June 16, 2015
Resisting the Instinct to Try to Overcome Resistance
How do you overcome resistance to change?
No matter the audience, the profession, or the industry, this has been one of the most common questions I've encountered this year.
Resources that offer insight are abundant. My sampling of them finds that they tend to focus on how to overcome objections or conquer the resistance. Anecdotally most, but not all, seem to frame the issue as a win-lose proposition and offer counsel on how to ensure your proposed changes win against those who oppose them.
I once drew heavily on these resources when responding to this frequent query, but lately I've found the framing less helpful and its possible answers too limiting. A current home renovation has helped reshape my thinking. Bear with me while I explain.
I live in a late 1890s home in Chatham Arch (come visit!), a historic district in downtown Indianapolis. A variety of municipal codes and historic covenants determine the appropriateness of both new construction and changes to the exteriors and ground of existing properties.
Historic district guidelines aren't intended to stop change from happening. They are meant to ensure that any changes implemented preserve what is considered to be essential or appropriate character of the neighborhood and its individual properties. While many options are available for most changes, I don't have carte blanche to just do anything to the exterior of my home as it stands in relationship with the rest of the neighborhood. What I do has an effect on my neighbors, as well as the overall character and appearance of our neighborhood, something which affords us a premium on our property values.
That's why my house seemingly has more than one front door. The "front door" closest to the street is the original door, one that now would open into my master bedroom instead of the original living room. That door can never be removed because it preserves the clear sense from the street of my home's history. Subsequent entrance doors and the porch come from a 1950s addition. Would I like to replace the old unused front door with a wall? You bet. But I live with it as it is because I respect what the guidelines intend to preserve.
How might your conversations change with those individuals you identify as change resistors if you instead thought of them as conservationists or preservationists, individuals with a commitment to preserving something they believe matters a great deal? What might you learn if you inquired about the meaning they associate with whatever they don't want changed? What are they concerned might be lost if the proposed changes are implemented?
When I have adopted this mindset in my conversations with "resistors," I've found the discussion feels more welcomed and far less adversarial. I have heard stories about what people care about and what they don't want to see lost. And in many cases, I've been able to separate the meaning of what they want to preserve from the form with which they associate it … offering alternatives to how we might incorporate their insights and improve on a proposed change.
Progress and preservation can be complementary if only we take the time to consider both perspectives. Changing minds sometimes requires honoring hearts.
The language we use and the frames we adopt dramatically influence the choices we make. I have found How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey useful in helping me think about alternative language and frames. PDF summary here.