Chapter 8: Understanding Resistance
...It is always amazing to me how important it is for people not to be surprised. It seems that whatever happens in the world is OK as long as they are not surprised. When you have completed a study, you can tell a manager that the building has collapsed, the workers have just walked out, the chief financial officer has just run off with the vice president of marketing, and the IRS is knocking on the door, and the manager's first response is, "I'm not surprised." It's like being surprised is the worst thing in the world that could happen. The manager's fear of surprise is really the desire to always be in control. When we run into it, it is kind of deflating. It can signal to us that what we have developed is really not that important or unique and downplay our contribution. See the client's desire not to be surprised for what it is - a form of resistance and not really a reflection on your work.
The most blatant form of resistance is when the client attacks us. With angry words, a red face, pounding his fist on the desk, pointing her finger in your face, punctuating the end of every sentence. It leaves the consultant feeling like a bumbling child who not only has done poor work, but has somehow violated a line of morality that should never be crossed. Our response to attack is often either to withdraw or to respond in kind. Both responses mean that we are beginning to take the attack personally and not seeing it as one other form the resistance is taking.
Whenever a client comes to us for help, the client is experiencing some legitimate confusion. This may not be resistance, but just a desire for clarity.After things become clear to you, however, and you explain it two or three times, and the client keeps claiming to be confused or not understand, start to think that confusion may be this client's way of resisting.
This is the toughest of all. We keep making overtures to the client and get very little response in return. The client is passive. A client may say he has no particular reaction to what you are proposing. When you ask for a reaction, he says, "Keep on going, I don't have any problems with what you are saying. If I do, I'll speak up." Don't you believe it. Silence never means consent. If you are dealing with something important to the organization, it is not natural for the client to have no reaction. Silence means that the reaction is being blocked. For some people, silence or withholding reactions is really a fight style. They are saying by their actions, "I am holding on so tightly to my position and my feelings, that I won't even give you words." Beware the silent client. If you think a meeting went smoothly because the manager didn't raise any objections, don't trust it. Ask yourself whether the client gave you any real support or showed any real enthusiasm or got personally involved in the action. If there were few signs of life, begin to wonder whether silence was the form the client's resistance was taking.
When a person shifts the discussion from deciding how to proceed and starts exploring theory after theory about why things are the way they are, you are face to face with intellectualizing as resistance. The client says, "A fascinating hypothesis is implied by these results. I wonder if there is an inverse relationship between this situation and the last three times we went under. The crisis seems to have raised a number of questions."
Spending a lot of energy spinning theories is a way of taking the pain out of a situation. It is a defense most of us use when we get into a tight spot. This is not to knock the value of a good theory or the need to understand what is happening to us. It is a caution against Corroding with the client in engaging in ceaseless wondering when the question is whether you and the client are going to be able to face up to a difficult situation. The time to suspect intellectualizing is when it begins at a high-tension moment or in a high-tension meeting. When this happens, your task is to bring the discussion back to actions, away from theories.
Moralizing resistance makes great use of certain words and phrases: "those people" and "should" and "they need to understand." When you hear them being used, you know you are about to go on a trip into a world of how things ought to be, which is simply a moralizing defense against reality. People use the phrase "those people" about anyone who's not in the room at the time. It is a phrase of superiority used in describing people who (1) are usually at a lower organizational level than the speaker, or (2) are unhappy about something the speaker has done and, therefore, "really don't understand the way things have to be."
Phrases of superiority are actually ways of putting oneself on a pedestal. Pedestal sitting is always a defense against feeling some uncomfortable feelings and taking some uncomfortable actions.
The phrase "they need to understand" means "I understand - they don't. Why don't they see things clearly and with the same broad perspective that I do? Ah, the burdens of knowing are great and unceasing!" Frequently "those people" the speaker is talking about do understand. They understand perfectly. The problem (for the speaker) is that they don't agree. So instead of confronting the conflict in views, the speaker escapes into a moralistic position.
Moralizing can be seductive to the consultant. The moralizing manager is inviting you to join him or her in a very select circle of people who know what is best for "those people" and who know what they "need to understand." This is an elite position to be in; it has the feeling of power and it is well-protected-if the rest of the organization does not appreciate what you do, this is just further indication how confused they are and how much more they need you! Resist the temptation with as much grace and persistence as possible.
The most difficult form of resistance to see comes from the compliant manager who totally agrees with you and eagerly wants to know what to do next. It is hard to see compliance as resistance because you are getting exactly what you want - agreement and respect. If you really trust the concept that in each manager there is some ambivalence about your help, then when you get no negative reaction at all, you know something is missing.
Each client has some reservations about a given course of action. If the reservations don't get expressed to you, they will come out somewhere else, perhaps in a more destructive way. I would rather the reservations get said directly to me, then I can deal with them. You can tell when the agreeable client is resisting by compliance. You are getting this form of resistance any time there is almost total absence of any reservations and a low energy agreement. If the agreement is made with high energy, and enthusiasm and sincere understanding of what we are facing, you might simply feel lucky and not take it as resistance, even if there are few reservations expressed. But beware the client who expresses a desire to quickly get to solutions without any discussion of problems - also the client who acts very dependent on you and implies that whatever you do is fine.
If there has been elaborate data collection in your project, the first wave of questions will be about your methods. If you administered a questionnaire, you will be asked about how many people responded, at what level of response, and whether the findings are statistically significant at the .05 level. Next will be questions about how people in the guardhouse and on the night shift responded....