How to overcome resistance at the workfloor (anytime, anywhere, and with anyone)
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This is a series of blogposts wherein we share our experience in transforming society and business to what is needed most. How do we let go of the old, face contemporary complacency, and how do we step into the emerging future?

When you are ready, you come. And when you know you’re not ready yet, feel free to stay where you are. I know you will find me when the time is right. Give me a call and I’ll be there.

If I would be a sing and songwriter, I would probably score a hit with the above line. Can you hear me or Madonna sing it already? Fortunately I am not a singer (though I have my perks of for example liking sounds from trams hitting a passover on the railway). Yet, sometimes, these flows of inspiration unexpectedly pour into daily work. Let me explain in the following how the imprint of the above lines may help you to overcome and deal with the resistance-to-change in your environment. Especially when you feel that those backward-pulling forces stop you from achieving your personal, organisational, or systemic mission, then this article is written for you. We need curiosity about those who resist, not pointing our finger to “them”. We need to ask ourselves what it is that those-who-resist-another-perspective feel threatened, anxious, alone, or angry about. We need to reflect on ourselves, to respond in a way that helps those who resist most, while we constructively bring in our experience. Not with the intention to change them, rather, with the intention to connect from both places of truth. By inviting our own deep-felt truth, we invite honesty with others.

RESISTANCE GENERALLY COMES FROM LACK OF SKILLS, COURAGE, OR WILLINGNESS

Reality is not always comfortable. Instead, a lot of times it is painful to realise what it is you have done for so long. It is painful to realise how you have hurt yourself and others on the way. It hurts to realise how life could have been differently (except from that this is exactly what was needed for you to learn it). In order to keep ourselves together, we all develop strategies to avoid the truth. Generally, I like to discern three ways in which we tend to do this:

  1. People CANNOT see, hear, feel what it is you are saying. It is too painful or too much out of our comfort zone.
  2. People do NOT DARE to be radically honest with themselves, let alone with others. Isn’t ignorance bless after all?
  3. People do not WANT to hear what makes them uncomfortable with their (work/life/partner/food/friend) choices.

1. ABSENCE OF SKILLS LEADS TO THE INABILITY TO EXPERIENCE REALITY AS IT IS

What you have not learned from your parents, teachers, or colleagues, you cannot pass on. Most of the violence, stubborness, and resistance result from not having learned to deal with the underlying emotions differently. Only by keeping on to our primitive habits (fight, flight, freeze, please), we can deal with reality as it is. At least we think we do.

I used to be very pleasing. Without resistance and setting your boundaries, however, where is the line? Others around you quickly start to push it. The result? I was no longer determining the course of my own life. I would do what others would expect from me, even at expense of my own pleasure. I felt alienated and disgusted, especially with others. It took some time before I learned how to say “no”, not feel guilty about it, and trust that people still like me.

Generally speaking, it is your personal, family, and/or organisational traumas that form a complex set of unconscious dynamics. It is these interactions that create groupthink, blindspots, and distorted decision-making. For instance,

The general public is perplexed. How can pension funds still provide capital for projects in the oil and gas sector when it is clear that these will add to CO2 emissions? Why do they decide on this when energy from the sun is cheaper by now? What old paradigm do they still live in?

When we only use our heads, we miss all the sensory data from our bodies: What does our heart tell us? What does our intuition in our belly tell us? Ignoring physical sensory perceptions comes at a price. Especially when we find ourselves in changing circumstances, we need our heads, hearts, and hands. Plus where do our feet bring us?

2. LACK OF COURAGE TENDS TO DIRECT VIEWS TOWARDS KEEPING THE STATUS QUO

It takes guts to face your self-imposed limitations. It take courage to dive into the unknown and into your deepest insecurities. It takes confidence in oneself to show one’s vulnerability, and it takes trust to stay in touch with others.

Where we hold our biggest pain, we find our biggest treasure. This is challenging because when you dive into your inner world, you are faced with the bodily reactions that “pull you back” to where it was once anxious, scared, angry, or sad. Will I come out? Will I survive? Of course you will. However, we all have to overcome our single biggest fear first: that of fear itself. We need to, as it were, “re-program” our most primary, instinctual habits. It is as if we completely re-invent our micro-selves. It is as if we re-wire our emotional and social patterns of our lives.

Whereas humans are raised and programmed to avoid pain, learning requires –sometimes literally– to lean in instead.

