Resistance and Resistances


Understanding resistance in oneself and others is critical for professional coaches as well as for those leading teams and organizations. Working with resistance requires exceptional self and social awareness, a deft touch to engage with the energy of individuals and groups, and a healthy sense of humor regarding oneself.

We begin by stating that resisting is necessary for living. The first word many children learn is no. No before yes, seems to be part of our biological wiring. From the start resisting is an important part of life.

With that, we learn at an early age that resistance is a negative thing. Good children don’t do this or, don’t do that, don’t say this, or don’t say that. Early psychoanalytic therapy was designed to help people give up resisting.

Yet resistance is present at all times and in all living systems. It can be seen as a healthy response to one’s environment, a way to solve a problem, to manage or cope with potentially difficult even dangerous situations. Imagine being raised in a family where standing out resulted in verbal, psychological, physical abuse or humiliation. Imagine a similar work situation one where expressing contrary or opposing points of view or having a different work style than most, results in disapproval, retribution and scorn, along with lack of advancement or social isolation.

A normal response might be learning to show no emotion, learning to become invisible and go “unseen.” Keeping one’s head down and drawing no attention to oneself so as to stay physically safe or keep a job. Learning to desensitize.

Resistance creates boundaries, it’s a way of defining ourselves in relationship to others and our environment. I like this. I don’t like that. I’m drawn to this. I’m not attracted to that. This interest me. This bores me.

Resistance can be:

• Protection from the unknown

• Behavior oriented towards creating safety

• Behavior designed to communicate NO

• Habitual patterns used without awareness

• Fear of negative outcomes

• Fear of new possibilities

• Lack of vision

Resistance is often rooted in differences and humans are naturally wary of differences. Our biologically ingrained suspicion of difference is often the stimulus for much of the suffering in intimate relationships and the world.

Gestalt theory and practice encourages us to move toward differences, to get curious and interested in our differences and to engage with resistance. In differences there’s energy and with energy you can do work and make change.

Whenever there are forces for change, it will generate the opposite – forces for sameness. This is true between individuals, within groups and organizations, and internally as in within ourselves. There is always resistance.

To re-state, resistances are over-developed patterns of people doing the best they could. That resistance often stems from habitual behavior once useful in solving a problem or handling a difficult situation. Problems arise when fixed patterns or habits become overdeveloped and out of our awareness and bring us into conflict with others. This is true for individuals, couples, families, groups, teams or organizations.

And these same patterns help us creatively adjust to life’s twists and turns. The short of it is that resistances can be both positive and negative.

One example. Retroflection is a physical turning inward, doing to and for myself what I wish to do to others, or have others do to or for me. Retroflecting can be an efficient way to soothe myself when no one else is available. But retroflecting can be harmful and self-destructive manifesting in physical or emotional ailments.

For instance, in the spirit of trust and collaboration I share my big idea about a work situation with a colleague. That same colleague takes this idea, my idea, to senior management and is rewarded for same. I am furious with my colleague but choose to turn inward and berate myself. I return to a familiar narrative about how naïve and stupid I am, obviously not deserving of advancement. I turn my anger and frustration inward and “bite my tongue”, fearful that speaking up or expressing my anger might get me in trouble.

Such behavior cuts us off from others and from other parts of ourselves. To bite our tongues when others are open to hearing our opinions, diminishes possibilities for growth and relationship.

Resistance is most often relational or between people. It happens when people are experiencing different realities. Given that our values, prior experiences, and beliefs are often different a particular situation will cause varied responses in people. We are all responsible for what happens between us. When something happens between two or more people, all are contributing. There is no such thing as a bystander.

6 Resistance Styles:

Introjection: Taking in or swallowing an experience “whole” without question. Being naïve or gullible. Children do this all the time with their parent’s messages. Often, we turn these into life’s shoulds.

Positive example: Always look both ways before you cross the street.

Less than positive example: Never interrupt people, it’s rude. Let others go first and learn to wait your turn. If we never interrupt or always wait to speak how will anyone ever know that we have strong feelings, care about something, actually have an opinion?

Projection: Blaming another, or attributing one’s disowned feelings, desires, or characteristic to another. Anticipating behavior from someone else that has more to do with one’s own fears or hang-ups. For example: He’s going to attack me the minute I open my mouth. (Spoken by someone who sees other’s disagreement as attack because he cannot own his own hostility.)

Retroflection: Doing to oneself what you want to do to others, or what you want others to do to you. For example, swallowing one’s anger to avoid conflict, soothing oneself when feeling threatened.

Deflection: Avoiding direct contact by breaking the mood, shifting attention, or changing the subject. For example, using a joke or sarcasm to diffuse a serious situation, ignoring or refusing a compliment.

Confluence: “Going along to get along.” Agreeing with others to avoid conflict or because one is unable to differentiate oneself and still feel valued or accepted. For example, agreeing with other’s opinions to avoid having to take a position.

Desensitization: “Numbing out.” Feeling nothing as a way to avoid dealing with difficult or painful issues. Dissociating or avoiding direct contact physically, emotionally, or mentally. For example, adopting a cynical attitude in the face of real pain.

Resistance may be boiled down to three subsets:

 I don’t get it.

 I don’t like it.

 I don’t like you.

Level 1 - I don’t get itResistor - I truly do not understand what you’re asking of me or why. This appears to be counter to what we had agreed at our last meeting. I am going to have a hard time supporting this initiative (and you) unless I get greater clarity.

We must pause to understand that what is obvious to us is not the case for another. Furthermore, to get interested and curious about the source of their confusion. They may be not be alone, they may be voicing a resistance that others feel but are not saying. Lean in and say . . . Help me understand . . . What are you not seeing . . . What’s the view from your seat . . . What do you think I’m missing?

Level 2 – I don’t like it – Resistor - I’m not comfortable with this, you’re asking me and my team to do something we’ve never done before. The risk is too great, we could lose the account and look foolish. This is not what I signed up for, I feel as if you’re changing the rules of the game mid-stream.

What often happens at Level 2 is that people do get it but truly do not like it, see above. Resistance may be expressed as Level 1, or people may just say that they don’t like it. The work is understanding the source of the discomfort. Perhaps people feel unsafe or uncertain, overwhelmed, or pushed too hard. They push back. Allowing that pushback and creating a measure of safety and certainty, and/or expressing confidence in them will help.

We’re going to get through this together . . . I will work with you . . . You will have whatever resources you need . . . I understand your discomfort . . . I often find myself in that position . . . I gave you this assignment because I know that you can do it,

Level 3 – I don’t like you – Here the person likely gets it and may or may not like it. What’s at play is their dislike for you and their wish to make your life difficult. Their stated reasons for resisting may be Level 1 or 2 but their actions are about undermining or sabotaging your efforts.

This is a challenging situation. Both parties must be willing to move towards one another, willing to suspend judgement. With a difference in hierarchy a third party may be necessary to facilitate the conversation. Unless predicated upon a minor misunderstanding a quick fix may not be forthcoming.

Finally, we understand that what we call resisting often happens when people are having different experiences and different realities than ours. The issue is not whether resistance is generated, it always is, simply because people's values, experience and behavior are different. Resistances occur as a normal part of the relationships both within and between people.

Perhaps the last word comes from my long-term teacher Sonia Nevis. Sonia would say that when you boil it down resistance is either useful or useless, and that it can take a lot of work to come to the place of understanding.

This article is a compilation of my work and the writings of Joseph Melnick and Sonia March Nevis from their book The Evolution of the Cape Cod Model, Gestalt Conversations, Theory and Practice.

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