Overcoming Resistance


Nobody Wins an Argument

 Most people are resistant to change. We do not like to give up any control and oppose most attempts to influence us. These fundamentals of human nature mean that resistance will be frequently encountered. This is especially true today where we live in a digital and junk mail world and are bombarded with messages designed to manipulate us.

Reluctance to accept communications and to change is called resistance. Recognizing the inevitability of resistance and having tools to overcome it are a critical part of being a good communicator.

Resistance is most likely in the following situations:

  • When we are asked to take action, especially if it requires effort or some other cost
  • When the message conflicts with behavior or values
  • When the message comes from unliked

Remember, the experience is the message. A solid useful piece of advice will be rejected when it comes from a spouse with whom you are angry but happily accepted when it comes from a friend. In a later chapter, you will see that likeability is a powerful source of influence.

One of the keys to effective communication then is the ability to design messages that do not arouse resistance. Another is the ability to defuse resistance once it occurs. Most of this book is designed to tell you how to communicate without arousing resistance. Once resistance has set in it’s going to be difficult to remove it. Inevitably, however, you will confront resistance on a regular basis. So how is resistance overcome?

Brick walls and head banging

If you have ever been a parent to a two year-old you will know about resistance. The toddler at this age will not take no for an answer and will continue to persist in his own choices until he or she loses interest or is physically restrained. The child at this age seems to take admonitions to stop as merely a green light to continue the behavior. The terrible twos are thus characterized as a time when the child, for the first time, expresses resistance. (I was recently counseling an opinionated young man. His mother told me that when he was two and behaving in a way she did not like she would say to her son Charlie, “Mommy says no!” Which prompted the child’s reply, “Charlie say yes!” )

This natural developmental stage occurs when children understand the difference between them and the outside world and realize they have the ability to control their environment. This is liberating to the child who has, heretofore, depended totally on others. Like most new found things, freedom has great novelty value and the toddler revels in it to the frustration of his poor parents, siblings and anyone else who is part of the household.

Fast forward about fourteen years and the same toddler, who was a monster at two but tamed by five, is now sixteen and indulging in the same sort of oppositional and resistant behavior. Curfew times are ignored, pleas for less than ear-splitting volume on the stereo are unheeded and parents have to fight to restore any sort of discipline.

The adolescent is experiencing exactly what the two-year old toddler does – the discovery of new freedoms. These freedoms come from physical, cultural and social development which leads the child to believe – contrary to the views of his parents – he or she is ready for adulthood. Any attempt to curtail these freedoms is met with opposition for two reasons. First, they are new and thus highly valued. Secondly, they are challenged and thus highly valued.

Later in this book, you will see how scarcity and fear of loss are huge motivators of human behavior. The more a behavior or possession is challenged, the more it is valued, simply because it has been challenged.

Watch a toddler playing with toys. He is surrounded by a mound of toys but is paying attention to but one or two. Another toddler comes along and tries to haul away one of the toys in which the toddler has heretofore shown no interest. At the risk of losing the toy, which has not to this point attracted his attention at all, the threatened toy becomes highly valued. The toddler, resisting the temporary removal of his toy, now makes it the focus of his play.

If resistance is about holding on to behaviors and possessions because they are under threat, treating resistance with continued threat would not seem to be a particularly promising tactic. This is precisely what most people do, however.

One of the fundamental communication mistakes is to attempt to confront resistance head-on.

 Confrontational techniques typically only increase resistance rather than reducing it. The effective communicator uses subtlety rather than force to overcome listener resistance. It is almost impossible to break down resistance through confrontation unless you have natural and significant authority over the person who is resisting – and even then the chance of success is questionable. The fact of the matter is, as Dale Carnegie in his excellent book How to Win Friends and Influence People says, “No-one wins an argument.”

Confrontational techniques might occasionally seem to be successful in breaking down resistance and assuring compliance but typically these gains are short-term and illusory. The only way to get effective compliance is to get the listener to own the message. No one is going to own messages that they see as being against their best interests or violently foisted on them.

Rolling Rather Than Butting

If threat increases resistance, it follows that the opposite of threat might be helpful in removing resistance. The opposite of threat is not complete capitulation. Remember, resistance increases when a freedom, behavior or possession is challenged. Resistance is best overcome by reinforcing the listener’s choices, not taking them away.

The technique of validating the listener’s choice rather than attacking head on is called “rolling with the resistance” and is the most effective way of influencing people to abandon their resistance.

For example, a successful businessman came to see me to quit smoking. He told me that he has tried everything to quit but had never succeeded in going more than a few days without relapsing. After I listened to his smoking history I asked my first question.

