Martyn Drake: Why resistance is often not what it seems

Every radical new idea or transformational opportunity will generate objections. And in every objection, there will be text and subtext

Martyn Drake

We’ve all encountered resistance, whether another organisation’s unwillingness to work in partnership, a team’s unwillingness to change, a teenager’s unwillingness to do any A-Level revision, despite consistently claiming to want to go to his first-choice university.

Maybe that last one’s just me.

Of course, when people give you a genuine, honest reason why they’re not buying in, you can often address their issues and end up with a better solution as a result. 

Or at least you can recognise that it’s insurmountable, and save both of you the time, tears, and tantrums at teatime.

But the problem comes when you get reasons, but not the real ones, and you’d be amazed how often that’s the case.

Instead, they’re simply stories we tell ourselves to try and keep us safe, stories we believe but that stifle our potential.

The story of “quick wins” is one: lots of people like the idea of quick wins because they show some progress, get some runs on the board, build momentum and so on.

But in reality, the vast majority of quick wins never turn out to be quick, nor much of a win, and most of us know this before we begin. But they’re a convenient way to resist the bigger, scarier ideas.

“We tried it before…”, “The problem is…”, and “They’ll never agree…”, are equally good examples.

Behind each one there is probably some truth: things that we should learn from last time, problems we would need to solve to make it work, people we would need to win over along the way. Each concern may well have valid implications.

And if it’s a promising enough idea, if it could help us reach, support, enable many more people to enjoy better lives, then those implications will be worth wrestling with. 

Isolating the valid concerns, picking them apart, finding better solutions and more creative options, this can be a very good use of time.

And it’s also the ideal way to see what the resistance is really about. 

Because if the person raising the issue leans into the discussion, joins you in coming up with alternatives, engages in thinking creatively around the problem, for that person, this issue is genuinely the crux of the matter.

Resolve it, and they’ll jump on board.

On the other hand, if they lean back from the discussion, disengage from the debate, raise a raft of issues one after the other, and often, as each one is solved, begin looking more uncomfortable rather than less; for that person, none of these things are what the resistance is really about.

Occasionally this is a conscious behaviour, but more often it’s entirely subconscious, their articulated concerns a manifestation of hidden fear, a sense of threat, an inner voice whispering: “I have a bad feeling about this,” possibly even in a Harrison Ford accent.

If you’re paying attention, you will recognise that there’s something deeper going on before they do themselves.

And recognise it you must. Because no matter how many problems you solve or barriers you break, this person will never get on board with the idea.

Their reservations are at an emotional level, the issues they’re raising a rationalisation rather than a rationale. 

Often, it’s a fear of failure, of exposure; of losing an anchor or an ally; of risking their status, self-esteem, self-image; of another conflict waiting for them on the home front if they don’t stop this advance.

Whatever the cause, unless you’re willing to sacrifice either the potential idea or the person with the issue, it’s something you’re going to have to work out with them.

If not, whether overtly or covertly, actively or passively, they will keep digging away, undermining progress, until either the real reason for their resistance is unpacked and addressed, or they’re taken out of circulation.

Every radical new idea or transformational opportunity will generate objections. And in every objection, there will be text and subtext. 

If you want to make change happen, in your sector, in your organisation, and yes, sometimes even in your own home, you need to become practiced in reading both.

Especially, it seems, when it comes to angst-ridden teenagers.

Martyn Drake is founder of the management consultancy firm Binley Drake Consulting


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