What You Resist Persists. Moving Beyond Resistance in Yourself and Your Team


Do these phrases sound familiar:

  • I don’t want to get up! Just 10 more minutes.
  • That’s not going to work. Announcing something and crickets.
  • Behind these statements is one of the most powerful forces in the world— Resistance.

I personally believe that resistance is one of the greatest obstacles we face every day. It takes us out of our flow, stops change in its tracks and keeps us stuck. It’s a big stop sign that prevents us from moving ahead in our lives and being happy. It’s our physical and emotional body’s way of putting a halt on things. Think of it like trying to put your right foot on the gas and your left foot is slamming on the brakes. Sometimes, it’s not a big stop sign but small and insidious. You don’t even know it’s there. Resistance is at work every day in ourselves and the people around us. If you want to be effective as a leader, you need to know how to spot resistance in yourself and others to work through it quickly. Let’s start by looking at resistance in ourselves and really understanding this complicated beast.

What is Resistance?

Resistance is our natural opposition and refusal to do something. It’s our inherent ability to resist harmful influences and to protect ourselves from harm. If helpful think of resistance like our immune system. It is always on patrol looking for disease, infection, and toxins to keep us safe. Resistance is a sign that emotionally we sense an attack, it’s a stress response. When that resistance appears we assess the danger and we react. We may fight it, retreat, or try to ignore it.

As a leader, If we are curious about resistance it will tell us a lot. First, we need to learn to recognize it.

How to Spot Resistance

Resistance can show up as confusion, overwhelm, immediate criticism, sarcasm, quiet compliance, sabotage, and silence. Another favorite of mine is procrastination! I’ll just do it later! When later never comes. Some of these are easy to spot right away like criticism and sarcasm. Others like silence and sabotage are quiet and deadly over the long run. Confusion and overwhelm are tricky. Confusion often shows up as, "I don’t understand.” coupled with overwhelm and a giving up to not understand. Another way to spot it is to listen for some common words: should, must, have to, can’t and won’t. Energetically and in the tone of voice, it could feel like a pushing against. Like me against you or me against the world attitude.

Over the years, I’ve become familiar with the signs that I’m resisting something. For me, it often shows up as frustration and anger or complete withdrawal. Other times, I’m possessed by a 6-year-old who is screaming "I don’t want to.” in her most bratty voice. Then I get flooded and I can’t tell you what I want, but I know I don’t want whatever is going on. My favorite is the rebellious teenager. I can feel her energy as she wants to cock one hip to the side to pronounce that “Your not the boss of me. I’ll show you who’s boss. Whatever!” It’s funny to look at now, but not in the moment.

I invite you to start to become familiar with your own resistance and how it shows up. To start, bring up memories of the past when you know you had resistance. It could be going to a meeting, going to your families during the holidays, or heck even taking out the trash. Take note of what you feel in your body and what you told yourself. Another way to tap into resistance is to think of something you don’t like and do the same physical inventory. If it helps, think of your least favorite vegetable, like lima beans.

Different Types of Resistance

All resistance isn’t the same. We resist different things and at the same time. To move through resistance and overcome it, it is helpful to understand what is being resisted. In the book Beyond the Wall of Resistance Rick Mauer details 3 levels of resistance.

Level 1: I don’t get it!

I like to think of this as intellectual resistance to the facts, figures, or idea. Usually, there is a lack of information, disagreement over the data and how it’s been interpreted or confusion in how the facts drove the conclusion. At this level, it’s important to make the right information and data available or to talk through conclusions.

Level 2: I don’t like it!

This is the emotional reaction behind the resistance. The question is am I safe or is there a threat? That threat could be to values, a way of working, livelihood, comfort, and more. Resistance shows up as a no, and we don’t always know why. Here, it’s important for us to listen to the reactions and get underneath the resistance. I’ll talk more about this later.

Level 3: I don’t like you!

Level 3 is a sign that people are doubting you, don’t trust you and are questioning your leadership. In this space, your team may even trust you but not who you represent and can transfer their mistrust of others onto you. Level 3 resistance can be the trickiest to overcome. Your best tool is to build trust and respect.

Before we can manage resistance in others, we have to manage our own.

Moving Beyond Resistance

Now that you’ve learned about resistance and can spot it, let’s learn how to move through it.

  1. Welcome your resistance. Don’t make your resistance wrong. Admit that you are resisting having, being, or doing something, or not having, being, or doing something.
  2. Check in with your body. Where do you feel resistance? What do you feel? Can you remember the first time you felt that way? Track it back and sit with it, see what unfolds. Is there a belief there? Resistance is protecting you from feeling that belief and that same pain.
  3. Get curious. Now that you’ve welcomed the resistance and tracked the feeling, let’s get curious. What is resistance protecting you from?
  4. What do you need? What is the yes?

Managing Resistance in Others

Before you read on, I invite you to think about your team, partners you work with, your own manager, and even yourself. What are some of the common signs of resistance you see? Think about words people use, the tone of voice, breathing patterns, posture, and presence. Make a list. Awesome! This will make the next section even more effective.

Step 1. Be present with your own resistance first

Probably not what you want to hear, but as a leader if you yourself are in resistance and leading change people are going to sense it. It starts with us.

Step 2. Welcome resistance

Let them know that resistance it ok and that you are opening to talk about it. Dig underneath the silence or sarcasm to understand what they are resisting and what level of resistance it is.

Step 3: Speak to the resistance

You can’t just tell someone to get over it. I wish it was that easy, and it isn’t. You can’t rush someone through resistance, or push them into something. It’ll just cause more resistance. If you want to overcome resistance you need to speak to their level of resistance and address their concerns by making a compelling case. A compelling case will create the urgency, need, excitement and motivation for the change. It’ll allow them to ease off the brake and start moving forward.

Step 4. Create the right environment for change

If you are trying to lose weight; you don’t keep ice cream, soda, cakes and your other favorite treats in the house. You’ll usually clear out all the junk food, buy healthy food, invest in a new pair of sneakers and schedule time at the gym. The same goes for any other change.

As leaders, we need to create an environment that will allow the change to take root. We can’t make the change happen. We can only create the conditions and the culture that will allow the change to occur. We do this by removing barriers in the way of change and involving people in the change process by giving them things they can trust and control. Once they have bought into the vision, give them responsibility for a part of the change. You can give people control, by creating predictability - what information do people want to know, how often do they want to be informed, how do they want to receive the information, if they have questions how can they ask them, of whom, and how will they get an answer. Set up a time to answer questions and listen to objections.

Step 5: Be visible & communicate more

Remember as a leader you will have more access to information and for longer periods of time than your team. You might even get tired and bored of information and topics long before your team will. This is the time to be walking the aisles more, asking questions, checking in, and over communicating. Resistance doesn’t just go away. It will come in waves.

Recommended Books

  • Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change by William Bridges
  • Beyond the Wall of Resistance by Rick Mauer
  • Immunity to Change by Robert Keegan


About the Author

Kim-Elisha Proctor is an Executive Coach, teacher, and writer. For over 15 years, she has worked with companies at all stages of growth and understands the complexity of organizations and leadership that is needed for success. Whether one-on-one coaching, with groups or delivering leadership development programs, her passion is the same: to support leaders to enhance their performance, impact, purpose & well-being to create communities they long to belong to.

Kim-ElishaCreate & Navigate Change, Emotional Health, Lead Smarter