“Why on earth do you want to quit?”

For the first time in his quit smoking history, the businessman is not put on the defensive. I am not making a judgment of him, nor limiting his choice. Indeed, I am respecting his right to do whatever he wants. Not put on the defensive, he is now free to articulate whatever reasons he has for wanting to quit. He surely has some because he has made the appointment to see me.

Using this approach, sometimes called “motivational interviewing”(1) you can quickly generate motivation and compliance. This occurs because the technique of rolling with resistance is not threatening in that it honors the listener’s choices rather than invalidating them.

In clashes with adolescents, parents often fall into the trap of butting rather than rolling. A teenage girl wants to take an evening job at the local grocery store to finance a new car. She is a junior in high school and her parents think that the five evening a week job is too much. The girl protests and a fight ensues.

The parents begin by immediately saying that they will not allow it. They begin, therefore, by instantly invalidating their daughter’s right to make her own choices. Not surprisingly, the daughter rebels against the robbery of this new found freedom and is now accused of being disrespectful to her parents. She considers this unfair and that it is her parents that are being disrespectful to her.

The parents now feel compelled to reassert discipline, which means make her daughter feel like a small child. If effective communication is about creating the right emotional response in the listener, the parents have failed.

There is no real need for this scenario. Let’s see what happens if instead of butting, the parents indulge in a little rolling.

The first parental reaction should be one of validating their daughter’s rights. She has a right to seek out appropriate employment and she should be reinforced for taking the initiative. Staying positive, the parents can then ask their daughter what is good about the job. They can then ask what concerns the daughter may have. If they do this in a non threatening way they might well get to hear some of their daughter’s anxieties about the job.

“The hours are too long,” or “I have to do it every day,” might be concerns that will then allow a discussion of the parent’s concerns. The beauty of it is that they will not be discussing this as their concerns but they will come from their daughter. In other words, she will own the concerns.

Of course, the daughter may not see anything inappropriate about the job at all. There are three alternatives under these circumstances.

One, they can hold off on their concerns, let their daughter take the job and discover whether it really is inappropriate or not.

Two, while acknowledging the daughter’s rights, explain why this is not appropriate but encourage her to seek different work within given guidelines.

Three, they can chose not to discuss their concerns head on, but address them indirectly. They might say something like the following:

“That’s great, honey. We’re thrilled to see you willing to work so hard to get something you want. You know, sometimes you have to sacrifice time with your friends and some of your leisure time to pursue a goal.”

Faced with such a response, there is a chance that the daughter might rethink her investment of time in the job and reach the same concerns of her parents on her own.

If the daughter is forced to give up the job against her will she will be resentful and it might interfere with her enthusiasm or choice for another job.

It has to be recognized, of course, that adolescence is the time of resistance par excellence. In the attempt to flee childhood and charge into adulthood, rejection of parental authority is almost a rite of passage. It is a rite, however, that can be tempered with good parental management, which includes subtlety rather than force as a technique of influence. In the end, however, parents do need to retain control. Ideally this control is exerted by getting their adolescent children to own their own control rather than having it constantly imposed.

Rolling rather than butting requires a leap of faith and courage. By not confronting and trying to circumvent resistance there is a danger that you are colluding with the very behavior you want to change. The reality is, however, the best chance of exerting influence and gaining compliance is ensuring listener ownership of the message. The best chance of achieving this is through subtlety rather than force. You have to set your own anxieties aside.

Clearly, not everyone will respond in the desired way. Those that don’t, however, are just the people who won’t respond to any approach.

Milton Erickson was one of the greatest psychotherapists to have ever practiced. Although not well known amongst the general public, Erickson was a charismatic man whose many practices and techniques have been adopted within the helping professions. One of the foundations of Erickson’s work was the recognition that resistance (in his case the resistance that he encountered occurred in his psychiatric practice where many are resistant to the very help they seek) could not be confronted but had to be circumvented.

One of my favorite Erickson stories, recounted by Jay Haley in his excellent book on Erickson’s work entitled “Uncommon Therapy”(2), concerned a woman in her mid twenties who consulted Erickson because she was frigid.

Erickson learned that the woman had been told by her mother that sex was dirty, evil, generally terrible and disgusting. He also learned that the client’s mother had died when the client was but twelve years old.

Faced with such a client, a natural inclination might be to explain that her mother was wrong and clearly had a very neurotic and inappropriate view about sex. Erickson knew, however, that the client would not accept anything negative said about her mother who was idealized because of her untimely death. Erickson recognized that the only way to circumvent the client’s resistance was to deliver a message that preserved, rather than attacked, the mother and her revered status.

