The paper is an extract from “Flawless Consulting: a guide to getting your expertise used” by Peter Block. I was given this paper while at the Cotswold Community and found it a useful reminder of the various forms that resistance can take – some obvious and some much more subtle forms.
Consultancy: Understanding Resistance
The hardest part of consulting is coping successfully with resistance from the client. As we consult, it is natural for us to feel that if we can present our ideas clearly and logically, and have the best interests of the client at heart, our clients will accept our expertise and follow our suggestions. What happens frequently, however, no matter how reasonably we present data and recommendations, clients present us with resistance.
Resistance doesn’t always happen, but when it does, it is puzzling and frustrating. In the face of resistance, we may begin to view the client as stubborn and irrational, and we usually end up simply presenting the data and justifying the recommendations more loudly and more forcibly.
The key to understanding the nature of resistance is to realise that resistance is a reaction to an emotional process taking place within the client. It is not a reflection of the interaction we are having with the client on an objective, logical, rational level. Resistance is a predictable, natural, emotional reaction against the process of being helped and against the process of having to face up to difficult organisational problems.
In dealing with resistance, we need to:
(i) Be able to identify when resistance is taking place:
(ii) View resistance as a natural process and a sign that we are on target;
(iii) Support the client in expressing the resistance directly;
(iv) Not take the expression of the resistance personally or as an attack on us or our competence.
Below are listed some common forms of resistance:
Give Me More Detail
The client keeps asking for finer and finer bits of information. The client seems to have an insatiable appetite to know everything about what is happening. No matter how much information you give the client, it is never enough. Some questions from the client are reasonable, they need to know what is going on. When you start to get impatient with the questions, even though you are able to answer them, that is the 1
moment to start suspecting the request for detail is a form of resistance and not a simple quest for information.
Flood You with Detail
A corollary to the request for detail is to be given too much detail. You ask a client how this problem got started and the response is, “Well, it all got started ten years ago on a Thursday afternoon in September. I think I was wearing blue, and the weather outside was overcast. I hope I am not boring you, but I think it is important for you to understand the background of the situation.” The client keeps giving you more and more information, which you understand less and less. When you start to get bored or confused about what all this has to do with the problem at hand, you should begin to suspect that what you are getting is resistance and not just an attempt to give you all the facts.
The client says he or she would really like to go ahead with your project but the timing is just a little off. The client keeps impressing you with how busy things are right now. In fact, there is barely time to meet you. Sometimes this form of resistance gets expressed by constant interruptions during your meetings. The client starts taking phone calls or having a secretary come in. Or someone sticks his head in the office and the client turns to you and says “Excuse me just a minute, but I have to settle this one issue.” The message the client seems to be giving is that…
This organisation is such an exciting place to work in, something is going on all the time. Aren’t you impressed and don’t you wish you worked here, too? My organisation has so little time. I have so little time. I want you to think I am refusing because of the lack of time, and not because your proposal gives me feelings of great discomfort.
The client keeps reminding you that they live in the real world and are facing real problems. I must have heard about the Realworld a thousand times – its makes me wonder where clients think consultants live. The form of resistance from the client accuses you of being impractical and academic. It is the intensity of the emphasis on “practicality” that leads you to suspect you are up against an emotional issue.
The most blatant form of resistance is when the client attacks you. With angry words, a red face, a pounding fist, pointing a finger in your face, punctuating the end of every sentence. It leaves the consultant feeling like a bumbling child who not only has done poor work, but has somehow violated a line of morality that should never be crossed. The response to attack is often either to withdraw or to respond in kind. Both responses mean that we are beginning to take the attack personally and not seeing it as one other form the resistance is taking.
Whenever a client comes to us for help, the client is experiencing some legitimate confusion. This may not be resistance, but just a desire for clarity. After things become clear to you, however, and you explain it two or three times, and the client keeps claiming to be confused or not understand, start to think that confusion may be this client’s way of resisting.
The client is passive. A client may say he has no particular reaction to what you are proposing. When you ask for a reaction, he says, “Keep on going, I don’t have any problems with what you are saying. If I do, I’ll speak up.” However, silence never means consent. If you are dealing with something important to the organisation, it is not natural for the client to have no reaction. Silence means that the reaction is being blocked. Beware the silent client. If you think a meeting went smoothly because there weren’t any objections, don’t trust it. Ask yourself whether the client gave you any real support or showed any real enthusiasm or got personally involved in the action. If not, begin to wonder whether silence was the form the client’s resistance was taking.
When a person shifts the discussion from deciding how to proceed and starts exploring theory after theory about why things are the way they are, you are dealing with intellectualising as resistance. The client says, “A fascinating hypothesis is implied by these results. I wonder if there is an inverse relationship between this situation and the other one. The crisis seems to have raised a number of questions.”
The time to suspect intellectualising is when it begins at a high-tension moment in a high-tension meeting. When this happens, your task is to bring the discussion back to actions, away from theories.
Moralising resistance makes great use of certain words and phrases: “those people” and “should” and “they need to understand”. When they are used, then you are about to go on a trip into a world of how things ought to be, which is simply a moralising defense against reality. People use the phrase “those people” about anyone who’s not in the room at the time. It is a phrase of superiority used in describing people who (1) are usually at a lower organisational level than the speaker, or (2) are unhappy about something the speaker has done, and therefore, “really don’t understand the way things have to be”. Moralising can be seductive to the consultant. The moralising client is inviting you to join him or her in a very select circle of people who know what is best for “those people” and who know what they “need to understand”.
The most difficult form of resistance to see comes form the compliant client who totally agrees with you and eagerly wants to know what to do next. It is hard to see compliance as resistance when you are getting exactly what you want – agreement and respect.
Each client is likely to have some reservations about a given course of action. If the reservations don’t get expressed to you, they will come out somewhere else, perhaps in a more destructive way. This form of resistance is indicated by almost total absence of any reservations and a low energy agreement.
If there has been data collection in your project, the first wave of questions will be about your methods. If you administered a questionnaire, you will be asked about how many people responded, at what level of response and whether the findings are statistically significant. Next will be questions about how different groups of people responded.
Repeated questions about method or suggestions of alternative methods can serve to delay the discussion of problems and actions.
Flight into Health
The most subtle form of resistance occurs when, somewhere in the middle or toward the end of the project, it appears that the client no longer has the problem that you were addressing in the first place. As you get closer and closer to the time for the client to face the issue and act on the problem you begin to hear about how much better things seem to be getting.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with the situation improving for the client, but most surface symptoms have underlying problems that require attention.
Pressing for Solutions
The last form of resistance is the client’s desire for solutions, solutions, solutions. “Don’t talk to me about problems, I want to hear solutions.” Because the consultant is also eager to see the problems solved, some collusion can take place between consultant and client if the discussion of solutions are not held off a little.
The desire for solutions can prevent the client from learning anything important about the nature of the problem. It also keeps the client dependent on consultants to solve problems. Recognise that the rush to solutions can be a defence and a particularly seductive form of resistance for the consultant who is eager to solve problems.