Overcoming resistance to change is one of the most important aspects of difficult change. Unfortunately, until recently we did not have access to some of the most critical related knowledge and as a result, resistance to change often remained misunderstood. New science sheds light on this important change factor, making it possible for us to identify previously invisible types of resistance and overcome them.
Resistance to change is not one thing. Like the iceberg model, much more of resistance is invisible under water than is seen on the surface. We learned a lot about what is going on in the submerged part of the iceberg over the years and developed effective communication, transparency, and inclusion strategies to remove some of the related obstacles. However, having very little access to how the brain works before, there were some aspects of resistance to change we didn't know how to address. Those aspects remained invisible and silently sabotaged our ability to support people to adopt needed changes and achieve desired outcomes.
Perhaps the most important new insights we have in this area thanks to recent scientific findings are:
The fact there are additional causes of resistance to change.
The difference between Internal Resistance and External Resistance.
The purpose different types of resistance serve and why it's important.
Additional causes of resistance to change: Not all types of change trigger resistance in the same way and different people respond to the discomfort of change in different ways. We all constantly make changes in life with very little resistance and some people smoothly adjust even to the most difficult change. This is because, in addition to everything we learned in the past about fearing the unknown and trying to avoid threats, resistance to change has two more critical sources:
The preexisting level of skills or abilities of each individual to cope with discomfort.
Understanding these additional source of resistance makes it possible to better support change acquisition. We already knew the importance of effective communication, inclusion, transparency and other resistance-minimizing practices before. Now we can add to that successfully guiding people through the Unlearning process and providing people with needed skills so they can respond effectively to the discomfort of change.
The difference between Internal Resistance and External Resistance: Resistance to change can take many forms and is defined in many different ways. In the past we mostly used to define it as a set of actions, behaviors, or responses. Neuroscience helps us distinguish between two primary types of resistance:
External resistance: When people experience emotional discomfort (or intellectual disagreement that leads to emotional discomfort) they respond in a variety of different ways. Just like our past definition of resistance, these include behaviors and responses such as avoidance, denial, defensiveness, withdrawal, argumentativeness, anger, frustration, and manipulation. The important insight is that way people respond to the discomfort which is generated by the need to Unlearn, is not unique to one specific change they are asked to make. The way individuals respond to discomfort is mostly consistent. Responding to change-related discomfort will typically be very similar to the ways that same individual responds to discomfort in general, even in situations that are not associated with change. Overcoming external resistance requires the support of specific Change-Readiness Skills. Once those skills are acquired, individuals adopt effective responses to the discomfort associated with difficult change and external resistance is no longer an obstacle.
Internal resistance: These include a wide variety of invisible "maneuvers" the subconscious mind makes to "protect" its preference for existing patterns. Using the iceberg analogy, this all happens under water, typically outside of the awareness of the individual. It is a very real variety of obstacles, scientifically proven to make us forget, misunderstand, shut-down, disengage and otherwise block ourselves from adopting needed changes. It is not deliberate and this type of "brain-fog" can disorient and sabotage change acquisition even when people have the highest motivation to adopt needed changes. You can think of it as subconscious obstacles that our brain "throws under our wheels." We get in our own way because the brain has a tendency to prefer previously reinforced patterns. Overcoming the wide variety of internal resistance responses requires exposing them in a safe, effective, and positive accountability environment, identifying them when they do come up, and guiding individuals to overcome them. It gets particularly important to tell these two types of resistance apart when individuals exhibit both at the same time. Doing so allows us to overcome resistance to change quickly and in a positive, non-punitive way.
The purpose different types of resistance serve: If your education was anything like mine, you learned that resistance is a positive thing. Intuitively I always wanted that to make sense. Instead, I often found it confusing. How is something that is focused on minimizing or blocking progress helpful? New science developments finally helped clarify that for me:
External resistance is fundamentally a defense mechanism. Even if change is communicated correctly, if we are included, and change steps are explained in the context of a solid rational and with transparency, people may still feel the discomfort of the need to change. The purpose of external resistance responses is to distance ourselves from that discomfort. Although these behaviors create obstacles to change, they also tell us exactly what we need to provide, which support and skills are required, to get people to adopt needed changes.
Internal resistance, serves a very different purpose. Despite how it appears, it is actually part of a very important change mechanism. This is because, resistance draws our brain's emotional attention to whatever it is we are doing. When we are uncomfortable doing something, but choose to do it anyway, the "encoding power" of that "despite-of" action is far greater than if we didn't resist. When change doesn't make us the least bit uncomfortable, we are far less likely to notice it. If it's a new habit and we are not creating any emotional links to it in our brain, whether we adopt it or not will be random at best. But if we are uncomfortable with it, and practice the new behavior despite-of that discomfort, we are sending a powerful rewiring message to our subconscious mind. In fact, internal resistance is so important that when it is absent (like with "pleasers" or "intellectualizers") we actually have to generate it to enable sustainable change acquisition.
Both external and internal resistance are an expression of a need. More often than not, supporting difficult individuals to get out of their own way is a greater relief to them than to all of those frustrated by interacting with them. In a way, the brain is using resistance to communicate that it needs greater support. The specific way people resist pinpoints the exact type of support needed. Truly understanding resistance and knowing how to harness it to make change sustainable is a powerful tool in any change leader's toolkit.
Correctly identifying and overcoming different types of resistance can be very tricky, especially in extreme situations. But it doesn't have to be confusing, complicated, frustrating, or discouraging.
There are clear, specific, easy-to-follow principles and steps to support people to overcome the wide variety of internal and external resistances. If supporting people to overcome resistance to change is relevant in your specific situation, we invite you to check out the KCI training and certification programs, or just reach out if you have a specific question we can answer.