So how can a healthy message about sex be devised that is consistent with the mother’s communication that sex is evil?

Here’s how Erickson did it – and frankly it demonstrates sheer genius and a complete understanding of how the mind operates.

Erickson started by telling the client that her mother was absolutely right. By so doing he eliminated all client resistance because he was endorsing a message that the client herself believed with all her heart. Yes, said Erickson, sex was dirty, evil and terrible – if you are twelve years old.

Erickson then went on to explain that unfortunately the client’s mother did not live long enough to deliver the sixteen year-old, twenty-year-old and twenty-five year old message about sex. If she had survived that long, she would have delivered messages in which sex became more natural, appropriate, healthy and even pleasurable.

Erickson knew that the patient would never criticize her mother by abandoning her tenets on sexual conduct. By making healthier messages about sex completely compatible with the mother, the resistance to change was removed and the client was indeed able to resume a normal sex life freed from the tyranny of her dead mother’s own sexual neurosis.

You will also note that Erickson used the client’s natural and strong desire to comply with her mother’s wishes to make his own point stronger He did this by saying that her mother was robbed of the opportunity of delivering, healthy, age-appropriate messages by her untimely death. Not only did Erickson remove resistance he actually empowered the message by using the client’s natural emotions to convey it!

Few of us can match Erickson’s genius for communication. We can, however try to incorporate the principles into our communication practices, even if we cannot spontaneously derive brilliant metaphors and masterful communication strokes. Even Erickson himself had to work long and hard to come up brilliant metaphors and images that are found in his works.

In my clinical practice, I have, from time to time, been able to spontaneously generate these techniques to effect change.

In one case, a female client had been sexually abused by a family member. Naturally, my client was enraged at the family member and prayed to God to make the abuser sick. And it came to pass that the abuser did become sick with leukemia. Now the client felt tremendous guilt for having brought sickness on a family member.

When my client found out that the family member was sick and had been diagnosed with leukemia she came to my office in despair and an advanced state of guilt. Rational conversation and argument could not resolve her guilt.

Slowly, I recapped her argument. That she had prayed to God to make the person in question sick and He had done just that. I then proceeded as follows:

Well, God has indeed made the family member sick. But I don’t think that God would have done this merely because you asked. He obviously has acted this way because you have asked it and he agrees that this is a just and worthy punishment.

 I then went on…

Moreover, this proves what I have been telling you all along. That God agrees with your version of events. That you have been wrongfully abused.

My client had frequently wondered aloud why God had allowed the abuse and had assumed that His inactivity at preventing it was a sign that it was condoned.

It had never occurred to my client that God would not just act merely because action was asked of Him. The whole perceptual shift brought about by this “revelation” resulted in an almost instant change in her mood for the positive. Guilt had been exchanged for vindication.

Obstacles to Compliance

From the Erickson case described above, it is apparent that people will not own any ideas and messages that contradict important values and attitudes. In the case of sexual neurosis described above, the female client would not embrace any message that dishonored the memory of her late mother.

To recap, lack of compliance occurs for several reasons.

  • When the compliant action involves effort or some other
  • When the compliant action violates underlying beliefs and
  • When the compliant action is inconsistent with current goals
  • When the compliant action is at odds with the person’s view of themselves
  • When the complaint action requires skills that the person doesn’t believe they have
  • When the compliant action involves feelings of discomfort
  • When the complaint action results in a negative outcome for the person

To overcome resistance a way needs to be found of making the message consistent with known, strongly held beliefs. This is no different from other communication situations. There are, however, some specific tactics to be used when dealing with resistance.

Don’t challenge, Cornered animals fight rather than submit. Insulting people will only reinforce their position.

Emphasize choices. Every behavior is a choice with a price and a pay-off. The best we can do is make informed choices. This places freedom as well as responsibility squarely where it belongs.

Focus on the person’s goals. Show how his or her resistance is incompatible with stated goals.


 For a dentist;

A client has tremendous difficulty in motivating herself to floss her teeth. What could you say to overcome this resistance?

For an executive:

A colleague is resistant to installing new technology. What could you say to overcome this resistance?

I have supplied some suggestions in the appendix.

For more details about this approach the reader is referred to the work of two Ph.D psychologists, Bill Miller and Steve Rollnick. specifically the book “Motivational Interviewing” Guilford Press, 1991

2. Uncommon Therapy, Jay Haley,