Most of us are not fans of resistance. If we have taken the time and energy to build a considerate, collaborative, well thought out and flexible plan, we feel the universe should oblige us and reward our efforts with the intended results. If only it were so. In its simplest form resistance is defined as the refusal to accept a new version or state of something. We see resistance all around us, not just in our lives. It lives in science; whole formulas and calculations are based on it. Resistance is a fact of life, an inevitability. But it does not have to become an ever-present and nagging response to something over which we may have no control.
Sometimes it is not even our own resistance. I worked with a client who wanted to change his approach to leading others, and he made amazing strides in his program, but months into it his staff still didn’t trust him. He was very frustrated, felt that all his progress was useless and of no good purpose when the end results with his staff were still the same. It was not up to him to make his staff choose to trust him; each staff person needed to come to that in their own time and on their own terms. In the end he chose to take his newfound leadership skills and apply them elsewhere, and received the great benefits he was hoping for, but the other team of staff will forever be (for him) an unfinished story. The one that got away. Another client was working very hard to integrate healthful activities into a busy corporate life. She was doing really well too, from an outcomes perspective, but the way she chose to pursue the changes required her to be very vigilant. When resistance found her it was through the inevitable…business travel with a 6-hour time shift and many group lunches, dinners and cocktails…her changes took a beating, as did her feelings of achievement. It was hard for her to pick up the pieces. Anyone who has tried to change something about themselves can likely identify with these two examples. As humans we want others to be able to see what we’ve done; to celebrate it with us, or to acknowledge it in some way. We want to see progress. Often this happens, but many times it is not in our control to have that happen, at least not consistently. Sometimes we are not even able to provide that support to ourselves. Resistance wins, we stop putting effort towards changes. Newton’s Law dictates “For every action there is an equal an opposite reaction”. So what happens when we encounter this reaction? We all have a choice to make when faced with resistance (our own or someone else’s).
In nature resistance is often modeled as an act of resilience – as when a tree grows around an obstacle and thrives anyway. These resilient trees are always eye-caching to behold, the way they contort their trunks to grow around something, or simply absorb what is in it’s growth path, integrating it welcomingly into it’s own woody flesh. Resistance may be an inevitability, but it does not have to be a permanent state; resilience can be ever-present when we chose to nurture it. We may be aware of resistance, and it is good to become attuned to its presence, but to really work with it, like a resilient tree growing despite obstacles, we need to first accept resistance. No change we undertake ever transpires in a straight line, no matter how considerate the approach, no matter how well researched the plan. To use a different context to illustrate this, consider leash training a puppy. Anyone who has tried to train a puppy to walk appropriately on a leash begins with an instruction that goes something like this; when the puppy strains and pulls on the leash, the first thing you should do is stop (don’t pull on the leash, just stop). The first step is to minimize the resistance the puppy is putting on the leash by no longer pulling on it (or contributing to the tension). Then, call the puppy to you and praise it for listening well, thus taking all the tension out of the leash and creating slack. Over time, and with continued training, what will happen is when your dog feels the tension of resistance in it’s leash, it will stop and come to you (or quickly obey your command to do so) making the act of walking together a pleasant experience. The principle behind this series of guidance is that any living thing, when faced with resistance, will strain against it (and that includes us humans). “For every action there is an equal an opposite reaction”. It is a natural response. When we face resistance, the first thing we feel like doing is to put more force into our actions (opposite and reactive force). Even those amazing, resilient trees probably spent the first ten years or so fighting a losing battle of some kind, before discerning a new, more successful and resilient path forward. The illustration of puppy training may seem like a random one, but it has two important concepts in it that anyone can apply when faced with resistance.
The first is to stop; stop and become very present in what is happening, which may include becoming more aware of your hurt feelings, your negative mental chatter, your judgment, anger or feelings of defeat. Stop before you (further) contribute to the resistance you are experiencing by applying misguided effort or force. From this point, a place where you have stopped and become more mindful of what is happening in the moment, you can better determine what will create slack. Slack is important and it is the next step, it literally means to allow more room for movement along a continuum. While in the midst of a living breathing example of resistance you will have no puppy to call to, but you do have many options that give you additional slack, or more breathing room, allowing you to be realistic and compassionate about what is going on. Self-compassion is the first one and a starting place to check-in with yourself. Recrimination, being hard on oneself and expecting near perfection is a great way to create resistance. Being able to say “OK, that didn’t go as planned” and spend some time compassionately figuring out what went wrong (that may or may not have anything to do with you) can help to determine if a change in approach is needed or to stay the course. If you made a mistake, intentionally or unintentionally, giving yourself empathy, instead of a kick in the pants, will enable you to keep going rather than quit. The other great tool you have at your fingertips in the midst of resistance is objectivity. Once paused, you are better able to look at things from different perspectives, to see things in new light, which can go a long way towards helping you understand new things about what you are undertaking and how you are going about it. Being objective, asking questions, becoming curious and increasing communication all help to ensure that you are better able to plan, be flexible and adjust as needed, ensuring you get where you want to go. Not a straight line, but a true one.
When my client decided that he needed to see if he really had been able to undertake the changes in his leadership style he wanted, he made a choice to do so in a new environment where there were no preconceived assumptions about what kind of leader he was. He did so knowing he would walk away and never know if he could have turned the perceptions of the other team around, but he had taken the time to see that the best path forward for him was one with fewer ingrained obstacles over which he had no control. It was a considered strategy and one that had his long-term best interests at heart. He will always wonder about that other team, but he will do so from the perspective of a healthy and satisfying leadership career with another team who enjoys working with him. My other client took a look at what happened on that disastrous business trip and realized that she had applied her changes too narrowly and didn’t plan for the eventuality of having to modify her expectations of herself in an unusual circumstance. Now, she is much better prepared, and confident, that she can manage the challenges that come with making healthy lifestyle choices during global business travel. In both cases my clients chose to stop, reflect, apply self-compassion and be objective about what to expect from others, and themselves, and because of it they are far more likely to succeed in making the changes they are pursuing.
Resistance is inevitable, but we can all choose to build resilience. Like a tree that grows beautifully around an obstacle, we can pause and take the time to determine how best to adjust to change successfully, on our own terms.