What this is really about

Subtext - sThe subtext of resistance…

We’ve all encountered repeated resistance in our lives, whether another organisation’s unwillingness to work in partnership, an internal team’s unwillingness to change, a teenager’s unwillingness to do any A-Level revision, despite consistently claiming to want to go to his first-choice University…

Maybe that last one’s just me…

The good thing is, when people can give you a genuine, honest, frank reason why they’re not buying in, you can often address their issues and end up with a better solution as a result. Or at least you can recognise it’s genuinely insurmountable and save both of you the time, tears, and tantrums at teatime.

But the problem comes when you get reasons, but they aren’t the real ones. And you’d be amazed how often that’s the case. Instead, they’re simply stories we tell ourselves to try and keep us safe, stories we believe, but that kill our potential to change and grow.

The story of “quick wins” is one example. Lots of people like the idea of quick wins: show some progress, get some runs on the board, build momentum, and so forth.

Only, in reality, the vast majority of quick wins never turn out to be quick. Nor do they turn out to be much of a win. And most of us actually know this before we even begin. But they are a convenient way to resist the big, scary ideas that we would otherwise have to pick up.

“We tried it before…”, “The problem is…”, and “They’ll never agree…”, are equally good examples.

Behind each one there is probably some truth, some implication that would have to be managed: things that we should learn from last time, problems we would need to solve to make it work, people we would need to win over along the way. Inside each one is probably a valid concern.

And if it’s a promising enough idea, if it could have a big enough impact, if it could help us reach, support, enable, many more people to enjoy better lives, then those implications will be worth wrestling with. Isolating the individual challenges, picking them apart, finding better solutions and more creative options, this can be a very good use of time.

It’s also a great way to see what the resistance is really about.

Because if the person raising the issue leans into the discussion, joins you in coming up with alternatives, engages in thinking creatively around the problem, for that person, this issue genuinely is the crux of the matter. Resolve it, and they’ll jump on board.

On the other hand, if they lean back from the discussion, disengage from the debate, raise a raft of issues one after the other and often, as each one is solved, begin looking more uncomfortable rather than less; for that person, none of these things are what the resistance is really about.

Occasionally this is a conscious behaviour, but more often it’s entirely subconscious. In fact, you will probably recognise it before they do themselves – a hidden fear, a sense of threat, an inner voice whispering: “I got a bad feeling about this”, possibly even in a Harrison Ford accent.

And recognise it you must. Because no matter how many problems you solve or barriers you break, this person will never get on board with the idea.

Their reservations are at an emotional level, the issues they’re raising a rationalisation rather than a rationale. Often, it’s a fear of exposure, of failure, of losing an anchor, a part of their status, self-esteem, self-image.

Whatever the cause, unless you’re willing to sacrifice either the potential idea or the person with the issue, it’s something you’re going to have to work out with them. If not, whether overtly or covertly, actively or passively, they will keep digging away, undermining and slowing things down, until the real reason for their resistance is unpacked and addressed, or they’re taken out of circulation.

Every radical new idea, every transformational opportunity, will generate objections. And in every objection, there will be text and subtext.

If you want to make change happen, in your sector, in your organisation, and yes, sometimes even in your own home, you need to become practiced in reading both.

Especially, it seems, when it comes to angst-ridden teenagers.

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