Why I Appreciate Resistance and You Should Too
Resistance gets a bad wrap. It’s a wall, a suffocating constriction of movement, or something we need to “overcome.” It gets in the way of progress. It holds us back. It prioritizes safety over growth. It often shows up as stuckness. Seeing resistance this way sets us up to have an adversarial relationship with resistance (and with ourselves).
Instead, let’s take a moment to look at the positive aspects of resistance.
I like to see resistance as an alarm system sending out an alert signal. It is a signal telling us to pause, reflect, and use our best judgment. Ignoring it will only make the alarm system more concerned and send out an even louder signal. Ignoring resistance leads to deeper stuckness because the information our alert system is trying to give us is not being acknowledged, which means it cannot be used to develop a better understanding of the situation and how to move forward.
In organizations, you may have had trouble with people blocking innovation, and their resistance is slowing down your ability to move forward. They just don’t “get” the organization needs to change.
Instead of vilifying what are known as “Tradition Bearers” in Barry Johnson’s Polarity Management book, consider them as an alert system. What is the deeper wisdom in what they have to say? What does their resistance tell you from a larger perspective? What happens when you stop considering it a “personal issue” with change and begin to see it as an opportunity to look more closely at the situation? What might the innovators need to know before they forge ahead blindly into new territory? I like this simple example from dave at Calliope Learning that helps us stop and consider the “and” in polarities: Tradition AND Innovation.
The other example I like for regarding resistance as an alert system is a more personal, rather than organizational, example. It comes from Dan Siegel’s book, Mindsight. In the book, there is a story of a girl with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder who is able to tame her overactive alert system by talking to it.
By engaging in a dialogue with her inner alert system, rather than being upset with it or trying to suppress it, she was able to negotiate a course of action that allowed her to progress. This was because she acknowledged her overactive alert system and its desire to protect her, validated its efforts to keep her safe, and worked with it (via dialogue and negotiation) to gain the freedom to live her life more fully.
Her alert system was a tad too sensitive in trying to keep her safe, but they worked together so that she could listen to the alerts but not be completely thrown off by them.
Another way to see resistance is in relation to strength-training and growth. Without resistance from gravity, water, stretchy resistance bands, and the floor beneath our feet, we would be gelatinous puddles flowing every which way with no direction, no structure, and no ability to reach towards higher levels of complexity. More specifically and literally, astronauts and cosmonauts lose bone density in outer space because they are not encountering enough resistance from gravity to maintain their bone density. We need resistance!
Resistance is what allows us to emerge at higher levels of complexity. It is the structure keeping us from entropy and utter chaos. It is the force we work with, not against, to build our strength, to grow our literal and metaphorical muscles. When we stand on the ground, we are pushing against the ground and it is pushing right back. That’s how we are able to stand, trust in our stability, and reach towards something we desire.
Resistance can propel us forward just as it can hold us back. When we work with resistance to gain strength (think literally about exercises you do to strengthen your muscles and bones), we require more and more resistance over time. What was once difficult becomes easy as pie. This is not overcoming resistance. This is working with resistance to build your strength.
What is Resistance Telling You?
Why have a been procrasti-working (my term for working on something lower priority because I’m procrastinating working on the high priority item)? Why am I avoiding ______ (fill in the blank)? Is there something bigger at stake? Does my resistance represent something bigger or is it really just about me?
And next time you notice someone else exhibiting signs of resistance, have empathy and get curious. Understand that we all experience resistance sometimes and that it is something to get curious about rather than frustrated about.
What does it mean? Ask the same questions you would for yourself. Is it an alert (for the person or for the system at large)? Is it a strength-training exercise for the person (or even the whole organization) to use as a growth opportunity?
As strange as it is, resistance is your friend. Work with it, not against it, and you will be able to move forward and do amazing things.