Lessons to be Learned from the Resistance to Resilience

cartoon from VComply

Recently, while attending a legal conference, I struck up a conversation with a gentleman I’ll call John. It began like most social networking event conversations, but quickly took a turn I wasn’t expecting. While it was off-putting (for reasons you will soon see), it held important insight into the resistance to the progress the legal profession is trying to make in mental health and well-being.

“What do you do in the legal profession?” asked John, who had already identified himself as a business professional in the legal industry. I explained that I help law firms and other organizations cultivate resilience and well-being.

“Ahhh…” he said, “that is the new trendy thing, isn’t it?” I asked him what he meant by trendy.

“We used to just suck it up and deal with it.” John said with a shrug, “My first boss called me a schmuck every single day.”

“That sounds like a pretty miserable way to work. How did you ‘just deal with it’ back then?” I asked, sincerely interested to hear his experience.

At my question, he responded with a “Ha!” and then, “You mean besides go home and kick my dog and beat my wife?”

He waited for a laugh that I didn’t give. I didn’t feel angry or offended at his comment. Mostly, I felt sad. Clearly, I had struck a nerve and in his defensiveness, he went for the shock value of a bad joke. Or, maybe it wasn’t a joke for him at all. I’ll never know.

“That sounds really awful for everyone.” I responded, admitting to my feeling of sadness, while hiding my shock.

He looked at me and squinted, “Are you psychoanalyzing me right now?”

Now it was my turn to laugh. “No more than you are trying to give me business advice. I’m off the clock, too.” And with that, I said “Nice to meet you,” and excused myself.

I was honest when I said I wasn’t psychoanalyzing him. That is a long and thoughtful process which takes place after a client and therapist have built a relationship based on unconditional positive regard and trust. I have, however, been thinking about the interaction over the past few days. While he was certainly more blunt about his resistance toward well-being and resilience efforts than most, it held a common refrain: “It was bad for me, but I managed to get by and so should everyone else!”

This refrain rarely comes from a place of glee in others’ suffering. I could assume that of John and write him off as jerk. Or I could be curious about the resistance behind the bravado. More often, it comes from a place of fear. What we know about behaviors–both individual and organizational–is that for change to occur, there must be a disruption, a challenge to the status quo. When people learn coping mechanisms and behaviors to deal with the status quo (an unhealthy, harsh environment) and then the status quo changes, they too are forced to change. And change, even change that is positive (a healthy, resilient workplace), can be anxiety producing. Previously necessary tools of defense and survival like rigidity, blame, off-loading (“kicking the dog”), bullying, perfectionism and isolation become obsolete. That can leave a person (or organization) feeling vulnerable and exposed: “How do I behave in this new environment?” The immediate protective response, “Things don’t need to change!” often has the subtext, “I don’t want to change.”

Anyone in the business of change, be it a therapist, consultant, coach, or leader, has experienced resistance. No doubt resistance can be frustrating, but we change-makers are well advised to work with resistance, not around it. When we pay close attention to the resistance, where it comes from, and how it shows up, only then are we able to address it, slowly build trust, and dissolve the barriers that impede positive change. We cannot ask a person or an organization to be vulnerable to change without first creating boundaries and guardrails that allow them feel safe.

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