Overcoming Resistance to Change

Jerald M. Jellison, PH.D.




When you have politely asked someone to do something for you more than once but you don’t get the behavior you want, you have encountered resistance to change. In each case you give the person reasons and explain why you want it done, and each time you encounter resistance. Explaining it again is not likely to get the behavior you want. This program will focus specifically on these types of cases: repeated resistance to change. These techniques are not appropriate the first time you make a request.




When trying to effect change in people it’s important to become aware of how you think about people and why they behave the way they do.


At this point, Jellison discusses a number of common people problems, such as laziness, complaining, making excuses, etc., and asks the members to give reasons for why people behave that way. He then examines the reasons given by the members.


When most people try to explain others’ behavior, they do it by appealing to one of five major types of psychological cause:


  • Attitudes, values and beliefs
  • Personality
  • Needs, motives, and wants
  • Emotions and feelings
  • Self-esteem and security


In order to deal with the special problem of persistent resistance to change, you have to adopt a different perspective with regard to how to understand those people. If you see things as the cause of behavior, it produces a very predictable outcome when you attempt to make the person change. For example, if you think the problem is the person’s attitudes or values, you try to get them to change by changing their attitudes or values. This doesn’t work because attitudes and values take a long time to form. You can’t change them overnight.


Traditional psychology says attitudes, values, etc., cause behavior and are formed in early childhood. Traditional psychology also says the cause of most behavior problems lies in the past. Early childhood experiences shape us in a particular way and we are that way for life. This is a very pessimistic belief system because it implies that change will be very difficult. With this attitude, what kind of results do you get when you ask people to change? You ask them again and again and they don’t change, so most likely you fire them. That may be the best solution sometimes, but not always. Your other options are to keep explaining, threaten the person, or give up. Most people give up because they buy into the psychology that says people were formed in a certain way and that’s the way they will always be.


The important question to ask is, “In whose self-interest is this belief system?” The people who benefit the most are the psychologists who charge dearly by the hour. Two other groups of people also benefit from this belief system: people in power and those who want to maintain the status quo (your employees).


Resistors can be anywhere and anyone in the organization. They love the old belief system because it legitimizes the idea that they can’t change. This is not in your self-interest.




If you want to be able to effect change in people quickly and with as little effort as possible, you must understand one simple concept: consequences determine behavior.


Put your old ideas on the shelf. People are not permanently fixed one way. People’s behavior changes very quickly and dramatically from one situation to another based on their self-interest. Their self-interest is based on consequences, and consequences determine behavior.


For example, most people ignore flight attendants when they explain the safety guidelines before taking off on a flight. Yet, in a planned emergency landing, those same people will be very attentive when the flight attendants explain those same guidelines. Those people haven’t changed their underlying values or attitudes, but the consequences of not paying attention have suddenly changed. So the behavior changes instantly.


People are not in a fixed state. Change happens all the time. Self-esteem is said to be a major cause of behavior, yet it fluctuates all the time. When people accomplish something, they feel good about themselves. When they fail, they feel badly. Self-esteem is a result, not a cause, of behavior. The consequences in a situation are what cause the behavior.


People can behave in many different ways. Can you change people? Maybe. Can you change their behavior? Yes; almost instantly.




A key concept in changing behavior is understanding how to define the problem. When most people attempt to define a problem, they do it at “40,000 feet.” This means they use terms that are so general and lofty that the problem comes out as a generalized indictment of the other person. If you make a request at 40,000 feet, the person will respond with a 40,000 foot answer.


Be very specific when defining a problem or making a request. When you define a problem at 40,000 feet, it seems huge and unsolvable and you usually get very defensive answers.


For example, you have an executive who is weak on follow-up. The typical 40,000 foot approach would be to go to him and say, “Joe, you never follow up on things.” Their typical response would be, “That’s not true! How can you say that?” Then you get into a long argument during which the person can find at least one example to defeat your point.


When you use words like “always” or “never,” you are at 40,000 feet. You play right into the hands of the resistor by making it easy for them to deny or argue with you. You also make it easy for the other person to give you pseudo-arguments. Or, they honestly don’t know what you mean when you use the big words at 40,000 feet. Two-thirds of the battle is taking the 40,000 foot concept and bringing it down to ground level. It’s okay to start at 40,000 feet, but don’t stay up there.


Good resistors always look for ambiguous words. When you make a request, be as specific as possible. Instead of saying, “Joe, I need the first quarter report next week,” say, “Joe, I need the 1st quarter report on my desk by noon, Friday.”


When you have huge, unsolvable problems, break them down into smaller units. Divide and conquer. Break the request down into specific tasks and elements. But you don’t have to spell it out yourself. You can ask questions and have the other person do that for you. For example, you could ask, “Joe, if you were going to have that report ready for me by noon on Friday, what kinds of things would you have to get done today? Tomorrow? People know the answers. They aren’t dumb. Ask your question and then sit back and listen.


Spell things out for the resistor or get them to spell it out for you. This can be frustrating, especially for senior executives. You may think, “As much money as I’m paying this guy, why should I have to go through with this?” You still have to do it, whether you like it or not. The alternative is to be angry and have the job not get done. Ask the questions and put it right back on their shoulders.


One reason people resist is because you have made it easy for them to resist in the past. At some point you have made it pay for them to act stupid or not do the work. They will try to continue that behavior until you put the pressure on them.



When asked to define characteristics of good relationships, group members came up with traits like:

  • Honesty
  • Understanding
  • Trust
  • Similar outlooks


These are nice 40,000 feet words. Forty thousand feet is great for describing a relationship, but to effect change you have to come down to ground level. You have to adopt a different perspective and look at a relationship as a process of behavior exchange involving three major concepts:


  1. What counts in a relationship is behavior: Thoughts, feelings and attitudes don’t count.
  2. These behaviors are either positive or negative: Positive behaviors are rewards and negative ones are costs. Therefore, a relationship involves an exchange of valued behaviors. It is possible to talk about relationships in terms of rates of exchange.
  3. A good relationship is one that is equitable and profitable: One person is receiving rewards and the other is incurring costs. That’s all there is. Equitable means the two proportions are equal. Profitable means the rewards are greater than the costs. Equity is not the same as equality. The numbers aren’t equal but the proportions are.


As an employer, you give away dozens of rewards to your employees, but because you are unaware, you give them away for free. You don’t get anything back. When dealing with a resistor, you can’t afford to do that.


A bad relationship is one that is inequitable, but profitable. An ugly relationship is when one person profits and the other doesn’t.


This approach implies that people keep score in relationships. When a relationship is equitable and profitable, it doesn’t feel as if you’re keeping score because things are brought into balance so fast. But you do. You can tell because when the relationship goes into inequity, you know it.     People who work for you not only keep score with you, they also keep score for your relationship with everybody else. People will treat you equitably because of the consequences. They will treat you equitably only if it pays for them to do so. If you make it pay for them to treat you inequitably, they will continue doing so. People will not automatically be nice to you.


So, the way to produce change is through a process of trading things with one another. This is called quid pro quo. When people come to you and ask for something, you say, “Sure, if you will do this for me.” Do this three, four, fives times in a row. People will be dismayed. They will wonder why you have changed, what has happened to you.


They won’t like the new you because they were winning the old way. But if you keep making these “trades,” after a while when they make a request they will already have their trade ready. You won’t have to ask. