How to response to resistance

Part Two: Managing specific instances of resistance

Approximate reading time: 5 minutes, 30 seconds.

Note: managing resistance is a complex topic for facilitators.  Part One in my Facilitate Better “How To series” on this topic explored how to assess and interpret resistance and introduced two techniques for responding.  Part Two (today’s post) addresses specific resistance dynamics.

What is resisted and how the resistance presents itself should inform your specific facilitation response. Here are my thoughts on managing six common resistance dynamics and my thoughts on how to respond. In general I find it helpful to acknowledge reality as a precursor to any reactions or suggestions I offer a group.

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1. Resisting the session itself

Participants required to attend a workshop or meeting may resent the loss of autonomy and/or dismiss the session’s potential value. People with multiple priorities or pressing deadlines may think their time would be better spent elsewhere.

A way to respond:

“I know some of you have multiple pressing demands on your time right now and might prefer to be elsewhere. But we’re here, and we have some work to complete. The more we focus on doing so, the more value you may receive and the sooner we might conclude.”

2. Resisting the setting

Videoconference fatigue.  A conference call with participants talking over one another.  A meeting room set in an unfamiliar configuration.  An inconvenient hour of the day.  These are just a few of the reasons that a setting might evoke participant resistance. 

Anticipating these concerns and modifying the setting accordingly is perhaps the best approach, but sometimes you have to address possible resistance in the moment.

 A way to respond:

“It’s important that everyone is as comfortable as possible with the setting for our discussions today.  Before we begin our actual agenda, are there any adjustments you’d like us to make to ensure our time together is productive?”

Responses have led to rearranging room sets for in-person meetings and creating (or modifying existing) participation shared norms or agreements for online conversations.

3.  Resisting the group composition

The meeting purpose and setting are fine.  The other participants?  Less so.  Resistance to a gathering’s composition occurs for many reasons, including: status or power differences, lack of trust or familiarity, the “right people” not included, general lack of diversity or representation.

A way to respond:

Use an anonymous advance survey to gather any concerns about group composition. Adjust the participant mix, planned pre-work, community-building exercises, and discussion formats as appropriate.

Sample survey question:

“After you review the purpose for the meeting, the draft agenda, and the current list of participants, please share suggestions or questions to help us ensure relevant and robust discussions and decision-making take place. Your anonymous responses will help refine the session design.”

4. Resisting a specific activity or conversation

Here participants see the value of the gathering and its intended outcomes, but resist a specific approach you’re using to achieve them.  To use our driving analogy from the first post on resistance, they want to get to the same final destination, but are uncertain of your chosen route.

Maybe you’re asking them to participate in a way that is uncomfortable, such as role-playing. Perhaps they feel a format or teaching technique is a waste of time: “cute” icebreakers can provoke more resistance than purposeful community-builders.  Maybe they want to just “cut to the chase” and see some of the agenda as unnecessary.

A way to handle:

“I know we have a shared goal for our time together and we collaborated on the agenda, but I’m seeing some questioning looks.  I wonder if any of you are uncertain of our current approach or have questions about it.”

5. Resisting you as a facilitator (not personal)

Some people are simply less comfortable in the passenger’s seat, particularly if they think they have the knowledge or skills to drive.  Their resistance has less to do with you personally and more to do with what you represent: someone controlling or influencing the journey. These participants would react similarly no matter who facilitates.

A way to handle:

“We have a lot of expertise among. Any one of you could probably facilitate this meeting, but today that is my primary responsibility.  I hope you’ll actively contribute your best ideas and insights as I help manage our discussions.  Your constructive input as we proceed is most welcome.”

6. Resisting you as a facilitator (personal)

Sometimes participants’ resentment or resistance is personal.  They struggle to engage during a meeting or a workshop because you are the one facilitating.  This might reflect:

  • a difference in personalities or styles

  • your respective roles or tenure in the organization

  • frustration over an unrelated decision you’ve made

  • unconscious bias linked to gender, age, or some other identity aspect

  • not seeing you as credible or appropriate for the role

A way to handle:

Try to anticipate this resistance and use the pre-planning period to reduce it: converse with relevant stakeholders to get their input and build ownership, share pre-work that demonstrates my  your understanding of the participants’ needs and desired results, and center their experience and expertise as most important to your efforts.

This might still be insufficient.

In those cases, I often will simply acknowledge reality at the start of our session.  Naming the potential resistance—sharing that I am actively aware of it—frequently reduces its intensity and allows participants to focus more on the work than my contribution as facilitator.

“Some of us have a lot of history with each other.  As a result, I might not be the person you would choose to facilitate this gathering, but that is my designated role.

I want us to succeed today.  I hope you want us to succeed today. Doing so requires all of us to remain self-aware of how we each can help advance our progress and how we might impede it.  Let’s support each other in this shared responsibility as best we can and set aside any unhelpful perceptions we might have about our ability to do so.”

Bottom line?

Eliminating resistance often is not a problem for you to solve, but a tension for you to help a group effectively manage.


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