How to respond to resistance

Part One: Assessing and responding in general

Approximate reading time: 5 minutes

Note: managing resistance is a complex topic for facilitators and one that is the subject of the next two posts in my Facilitate Better “How To series.” Part One (today’s post) looks at how to assess and interpret resistance and introduces two techniques for responding.  Part Two (Friday’s post) addresses how to manage specific resistance dynamics.


Participating in a session someone else facilitates can feel a bit like riding in the passenger’s seat when someone else drives. You know the destination. You may even know the planned route. But you can still be caught offguard by the driver’s pace, sharpness of turns, and other decisions made in the moment. 

In short, you’re strapped in and being taken for a ride. That’s not always a comfortable position or feeling.

The same can be true for meeting or workshop participants. Even if they helped create the agenda, participants may feel the facilitator alone is at the wheel and that they are along for the ride.

How might you manage participant resistance?

At some point it will happen.  The resistance could come from a lone individual or a majority of the group.  It could be subtle and covert or disruptive and overt.  Resistance is routine and normal.  It simply is an individual or individuals saying "this really isn't working for me."

While you do want to observe long enough to determine how best to respond, you generally can't ignore it.  Doing so can impede a group’s ability to move forward on its stated objectives whether you are facilitating a planning session, a workshop, or a regular staff meeting.

My #1 recommendation if you perceive participants are resisting your facilitation is to not overreact. Routine hesitance or uncertainty sometimes masquerades as hardened or unchangeable resistance.  But let’s dig a bit deeper.

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Begin with your perceptions

What are you observing that leads you to infer participants are resisting your facilitation?  Remember, observations are factual and objective.  Inferences reflect individual perspectives and are subjective.  Possible observations of resistance include participants:

  • Directly questioning choices you make

  • Engaging more in side conversations than the planned agenda

  • Doing things other engaging with the group (web browsing, texting, email, et al)

  • Completely “checking out”

  • Not following instructions for an activity

  • Frequently moving in and out of the session

Any one of these observations could be a sign of participant resistance. Each also could mean participants are: juggling multiple priorities, confused about the purpose of an activity or question, or unsure of what you’re asking them to do.  I find it more helpful to assume this may be the case, first specifically noting what I have observed and then checking out my possible inferences like this:

  • I sense I don't have everyone on board with me right now.  Am I right?  What's your take?

  • It seems we have some individuals who feel like the current process is serving us well, but a few individuals who'd like to revise our approach.  How should we proceed? 

  • I know some of you are a bit skeptical of this exercise.  I understand, but if you're willing to give it a try, I think you'll find it will be helpful for what we want to achieve today.  Are you willing to do that?

These invitations for participants to react to my inferences—to share their perspectives—usually reveals the information I need to determine what needs to happen next.

Two techniques for responding when individuals resist

Regardless of the reason for resistance or to whom it is directed, you’ll likely use paraphrasing and/or mirroring to manage it. The difference between the two is subtle, but important.  Here are some highlights from how The Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making describes them.

Paraphrasing confirms for speakers that are have been heard by restating what was said. You use language that captures the speaker’s meaning, but not the exact same words.  Paraphrasing often is an abbreviated form of what the speaker said.

Mirroring captures the speaker’s exact words, but not their tone. It feels more neutral than paraphrasing because you don’t replace the speaker's words with yours.

When resistance is minor or routine, paraphrasing often is sufficient to tease out what individuals' concerns are.  But when the resistance is more intense or emotional, mirroring may be more useful.  Why?  It avoids exacerbating the resistance because the original speaker feels they were incorrectly paraphrased: No, that’s not what I meant at all.”

People tend to feel heard more when their own words are restated rather hearing than a paraphrased approximation of them.  Also, when you use the speaker’s words, but in a more neutral tone, it can help others in the group hear what the speaker said in a new way.  Someone might dismiss an "emotional outburst,” but engage with your mirrored restatement.

Bottom line?

Don't mistake hesitance for resistance and don’t ignore either.  Instead, simply work through it.  Both are normal ... and in the eyes of their perpetrator, very valid.  To dismiss their hesitance or resistance as inappropriate or something they need to just "get over" rarely results in them doing so.

In Part Two, we will look at some specific resistance situations and how you might respond as the facilitator.


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