Understanding Resistance:  Emotional Intelligence at Work

To Resist is Human. Learning How to Move Beyond is Leadership.

I was recently surprised by my own resistance, as a student no less.  I was sitting down on day one of my last coach training course (the last of five 3-day courses). While it gave me good insight into how people must feel at times working with me, I was struck by how stubborn my resistance was. More importantly, I was struck by how my resistance was a real impediment to connecting with others and looking at choices.

Let me explain. We were doing a “check in” exercise, so I acknowledged the resistance I was feeling. I had just come off a very busy 3 months of work — the busiest of my career actually — on top of having to handle the eviction of my father from his independent living place. That day, sitting in my course, was just 6 days after I had moved my father to a residential care facility.

I was fully spent –mentally, physically and emotionally. I felt like I had nothing left. What showed up overwhelmingly within me was judgement. I found myself spinning a great story in my head about how all the other people around the room have easier lives than I.

It was all nonsense.

Self-delusion, fabricated and yes – perhaps based on some legitimate feelings of powerlessness and burden.

And yet, this is life. Everyone has challenges. Mine are minor in comparison to others and so the story of comparison and “oh woe is me” falls short – utterly useless.

Now looking back, I am struck by how standing in resistance and “story-making” impedes our objectivity and has a pervasive effect of keeping us stuck. Put another way, we tend to cherry pick any data points that will reinforce the great story we have concocted and ignore other data. Moreover, standing in resistance also prevents us from connecting with others or asking for what we need.

The impact of this is we expend valuable energy on reinforcing “stories” instead of dedicating our finite resources and energy to generating options or finding solutions.  At the end of the day, we still have a choice for how we show up. When we can’t change our circumstances, we are forced to change ourselves.

Victor Frankl in his book, the Meaning of Life, describes how he was forced to adjust his entire view on things in order to survive the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. He describes that in those camps the guards could take everything from them – everything but free will and choice for how they would view their circumstances.

So therein lies the lesson for me (although the magnitude of circumstance is vastly different). Back to my coaching course example, I had a choice for how I would be in that room. I found that once I named it I could change it. I could choose to show up differently, and I did – the next day and the day after that. And my whole experience changed: when I was open and willing, others were more than willing to support and connect with me.

But make no mistake about it — resistance runs deep in us. It can come up any time you are attempting to “be better”, “do better”, develop or change*. So what to do about it?

The key is to plan for it and have a means of “naming it” in order to move through it. When you find yourself reacting to your circumstances or coming from “victimhood”, identify the emotions you are feeling – are you frustrated, angry, disappointed, sad, or powerless? Name it, acknowledge it.

Consider following with some key questions like:

  • What is at the heart of the emotion or resistance?
  • What do I really want here?
  • What else is possible here?
  • How are my feelings holding me back?
  • Am I willing to try something different here?

So much of leadership development these days is about improving self-awareness and emotional intelligence. Leaders who know their triggers and are willing to look at the truth of how they are behaving – as well as those who can intentionally create responses rather than react – are far more effective.

We are developing each and every time we operate from awareness and intention. We can make choices. I hope you find some opportunities to explore your “edge” around making a choice in the face of your own resistance.

* This idea was introduced to me by The War on Art, by Stephen Pressfield

Joanne Spalton, Senior Consultant