Why People Resist Us

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There's a one-word reason most ideas never see the light of day: Resistance.

Resistance is often behind the glassy-eyed stares you get following a presentation, the sarcastic put-downs you have to put up with when you describe your vision for a new product or service, and other people's abrupt departure from the water cooler when you approach, enthusiastic and ready to share an idea. What people are saying to you, either directly or indirectly is, I've heard your idea and I don't get it, I don't like it, or I don't like you.

By understanding the resistance getting in the way of your ideas, you can work to turn opposition into support. How can you do it? Use clear language and good listening skills to head-off resistance before it takes on a life of its own. When you can't avoid it, learn how to recognize and address the three most common types of resistance so you can keep conversations moving forward and bring ideas closer to implementation.

Here are the three primary forms resistance takes-and what you can do to make each work for you instead of against you:

  • Level 1 resistance: "I don't get it." When you see a person's eyes glaze over, eyebrows furrow, or head tip slightly to one side or another, they're sending you an unspoken message: "I don't get what you're saying." That's your cue to slow down and touch base with the person before they get so confused or lost in the morass of your idea that they lose interest altogether. After all, if people don't get your idea, there's no chance they'll support it.

Level 1 resistance involves the world of facts, figures, and data. It crops up often when people in highly-technical fields, like computer science, try to share their brainchildren with the rest of the company. They go to great lengths to explain how a software package or new hardware configuration can solve problems-and even generate profit over the long-term, and somewhere between the bits and bytes, underlying the multi-acronym sentences featuring POSIX, WYSIWYG, XT/AT, and UNIX, is a brilliant idea. It's just that-alas-it can only be understood and appreciated by other high-tech experts.

If you find yourself in this position, step back from your idea and consider your audience. How can you communicate the idea to them in language-minus all traces of jargon-that they can understand? Will pictures, models, slides, an on-site walk-through, help? Clear, thoughtful, two-way communication is the key to overcoming Level 1 resistance.

  • Level 2 resistance: "I don't like it." Sometimes your ideas can trigger an emotional response, typically rooted in fear, that causes another person to hem and haw about your idea or to actively oppose it. Some of the fears underlying these Level 2 responses include:
    • The concern that something about your idea will make the other person look bad or lose status in the eyes of others.
    • Worry that your idea will cost the person his job or endanger his financial security.
    • Nervousness that your idea will cause the person to fail, perhaps as a result of-and in the wake of-your success.
  • The emotions behind Level 2 responses get in the way of productive communication. If they're never aired, these fears fester until what was once a tiny bump on the road to implementation is now an enormous boulder blocking your way. Recognize and address the fears underlying Level 2 resistance and your idea is more likely to continue moving forward.

  • Level 3 resistance: "I don't like you." Picture this: You're in a meeting with your accountant when she says, "I've got good news for you. I've found some loop holes that will significantly reduce your taxes." A year ago-prior to the Enron debacle-you might have welcomed both the accountant and her ideas with open arms. Now, however, the system of checks-and-balances she represents is tainted by what you've read and seen on television, and every idea she proposes gets run through a filter of suspicion in your mind. That's Level 3 resistance.
  • While the other two types of resistance have to do with your ideas, Level 3 resistance is about you-ouch. When you're the one doing the proposing, your history with others, as well as their bias, prejudice or mistrust, influence how your idea is heard and received.

    Level 3 resistance is the toughest to deal with because it's so hard to believe-and accept-that there are people in the world who don't like you and everything you stand for. However, if you choose to deny or ignore it, your ideas will never get off the drawing board.

    The key to dealing effectively with Level 3 resistance is to step outside yourself and see what others see when they look at you-and what they hear when they listen to you.

    • Once you've made an effort to see yourself and your idea through another's eyes, try these techniques for working through and moving beyond all three levels of resistance-'I don't get it,' 'I don't like it,' and 'I don't like you:'

      • Focus on conversation, not presentation. Ask questions to find out what's going on in the other person's mind and why she opposes your idea.

    • Listen carefully to what others say in response to your idea-both verbally and through their body language and behaviors.
    • Avoid knee-jerk reactions, like defensiveness, sarcasm and shutting down.
    • Find ways to connect with others. Paraphrase their concerns to show that you're listening; embrace suggestions that piggy-back on your idea; and make it clear that there's room-and opportunity-for others to join you as you move forward to implement the idea.
      • Resistance at any level is good because it demonstrates that others hear you and are intrigued enough about your ideas to oppose them. That may sound like cold comfort, but it's not: Figure out what's behind resistance and you'll be well on your way to turning opposition into support.

        Rick is an advisor to organizations on ways to lead Change without Migraines?. He is author of many books on change including Why Don't You Want What I Want? and Beyond the Wall of Resistance. You can access free articles and tools at

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