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“I don’t want to change!” Understanding resistance

The topic of how to introduce change in schools has been discussed and researched extensively. Searching “introducing change in schools” generates 99,400,00 results in .37 seconds! Although the literature gives us some guidance to prepare the terrain and build alliances, the truth is introducing change is a Hilly Roadbumpy road. Anytime you want to introduce something new or different, you will encounter some level of resistance to change coming from your students when you modify the classroom routine, your colleagues when you propose new projects… or from your family when you decide that you are NOT hosting Thanksgiving dinner this year!

A couple of weeks ago I attended a workshop led by Meena Srinivasan, SEL specialist with the Oakland Unified School District in California and author of the book on mindfulness Teach Breath Learn. During her presentation, Meena talked about resistance as being any force that slows or stops movement, not a negative force but a natural part of change. People resist in response to something. Understanding where the resistance comes from is the key to help us (the change makers) see the situation from the other person’s point of view and address the underlying reasons why our students, colleagues… or mother-in-law are resisting the change.

Change Without Migraines establishes three different levels of resistance:

Level 1 – I don’t get it.

This resistance is based on information: facts, figures, and ideas. It is the world of the thinking and rational brain, and it involves presentations, diagrams and logical arguments. The Level 1 resistance may come from lack of information, disagreement over interpretation of data, lack of exposure to critical information or confusion over what it means. A common mistake is treating all resistance as if it were Level 1, where the change maker will give people more information, better arguments or additional details, when the underlying reasons for resistance might come from a different place.

To deal with Level 1 resistance:

  • Engage your audience with the information, give them a chance to process and give their opinions.
  • Build time for questions.
  • Get back to people on how their opinions and insights have influenced your thinking or course of action.

Level 2 – I don’t like it. 

Level 2 is an emotional reaction to change and it is generally based on fear. People might be afraid to loose their status, power or sense of control; they might fear feelings of incompetence or have a sense that they can’t take on anything else. When Level 2 resistance is present, people might move into a fight-or-flight mode and they won’t be able to listresistance changeen to your arguments. Their focus will probably be on their survival. Addressing this level of resistance with more data won’t work; you will need to embrace the resistance and understand how they feel (use your social awareness skills!) and why they feel that way, so you can incorporate their concerns.

To deal with Level 2 resistance:

  • Build relationships
  • Listen with an open mind
  • Connect with others and show empathy
  • Use the challenge as an opportunity to deepen the dialog

Level 3 – I don’t like you.

This is the deepest, most entrenched form of opposition to change. In this level, people are opposing you based on your history together or conflicting values; they might oppose who you represent (for example, when a new initiative comes to schools from the district’s central office). This level of resistance is based on a lack of trust on the change maker, not so much on the idea itself or what the change will mean. Whatever the reasons might be, it is important not to ignore it… it won’t go away.

To deal with Level 3 resistance:

  • Begin small
  • Work continually on building relationships
  • Try not to judge others when faced with a difficult situation
  • Anticipate the resistance and get people involved early in the process
  • Embrace uncertainty

Resistance is a natural part of change, a force that slows or stops movement and that protects people from perceived harms. Resistance can be based on intellectual, emotional or personal reasons (or a combination). Understanding the kind of resistance that you encounter when introducing change in schools or in your personal life will help you use the appropriate strategies and build the support you need to make change happen. Do you have other strategies to address resistance? Share in the comments box below!

2 Comments
  1. I find these three levels to be a great assessment tool for a change initiative. I think they effectively complement the Six Seconds Change Map, where we need to engage our client, help them to overcome their frustration, fears, and judgment, and move to a place of excitement, courage and curiosity for what comes next. I notice and agree with you that relationship building is key at each of your Levels of Resistance. Thanks for a great addition to the literature.

    November 2, 2014
    • Thank you, Susan, for your comments. These three levels of resistance do complement Six Seconds Change Map and can be used to understand resistance (from clients or from ourselves) as part of that change process. Resistance can also be understood as acknowledging that you will need to “let go” of something in order to embrace that change.

      November 2, 2014

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