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Responding to Resistance

January has gone by in a blur! And while we might still be capitalizing on newfound motivation in the new year, we may also be experiencing some “new year, new me” resistance. “Resistance” is any behavior that communicates dissatisfaction or conflict in response to new or changing information or experiences. If this is a time of year when you are taking on new projects, restructuring or onboarding new team members, then you may very well be experiencing some resistance in your group. Transitions and change are difficult, and navigating them as groups and organizations can be even more challenging than just as individuals.

But, resistance isn’t something that we need to be afraid of or even something that we need to battle or “overcome”. Resistance is a natural process that if addressed gracefully can help us to learn more about our groups and to greatly improve our group dynamic.   

Resistance itself can be hard to identify because it looks different for every person, every group, and every situation. As leaders, we might only notice the more obvious signs of tension or conflict like in-fighting or complaining. However, resistance often looks much more subtle than either of those things. In his book Flawless Consulting: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used (2000), Peter Block identified a variety of ways that resistance may present itself in a group:

Give me more detail: groups aren’t satisfied with the amount of information they have been given and demand more
Flood you with detail: groups share an overwhelming and unnecessary amount of information
I’m not surprised: groups may act like they’ve heard it all before
Attack: groups may take their anger or frustration out on you
Confusion: group is still experiencing confusion even when situation has been made clear
Silence: group gives little to no response or engagement
Moralizing: groups place blame somewhere else
Compliance: groups are overly agreeable
Pressing for solutions: groups don’t want to spend time talking about the problem, only possible solutions

Once we’ve pinpointed the specific behavior, then we can begin to explore the underlying causes. Everyone has their own unique triggers – I tend to resist things that I feel like I don’t have enough knowledge or mastery of (see my post I Think, I Know). Block says resistance stems from three main causes: fear of vulnerability, fear of the unknown, and the need for control. In my example, the resistance comes from a fear of vulnerability – I fear I’ll show weakness if I admit to the limits of my knowledge or expertise. Because I know this about myself, I can better prepare myself for transitions into new roles and responsibilities with my team.

That being said, “Don’t go looking for trouble”. The caveat here is that if we go looking for resistance then of course we’re bound to find it. Sometimes it’s just not resistance. It’s a dangerous practice as leaders to assume every “no” from our group comes from a place of fear or vulnerability. If we make these assumptions ourselves then we miss out of the very important conversations that will help us to connect with, engage, and motivate our groups.  There are a variety of other reasons why our groups may not be on board including conflicts in values, goals, information, or methodology. It’s important for us to engage in crucial conversations with our groups in order to have a true understanding of the real issues at hand.

So, what can we do? We need some strategies to help us through this process.

Block says that “There is no way you can talk {someone} out of their resistance because resistance is an emotional process. You cannot talk people out of how they are feeling.” While this might be true, it doesn’t mean that talking about the resistance can’t help.

  • Take a Timeout – First, we need to regroup. Take a timeout from the meeting, the project, the day to address the resistance in the group. When we can dedicate and focus time to resolving these conflicts we have a better chance of success. Create a strong foundation in this step by creating a safe space and establishing groundrules.


  • Debrief – Facilitate an involved discussion around the issue. If you are inherently involved in the resistance or you suspect that you may be an active part in the cause, this conversation may best be led by an outside facilitator. This is the group’s opportunity to express themselves freely. Listen to understand, don’t listen to respond. Consider questions like these to get started:
    • What’s one word to describe how you feel about recent changes?
    • What’s working for our group right now? What’s not? Why do we think that is?
    • What are we our hopes? What are our fears? Where do those things come from?
    • What do you feel you need in order to be successful?


  • Find Common Ground – This step should be a direct result of your debrief. Come to some sort of agreement that works for all parties that will help you to move forward. This step may take the longest. Watch for more signs of resistance here and try to keep everyone involved and participating in finding resolutions.


  • Take Action – This is the most important step. Take action on whatever agreements you made when finding common ground. Follow through on your commitments and invite your group to do the same.


  • Check In – Remember to check in on progress. Resistance is rarely resolved in a single day. Intentionally check in with your group to see if the changes you have made are helping. Be prepared to facilitate this process again to make more adjustments as needed.

Resistance is a natural part of our group’s development. When we can respond to resistance in a positive and productive way, we communicate to our group that they are valuable, we acknowledge that change is a process, and we take meaningful steps towards becoming a more high performing  team.

*Leadership Lesson*

Pair the steps above with an experiential activity like one of these from our Activities Database:

Hopes and Fears

Understand group hopes and fears

I Represent Conflict

Understand how participants respond to and resolve conflict

Mole Game

An activity about working together through challenges with trust

*Meet the Author*

Caelan Cooney is another Millennial who wants ‘to make an impact’, a self-proclaimed movie critic, avid explorer, lifelong learner, and Chapman University graduate.