When learning to snowboard, what struck me was how you need to lean into the lowest point of your board. You need to –as it were– pressure the lowest point of your board, and literally get out of balance, to balance yourself. The automatic response of everyone is to lean back, onto the highest point of the board, closest to the mountain, however, exactly by doing that, you fall. So leaning in means you’re safe, though instinctually it feels like you’re seeking danger.

Depending on the (work) culture it may also be that certain things are in the “no-discussion” zone or in the “endless-debate-but-nothing-will-ever-change” zone. In that case, paradoxical interventions may help you out. These actions surprise all, so that set-in-stone roles, patterns, and ways of communication, are broken instantly. Everyone needs to take another position. Everyone is caught off guard and is invited to relate differently. How do you break the silence?

I remember how I was having lunch with this global manager of one of the biggest tech firms in the world. She was known to be ruthless. I looked her in the eyes and said: “You know what, I like you, I think you are cute and very sweet.” After she made sure everyone on the table knew about what I said, she asked me why I told her. Interestingly, I did not say this to please her. Instead, I really felt it in that moment. I called out that part of her that she was normally not seen for. It was the most sincere thing I could do. I was loyal to her inner child’s wisdom, not to the ego-status she carefully built up. I was loyal to her love, not to her defence shield.

It takes courage to swim against the stream of social conventions. It takes courage to go speak about our primal energies. It takes courage to see through ourselves and others. There is not an “us” versus “them”. There is only different pieces to the puzzle. We need everyone’s version of reality to solve world’s most complex challenges.

3. UNWILLINGNESS BLOCKS THE ENERGY NEEDED TO STEP INTO A CHANGEMAKER ROLE

Most people are change and risk-averse. That is to say, what is familiar we like to keep, what’s new, well, let’s forget about it, shall we? After all, what do we gain or loose from a successful transition? What lies beyond stubborness?

The people with resistance in our change trajectories I do I always like most. Why? Because they care most. They actually give a f#ck. It is  my assumption that they must have been the biggest dreamers of all. It is the qualities beyond disappointment that they hold that we need now. It is the hope –they have given up– that we should strive to unlock and unfreeze again.

Sometimes we just do not want to admit something needs to change. We are not prepared to go there, and that exactly that resistance is okay. We need not change the world in one go. Besides, it may not be up to us anyways.

In Dutch we have this brilliant saying. It says: “You can drag a horse to the water, but, if it does not want to drink, it will not.” It comes down to this: Why try to support someone who has no intention to change? That must be a waste of time, right? Sometimes we can only accept that.

Regularly, we are not prepared to let go of the images and illusions of ourselves, our parents, and our community.

He was sad. He was angry. He was disappointed. How annoyed I was! How could he?! This is not professional and does not belong in the office, right? It was not until my coach at the time asked me if I could also “grant” him his emotions, that my opinion changed. No longer did I need to fight the draining energy loops we were both in. He had his emotions, like I had mine.

Pick your battles wisely. Sometimes it is not the right time to say certain things. Accept it, change it, or let someone go. Know the difference between your circle of concern and your circle of influence – they might not overlap at all times.

The organisation where I volunteered definitely had one major drawback: it was centred around one person. He was “the man”. He was “the king”. All energy was directed towards supporting him. While “the master” enjoyed all the attention of his people, it was also draining his energy. After all, expectations were high. Since he was unwilling to look at his own “unique” position, he lost the best people around him. Empty-handed he would stand time after time. I never bothered to tell him. It is a lesson he had to learn, not by being told, but by seeing it himself. Only when we make ourselves the decision that “it’s enough”, it might also be so.

WHY WE SHOULD STOP RESIST THE WORLD AS IT IS (AND SHOULD START WITH CURIOSITY FIRST)

Let’s say that you have found out what it is exactly that the other person resists, what do you do? Are you set out to change the other person and to persuade him into your “camp”? Or are you set out to embrace the resistance, thus respect someone’s boundaries, thus allowing reality to transform? Are you aware of what is really going on?

Through our intention of accepting reality as it is, we might actually transform it. Like in neuroscience, by accepting the solid characteristics of the atom, we actually invite the vibration, the move by the other, one that is needed for the social system to thrive.

Interestingly, however, we always think we want to “change the world” or “the other”, but what about ourselves?

