the client and yourself that are getting in the way.
- Ask for the client’s viewpoint about not proceeding.
- Come to an agreement.
- If it does work, return to the content level of the meeting and proceed.
What to keep in mind when dealing with resistance
There are three things a consultant needs to remember when dealing with a resistant client. First, own your part. As a consultant, you need to ask yourself if you are dealing indirectly with any issues of loss of control or vulnerability and deal with it so that you can you help your client. You also need to be aware of the organizational culture or client’s preferences and not mistake miscommunication with resistance. For example, some clients prefer consultants who are non-conceptual, practical, rapid, deferential, informal, optimistic, and relationship-oriented. As you deal with their resistance, consider personal alternatives to communicating authentic information.
Second, when you know you have resistance and you have to deal with it, intervene at the lowest possible level first. Discern the depth of the client’s control or vulnerability concerns and willingness to address resistance. Intervene at the lowest level possible. If the behavior continues, increase the level of intervention until the resistance ceases or until you conclude the client will not get back on track.
Third, simultaneously support your client as you confront him or her. Be direct with the words you say but support with the tone in how you say it. Monitor your tone of voice, watch your body language, maintain eye contact and extend good will.
Your biggest consulting challenge and biggest consulting opportunity is dealing with a resistant client. Trying to help an individual who doesn’t want to deal head on with issues of control and vulnerability is like fighting a war in the middle east. You have no idea where the landmines are!
But if you are able to effectively help a client face issues of control and vulnerability, you will have not only helped an organization be more successful but also help an individual be free from challenges that may limit leadership effectiveness and relational satisfaction. You can imagine the behaviors they display with you are active in other parts of his or her life. By providing both honest confrontation and caring support, you may be able to bring another person to greater freedom and life satisfaction. For this reason, despite the challenge, effectively dealing with resistance is worth it!
Do you want to learn about organization development or other ways to improve your effectiveness as a consultant? Check out the other resources available online at www.acceleraconsultinggroup.com or give us a call at 407.376.8522 for a free consultation. We accelerate results by igniting leadership and organizational potential!