Let's Change the Way We Talk About Resistance to Change

In September, I attended the ACMP Regional Conference in Vancouver. Dawn-Marie Turner was one of the keynote speakers and her presentation was “Let’s Talk: A Conversational Approach to Organizational Change”. One of her main points, which resonated with me, was that we need to stop talking about managing resistance to change and start talking about building readiness for change. She encouraged the audience of change practitioners to replace the word resistance with readiness in their conversations. She referenced research showing that conversations focused on dealing with resistance typically include words that are perceived as negative, which stimulates stress producing hormones in the participants. In contrast, conversations focused on building readiness typically include words that are perceived as positive and reduce the production of stress producing hormones.

Dr. Turner’s presentation got me thinking about my experiences as a change practitioner and how often I’ve heard clients use negative words or phrases to characterize resistance. I remember being contacted by a sponsor of a major change initiative, who was looking for help in dealing with significant resistance to the change. Our conversation went something like this:

Me: Tell me about the challenges you’re experiencing implementing the change.

Sponsor: Well, the major challenge is that we’re encountering a lot of resistance. The people who will be affected are complaining, saying that they don’t know why we’re making the change, that it’s not the right thing to do, etc.

Me: What have you done to help them understand why the change is required?

Sponsor: I sent out an email to everyone who was affected, explaining why the change is necessary and provided information on what would be changing and when.

Me: Given the negative reaction, what did you do after you sent the first email?

Sponsor: I sent a second email, reinforcing the messages in my first email.

Me: Did you do anything else?

Sponsor: Yes, I eventually sent a third email letting people know that the change was going to happen and that they needed to get on board. You know, this experience has confirmed for me that we have a lot of staff who have no interest in changing the way they work. In fact, they even resist changes that are beneficial for them. So, can you help us deal with the resistance?

Me: Well, given the significant amount of resistance you’ve encountered, would you be willing to take a step back and rethink how you’re managing the change?

Sponsor: You don’t seem to understand. The problem isn’t the change, it’s the people. What we need is help dealing with the resistance, so that we can get on with implementing the change. Is that something you can help us with?

While I was prepared to provide the sponsor with some feedback on his approach, it was clear that he’d already made up his mind about what was needed. I politely turned down the opportunity, explaining that it wasn’t the right fit for me. The sponsor was so focused on the need to deal with the resistance that he failed to acknowledge that his responsibilities included building the readiness of the affected people for the change. By not providing a compelling explanation of the need for the change and not engaging the staff in a dialogue to confirm their awareness of that need, he was increasing the amount of resistance, rather than building readiness.

Reflecting on the behaviour of this potential client and others got me thinking about my own words and actions. In delivering change management training and providing consulting and coaching services, I frequently speak about the importance of anticipating resistance and addressing it proactively. I’ve come to realize that I’ve been using the phrase “dealing with resistance to change” more frequently than the phrase “building readiness for change”. The difference may seem subtle, but according to Dr. Turner, it’s significant in terms of elevating stress levels in the people I’m dealing with. The words we use as change management practitioners can have a significant influence on the sponsors and managers we are supporting. If we want them to focus less on dealing with resistance and more on what they should do to build readiness for change, we need to be role models in the language we use with them.

I now challenge myself to speak first about the importance of building readiness for change, before speaking about dealing with resistance. For example, rather than asking a sponsor “How can you minimize resistance to the change?”, I’ll ask “What do you need to do to ensure people are ready to adopt and use the change?”

Do you agree with the premise we need to talk less about managing resistance to change and more about building readiness for change? If you do, start by tracking how often how you talk about dealing with resistance compared to building readiness. If you’re like me, the tracking results may surprise you. Challenge yourself to be more deliberate in your choice of words and phrases. For example, before you use the word resistance, try reframing your thoughts by substituting the word readiness instead. Changing the language you use will make a positive difference in how your point of view is perceived and it will also influence the people you are speaking with to adopt similar language in their communications.