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Putting Up Resistance

Resistance is not uncommon in interpersonal communication. Recognizing and responding appropriately to communication resistance is a solid skill to develop. People are not usually resistant because they desire to be difficult or, even worst, spiteful.

Broadly stated, communication is exchanging information between two or more people. Communication conveys our thoughts to the person with whom we are engaging. The message we share with our listeners is transmitted through our words, tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. Since communication is exchanging ideas between two or more people, hardly ever should communication be like one-way traffic. Therefore, the listener's feedback is crucial to completing the transmission of ideas. Feedback helps to determine if the message is received as intended.

We cannot always control the outcome of a conversation. Neither can we control how the other person interprets or reacts to what is shared. Instead, we can choose to be thoughtful and respectful of the other person to minimize resistance. Equally important to being kind and considerate is recognizing differences of opinion. The differences of view are not an opportunity to push a single narrative as the only solution.

When there is a single narrative, we likely encounter resistance from the other person. We can sometimes interpret resistance as "attitude" instead of the other person saying, "I'm uncomfortable with the nature of our conversation." The hesitancy when the narrative seems like a scolding and not an exchange of ideas leads to defensive and distracting behaviors. In other words, "I'm done with this conversation; please leave me alone."

Should the conversation deteriorate to the point of resistance, it is not an opportunity to persuade the person to see things your way. This approach will probably bomb to the extent that the chance to engage is lost. However, when you sense resistance in your interactions, it is an opportunity to change course and reengage the person to become an active participant in the conversation.

There are many ways to deal with resistance. One intervention to deal with resistance is Motivational Interviewing (MI). MI was developed by Clinical Psychologists William R. Miller and Stephen Rollnick. Instead of arguing with the other person Miller and Rollnick suggests using these basic MI skills:

  • Open-ended question – to invite the other person to speak. Questions that elicit "yes" or "no" are not open-ended. Instead, begin with open-ended questions about how, when, … what. Ask for explanations, "in what ways or tell more about what you are thinking and feeling?"

  • Affirmations – thank the other person for sharing and acknowledge when the person makes a good point.

  • Reflective listening – in this way, you do not misinterpret the other person's point. For example, it sounds like you are saying …. To use reflective listening effectively, practice repeating or rephrasing what the other person says. Using paraphrasing is where the meaning of what is said is inferred. In your response, reflect on the feelings you are hearing from the other person.

  • Summaries – make sure the outline is concise and demonstrates to the speaker you were listening to them. For example, share what you heard and ask the speaker to inform you of anything you may have missed. Use the query. Did I miss anything?

Some questions you could possibly ask the other person:

  • Tell me what you would like to see happen instead of the problem?

  • What would be a reasonable conclusion to this matter?

  • How do you feel about _____________ vs _____________? Which of the two options works best for you? Or do you have another suggestion?

  • We have discussed it a lot, but I'm not sure what you think. Do you mind sharing your thoughts on the things we've already discussed?

  • I'm a bit nervous about the direction of our conversation; you seem disinterested. Have you any insights on what we have discussed so far?

  • What has been the best thing about the conversation?

MI was developed to help people change unhealthy behaviors. The basic skills apply to interactions of every kind. Remember to deal with resistance effectively. The essential things to do are use open-ended questions, affirmations, reflective listening, and summaries.

Stay Naturally Curious


Hall, K., Gibbie, T., & Lubman, D. I. (2012). Motivational interviewing techniques: facilitating behaviour change in the general practice setting. Focus Psychological strategies, 41, (9), 660-667.

Miller, W.R. & Rollnick, S. (2013). Motivational Interviewing: Preparing People for Change (3rd edition). New York: Guilford.

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