In your relationships at work and at home, you know the discomfort you feel when you become resistant or defensive and the unease you feel when you either hear it from others or sense it in them. When we feel threatened, defensiveness or resistance is our initial, natural, perhaps inevitable reaction. We would probably be surprised if we stopped to think how much energy we use up resisting new ideas and differing values, blocking unwelcome feedback, defending our position. The reaction is so automatic, the habit so deeply ingrained that often we aren’t conscious of being in a defensive or resistant posture.
Handling Resistance from Others
Often, your self-disclosures will be accepted and even welcomed.
There are times, however, when your I-Messages will result in resistance or defensiveness from others. (You may have heard of this concept in leadership training or other types of training you’ve attended.)
For example, you may express an idea or belief at home, at work or at a dinner party and receive criticism, rejection or judgment in return. You may say “no” with sensitivity and good reason and yet hear anger and disappointment from the other person. In short, your self-disclosure may lead to feelings of upset and un-acceptance in others. Here are some examples:
“I did not do that!”
“I don’t want to discuss it.”
“Why are you bringing this up now? You know I’m already stressed out.”
Reactions like this can cause you to feel defensive and then it becomes very tempting to respond in kind. But we’ve all done that and know for sure that it doesn’t work—the interaction becomes an escalating argument or the conversation shuts down, often in stony silence. When this happens, not only does the issue or problem not get resolved, the relationship suffers damage.
Accepting Resistance in Yourself
Admitting to yourself that you feel defensive or resistant is often very difficult. We feel that it’s a sign of weakness or vulnerability—a part of us we cannot allow others to see. So there’s a strong tendency to resist accepting that yes, right now, I’m feeling threatened because someone has challenged my point of view in a meeting or my spouse is upset with me or my teenager won’t talk to me.
This inner resistance confronts us with the possibility that something might need to change which most likely involves us. Often we resist change because it means something new and yet unknown. There’s comfort in the familiar even when it isn’t working. Maintaining the status quo seems safer—it’s what we know.
The price we pay for continually refusing to uncover and examine what’s beneath the resistance is that we remain stuck, surviving, making do—not living life to its fullest.
To accept your resistance as a natural part of you and to open yourself up to discovering what’s beneath it requires an inner shift—a shift from seeing the resistance as a bothersome feeling to be avoided to seeing it as an opportunity or even as a gift—because it’s a signal that there’s something more.
Clues and Cues of Resistance
Resistance can take many forms and intensities. It can be overt and clearly expressed or indirect and coded. Often, it comes out as anger. Anger, however, is often a secondary emotion that masks more vulnerable feelings. It’s like an iceberg where only the top shows. The more basic feelings of disappointment, fear or hurt remain hidden below the surface, unknown to others and often to the “angry” person as well. Men, in particular, have learned that anger is an acceptable, even preferred response, to fear or hurt which are unmanly and not to be expressed.
Resistance also comes out indirectly—”forgetting” agreements, making “mistakes”, having “accidents”, acting helpless or confused, denying, ignoring, distracting, delaying, lying, sabotaging, avoiding, withdrawing, giving the silent treatment.
There are also “body language” cues of upset such as a flushed face, perspiration, glaring, avoiding eye contact, restlessness, grim expressions, moving away. All of these verbal and non–verbal clues are signals that either you or the other person is feeling resistant. Become alert to them.
In others: become more alert to the signals they give out when they’re feeling resistant and make a conscious effort to listen to them with acceptance, empathy and understanding. Listening with acceptance gives the other person a chance to vent their feelings and as a result gives them the opportunity to probe below their resistance to discover what’s beneath. They too have a valuable opportunity to discover more about themselves. Further, the relationship between you is strengthened.
In yourself: become more conscious of what causes you to become resistant or defensive. Instead of denying that inner signal, respect it, give it your attention, listen to it—accept it as an invaluable part of yourself that is offering you an opportunity to challenge an old pattern, to learn what’s true for you and to move toward actualizing more of who you’re capable of being.