Facilitation Friday #19: Resisting Resistance is Futile

t-shirt from thinkgeek.com
What will you do when people resist your facilitation?  At some point it is going to 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 it long enough in order to be sure you need to intervene and are prepared to do so, you generally can't simply ignore it.  Doing so can impede the ability of the group to move forward on its stated objectives whether you are facilitating a planning session, a workshop, or a regular staff meeting.

What is it that individuals often resist?

The purpose
People aren't committed to the reason they have been convened.  In a workshop setting this sometimes results because when the training is mandatory, they feel they already know what is going to be covered, or past experiences have taught them these trainings aren't useful or followed up on after they occur.  Some people resist staff meetings because they see them as a waste of time, time they could better spend doing their actual work.  Strategic planning sessions provoke resistance if individuals don't feel the output will really change anything.

The process
Sometimes people are committed to the purpose of the gathering, but resist the process. Maybe you're asking them to participate in a way that is uncomfortable … such as engage in role play during a workshop.  They may feel threatened by the format and need more support from you.   Perhaps they feel the format or teaching technique is childish or a waste of time: cute icebreakers provoke more resistance than purposeful community-building exercises.  Maybe they want to just "cut to the chase" and see some of the introductory agenda items as unnecessary. This is why reviewing the agenda and establishing group norms is important at the onset.

The people
Remember that when people come together, they behave differently.  The relationship dynamics of the individuals you are facilitating can enhance or impede the work to be done.  Facilitating a workshop for a group of colleagues has a different dynamic than facilitating a session at a state conference where the participants don't know each other.  A strategy session with only staff feels different than one including both staff members and board members or other volunteers.  A discussion about workplace culture changes when people's supervisors or direct reports are in the room.  How well people know each other influences what they are willing to disclose or their potential comfort with challenging a perspective different from theirs.

And people might also you: your role, your style, your relationship to the group, your qualifications for the work, et al.  You need to think about what resistance you might unintentionally provoke and plan to manage it in advance.

So how do you deal with resistance when it appears?

Don't resist resistance.  Instead, simply work through it.  Resistance is normal ... and in the eyes of the resistor, very valid.  To dismiss their resistance as inappropriate or something they need to just "get over" is not going to help.  You might instead use mirroring or paraphrasing to reflect back the resistance that is expressed, two common facilitation techniques described in The Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making.  The different between the two is subtle, but important when managing resistance.  Here are some highlights from how the guide describes them.

Paraphrasing confirms for the speaker that s/he is being heard and clarifies the content by restating what an individual 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. It feels more neutral than paraphrasing because you aren't replacing the speaker's works with yours. Unlike paraphrasing, the speaker doesn't have to confirm you captured their meaning, so it can be fast.  When mirroring, match the speaker's words, but not their tone.

When resistance is minor or routine, paraphrasing the resistance often is sufficient to tease out what individuals' concerns are.  But when the resistance is more intense or emotional, mirroring may be more useful.  When you use people's own words they truly feel they have been heard.  When you use their 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 mirroring.

And if you are unsure how to resolve the resistance, remember the group always knows what needs to be done if only you will invite them to make public what they are thinking or feeling:   
  • 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?
While you focus on managing the moment of resistance, remember also that you want to build the group's long-term capacity to achieve more in the future.  Working through the resistance is not a problem for you to solve, but a challenge for you to help the group effectively address.

Every Friday in 2012, I post information and insights about effective facilitation, sharing some of the content and thinking I provide in the one-day and half-day facilitation workshops that groups often engage me to present.  You can find previous posts by searching for the tag: facilitationfriday.

Now that we've covered a lot of the core concepts related to effective facilitation, future posts will dive deeper into specific elements of a facilitation effort and/or how to manage individual or group dynamics that present themselves during a conference call, workshop, or meeting.  If you have specific topics or questions you'd like me to address in future posts., feel free to send them to me directly or to post them as a comment.

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