I am on the phone with this potential client. He suddenly interrupts me, and says: “To be clear, our change assignment is to change the behavior with the businesses in our portfolio. I am afraid that what we talk about now would mean we become too much internally oriented.” I breathe in, confused. “Am I speaking morse-code?” I ask myself. Before even thinking about it, I hear myself say: “Well, that’s great, but, let me get one thing clear: You cannot change another person. That is my basic assumption.” I continue: “The only way we can change others is by changing our own attitudes toward that person. The blocks are not “out there”, they are inside us, we block ourselves. And when the world is not working with us, it is an opportunity to learn how to deal with that differently than how we were raised or learned to deal with that. It all comes down to how we look at ourselves in the relationship with another.” Then I added: “And even when you are aware of yourself, you still need to deal with the projections of those you want to influence.” My (then) client says, “Okay, fair enough, so what’s the plan to get going?”

Of course, not everyone is willing to listen. However, when we listen ourselves first, and bring in our experience (trust me, I have been trying to change people), we can harvest sustainable results. After all, curiosity invites itself back.

Suddenly I think about it. How is that project with her going? “Haven’t heard from her for ages!” I think to myself. I decide to contact her. I call her – voicemail. I e-mail her – no reply. The next day I find her in the office where she is stationed. Before I walk towards her, she already runs up to me and says “We need to talk”. “I think we do indeed!” I say friendly. “Ok, tell me. What is going on?” I ask. After explaining how she feels, I tell her how much of it I recognise when I was in that phase of her career. At this point, I learned my lessons earlier than she did. She feels relieved with my being there with her, for hanging on, for hanging in there. I tell her how I would have liked to know about her process and the project’s progress: “It’s not that I do not care about the project or the results, I do, however, not at all costs.” “And, with regards to the project, please update me when it does not work out, or you need help. I like to stay connected, whatever is going on.” She nodds. “I like that too.” Since this conversation our collaboration works like a charm. She now underpromises and overdelivers.

INSIGHT INTO THE OTHER PERSON’S RESISTANCE IS KEY, INSIGHTS INTO YOUR OWN EVEN BETTER

While mapping the type of resistance with another, equally, if not more important, is to figure out how you know this place. Take for example this, and see how I turned the conversation around, not to manipulate, but by bringing in exactly my own experience with where the person was in his process. Let me share a part of our conversation:

“Why should I join you? I am not sure.” he sighs. I tell him how I know this pattern. How I have so much to give, yet also how I have given up on giving freely when I was younger. Why was it never good enough? Why was it not received for what it was – pure love? I tell him how “I want to work with people who can give freely, who are independent and authentic in their passion for systemic work.” I continue saying “And this is something to figure out together – what is it that we project upon each other? I can tell you, honestly, that it is my striving to be open for that conversation, even when I do not like it in that moment, I know I will be thankful afterwards. It is by the way exactly this kind of mirroring that I need for the project to succeed. That is why I am inviting you. Let me know when you are ready. I am here and I am in it for the long run. Please let me also know if you need some more time to think and feel about it, okay?”

Once you find someone who resists a notion of yours, it is key to relate to that “as if it were your own”. By recognising that part in yourself, there are a few things that happen (and you will notice this as soon as you start practicing this):

  1. You become more human(e) towards the other side of the phone or table
  2. The other person is no longer alone in that place – you are there together
  3. When you appreciate this resisting part in yourself, so can you with another
  4. When you connect to your inner resistance, you can figure out what it’s about
  5. When you know about yourself, it can give a clue on what the other might need?

Note that you do this with the right intention: to better connect to the other by revealing something personal about yourself. Watch out that you do not share about yourself as if it were a “game” who is worse or better off (been there, done that), or that it is another reason to “take over” the conversation, and therewith steal the show time of another.

IT IS NEVER THE RIGHT TIME, SO IT MIGHT AS WELL BE THE RIGHT TIME

No one with success (whatever that means for you) has never not been at low points in their lives. Life is an emotional journey. The quality to adapt and re-adjust yourself to the context you are in, is key. Resistance and working with or through that is part of life, also to our work lives. We might even say that “resistance” is life. After all, there are good reasons for it: it protects something that needs not be forgotten. The pain that is not seen comes to light. The wisdom that is needed presents itself. The future emerges. So, as soon as we are open and inviting –also for this– in our workplaces, we might change the way we do business and see people in business. Why see them as the problem when their love is part of the solution? No day without night. It is about being open to these underlying, untold, and uneasy stories. It is about falling seven times, getting up eight. And trust me, for as long you are the one not giving up on yourself, others, and your dreams, the crowd will follow you. There is no other way. After all, it is never the right time, so it might as well be the right time. Let resistance inspire you on your way. It’s all about love, pinky promise.

Would you like to know more? Contact us. Oscar Westra van Holthe is the CEO and founder of BLOCKBUSTERS consultancy. In these blogs he shares his insights around working with social dynamics in the business context.

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