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3 Types of Resistance to Change

Overcoming resistance to change is one of the most important aspects of difficult change. For most changes, resistance is a direct obstacle or an invisible undercurrent that needs to be successfully supported and managed if desired outcomes are to be achieved. But resistance to change is not one thing.

Why Should We Group Resistance Types According to Cause?

The cause of resistance to change tells us how we need to support people to overcome it. For example, if we know that certain, progress-blocking, resistance to change is a result of fear, we should do our best to minimize fear. Thanks to new research in recent years, we now know that fear is one of at least 3 causes for resistance that we need to help people overcome. If we find fears associated with loss of control, loss of autonomy, and uncertainty are blocking people's ability to adopt needed changes, we should create an environment of trust and effective communication. Similarly, change should take into account other causes and be designed to support people to overcome other types of resistance as well.

Which different causes are blocking change acquisition?

Traditional change models identify at least one critical cause of resistance to change. Neuroscience adds two more:

  • Fear, concerns, and otherwise a negative response associated with the details of an anticipated change: While change hopefully means progress on at least one important front, it may also mean a perceived threat or loss on other fronts. For example, when individuals want to become more assertive, they may simultaneously fear losing other people's acceptance.

  • Deep emotional response patterns to discomfort: When change causes discomfort, people respond in ways that are aligned with their deep response patterns to discomfort in general. This way of responding will stay relatively consistent per individual, regardless of the specific details of one change or another.

  • Responses to anxiety and stress that result from the brain's need to rewire: this third type of responses will come up when people need to let go of previous patterns or ways of doing things to adopt new ways of doing things. It will come up regardless of the specific details of any particular change and even if people master highly effective response patterns to discomfort.

What Do Different Resistance Types Look Like?

Each one of the above three types of resistance is more like a family or a group, each including multiple version of responses. In each case it will be important to identify if behaviors like argumentativeness, avoidance, and confusion are the result of fear, emotional response patterns to discomfort, or the need to rewire the brain. The same avoidance behavior may be the result of any of those three causes or all of them at once.

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