Coaching: The Dance of Change and Resistance

Copyright: Joanne Hunt, USA

 I learned my first lesson in coaching decades ago in a high school physics class.  My teacher quoted from a textbook using these familiar words:

‘For every force, there is an equal an opposing force.’

It is only now that I am beginning to understand the truth in this statement.  There should be a statement like this in coaching instruction manuals for working with clients (not to mention our own self-development programs):

‘For every change attempted, there will be resistance of equal magnitude.’

Thus begins the dance of change and resistance.  Coaching programs can become focused on employing willpower to bring about change without attending to the resistance that will naturally be present.   This can often result in obtaining a short-term result without long-term integration of the desired change.

Resistance is a natural biological function that shows up when the ‘status quo’ is threatened.  It can occur in the body: our immune system responds when a new virus or new organ is introduced into our bodies – there are drugs designed to help new organs counteract the physical resistance that the body will feel.  And initially, whether it is good for us (a new healthy organ) or not so good for us (a serious virus), the physical response is to expel what is foreign, what is unknown, and what is new.

Similarly in an organization consisting of a complex social biological system, when change is introduced, resistance automatically follows.  We have all experienced this happening.  This force is sometimes called the immune system of organizations – also known as corporate or organizational antibodies!   Change threatens the status quo.  It threatens what is reliable even if the current way of being is not supporting personal or stated organizational intentions.   It threatens what is safe because change will always feel riskier than the status quo.  Change is unknown while the status quo is familiar, known, and dependable.

At its most fundamental level, change threatens life as we know it.  It threatens what can be relied on, what is present, what is already understood.  Even if we don’t like who we are or how we are being, or how others are, at least we know it is reliable.  Change means something is going to be different or possibly die: our current ways, our current patterns, our predictability.  It is inevitable.  Something will be let go of, set down, or completed, in order to for something new to emerge.  So, shouldn’t we expect a little resistance?

Often we hear people talking about working with resistance from a place of willpower or ‘mind over matter’.  This way of speaking suggests that what is required is some sort of inner drive or a strong enough stance to will ourselves through the period of trying to bring about something new.  It can be a very harsh position to take and can be accompanied by disappointment or shame if someone’s will isn’t seen as strong enough.  People ask, ‘Well, aren’t you committed?’, as though commitment were enough to push through, overcome, or fight through resistance.  Other comments such as, ‘Just do it’ or ‘You can do it, just try harder’ do not address nor attend to the deep connection of change and resistance.

Resistance lets us clearly know that we are trying on something new.  It may be our first wonderful indicator that we are actually attempting some kind of change.  If we push it away or get more forceful, committed, or strong, we distance ourselves from being able to effectively understand and work with our resistance and we unintentionally increase the pressure of the ‘equal and opposing force.’  Instead, we need to bring resistance in closer rather than pushing it away.

In coaching, as in many other disciplines, one of the ways to bring resistance closer is to consciously inquire into our unique ways of changing and resisting.  Consider a number of clients all attempting the same practice:  To make more requests of others rather than always doing everything themselves.  Their unique forms of resistance may arise as demonstrated below.

Person A’s Form of Resistance:

‘I’ll postpone making any requests of my colleagues and instead I’ll lay the groundwork until I feel confident that they will say yes to me when I ask’

Person B’s Form of Resistance:

‘What’s the point of making requests, they won’t do the job as well as I would’

Person C’s Form of Resistance:

‘It is just easier to do it myself’

These three forms of resistance provide incredible insight into the client’s unique way of interpreting themselves, their capabilities, their work situations, etc.  As coaches, our job is to work with these very unique clients in different ways versus saying the same thing to each of them, ‘Just do it. I know you can.’ which is asking them to employ will.

The key is to bring resistance close.  Get familiar with its nuances, the stories it tells, and its strength.  Writing in a coaching journal about new practices and related resistance that accompanies the practice is a powerful way of getting close to and gaining understanding of resistance, what its stories are, what it has allowed for in the past, what it is closing down now, etc.  Self-observation and reflection is a critical component used to become familiar with our justifications, stories, and unique ways of resisting change.

Similarly, as our behaviours change, resistance can also show up in the relationships that surround us: our friends, family, and colleagues.  Even when we are changing in ways that have us become more human, compassionate, and understanding, those around us may resist.  Think about it.

An executive who is known to be really aggressive, blunt, even hurtful in the things she says starts to become kinder, more open, more inclusive… People who work with her start questioning:  What happened to her?  What’s up with her?  What do you think she wants?  What is she up to?  There can be a distrust of the ‘new’ even if the new actions are welcomed.  Why?  Because it threatens the system that was previously understood and clear.  People around her had become quite adept at knowing how to manage with, through and around her in a predictable way with consistent results.  The leader’s old behaviours were reliable and known and therefore, could even be considered safe due to their level of predictability.  People knew exactly what to gripe about consistently.  And now?  They don’t know what is going on, how to react, what to do.  A new force is felt and then, an equal and opposing force arises.

How do we prepare our clients for this type of resistance?  The client (or any person who is attempting to change something) can choose to be direct with the people who will be affected by first letting them know what they are trying to do and that they will not be reliable at first – try not wobbling the first time you ride a bike!  The coach can also work with the client to let them know that the system will kick back.  If clients are aware of these aspects of systemic response in advance, the reactions of those around them will be more quickly recognized and acknowledged as they emerge.

This method of working with resistance acknowledges that it is a natural part of the change process versus developing strategies to resist our resistance, strategies to wrestle our resistance to the ground.  In fact, resistance is a clear indication that we are on the change path itself.

How can we learn to rely on its presence as a signpost along the way, as a natural part of the dance of change?  Perhaps we can first get very familiar with our own forms of resisting.

Below please find a list of self-observation exercises and journal questions to consider.

Daily Self-Observation and Journal Practice:

  1. When did I feel resistance today?
  2. How did this resistance present itself in my body?
  3. What were my judgments associated with the resistance? My feelings?
  4. What was I most responding to?
  5. What change was I resisting? (Having to change my mind or view or my way of being?  Having to drop my agenda, my way of seeing things?  My new practice?  This new idea?)
  1. What am I most trying to keep intact?
  2. What did I learn about my dance of change and resistance?