Three Conversation Strategies for Managing Resistance to Change

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Resistance to agile transformation is very common, and it’s one of the most vexing problems an agile coach can face. Because there are so many ways resistance can manifest, and so many reasons that it may occur, the coach has to really dig to get at the root cause.

Compounding the problem is that just because a behavior looks like resistance, that doesn’t mean it really is! Resistance is a natural reaction to the emotional process of adapting to change. But sometimes, people have rational, logical objections to an agile practice. As coaches, we do them a disservice if we treat these reasonable arguments as if they are evidence of resistance.

Last week, participants in my “Coaching Around Resistance” workshop at the Path to Agility conference pointed out another factor I hadn’t thought about: sometimes what looks like resistance might actually be an emotional reaction that has nothing to do with the agile transformation. For example, someone in the middle of selling their house might simply be unable to handle yet another change; but if the coach assumes that this person is resistant to agile, the coach can do a lot of damage by applying an incorrect or inappropriate tactic.

Here are three strategies that can help you correctly diagnose and manage resistance to change:


Strategy 1: Master the Art of Observation

Coaches need to dig in to understand the roots of emotional responses to difficult change. That starts with observation: what behavior are you witnessing?

We often focus on what people are saying, but we should also pay attention to body language, behavior, and other non-verbal cues, which are often more important than what people say.

You can get great practice by observing animals at your local zoo. Take a notebook and a pen. Pick an animal (I’m partial to the aviary). Watch what it does, and how it interacts with the other animals in its display. Write down what you see. Then, turn your attention to the other people watching the animals and repeat the experiment with them. Are they actively participating in conversations, or do they seem more aloof? In a group, who is standing close together, and who seems to stand apart? What facial expressions do you see? The more time you spend practicing, the easier it will become in your everyday interactions in the workplace.


Strategy 2: Opt for Neutral Language

Once you have a good handle on what you’re observing, then it’s time to put it into words. Often, a coach’s first impulse is to ask questions. But that can backfire. Questioning can feel like an interrogation, especially to someone who is already feeling under pressure or defensive.

I find that a better tactic is to begin by stating what I’ve observed in neutral, non-judgmental language. This avoids the implication, present in a question, that the person has to explain themself—which can lead to defensiveness and even more resistance. It can also create resistance where there wasn’t any before.

Here’s an example.

Suppose you have a team member who rarely speaks up during meetings and won’t make eye contact with you. You suspect that this person is unhappy with the new direction you’re coaching, but you can’t be sure.

You could ask, “Why aren’t you offering any suggestions when I ask for feedback?” But someone who is experiencing a significant emotional reaction to difficult change is likely to interpret that question as a demand and dismiss the question in as few words as possible. Or worse—they might shut down entirely.

What if, instead of asking a question, you offer a neutral observation: “You’re very quiet in our training sessions, and I don’t know how to read your silence.”

With this statement, you’re not accusing. You’re not judging. You’re simply offering the observation: You are quiet. And by admitting that you don’t understand what that silence means, you’re demonstrating humility and even a little bit of vulnerability. Those qualities often engender trust and openness, which helps people feel more comfortable talking about the significant emotional reaction they’re having.


Strategy 3: Embrace the Silence

The second strategy will only work if you give the person room to speak. If you fill the silence that ensues, you prevent them from sharing. And that’s the most difficult thing about this kind of coaching conversation: you must not only open the space for discussion, you must resolutely refuse to fill it so that they can.

Back in my teaching days, my mentor showed me a study that said, “The typical teacher pauses, on the average, between 0.7 and 1.4 seconds after his/her questions before continuing to talk or permitting a student to respond.”  By increasing that wait time to just three seconds, researchers found that student interaction improved significantly.

Similarly, in a coaching conversation, it’s crucial to remain silent after you have offered your observation. When I was teaching, I would count silently, with the plan to speak only when I reached ten—but I never needed the full ten seconds. I use the same technique in coaching conversations: after five or six seconds of silence, the other person will usually respond. And, since I’ve shared my perception and struggle with interpreting what I’ve observed, they’ll usually respond similarly.

So, you might say, “You’re very quiet in our training sessions, and I don’t know how to read your silence.” And then you wait. One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Three Mississippi. Four Missis…

“I’m afraid I’ll sound stupid.”

And then you can dig in, together, to find out how to resolve that person’s fear. Or anger. Or frustration. Or whatever the emotional underpinning of their resistance is.

Now, it might take more than one or two rounds of observation and response to get to the root of their resistance. But by phrasing things in a neutral fashion, and making space for them to respond safely, you’re much more likely to be able to help them embrace change.

Of course, there are a variety of reasons that people resist agile transformations, but the same approach works in those situations as well. To learn more about what causes people to shy away from change, check out our blog, “5 Reasons Why People Resist Agile Transformations.”


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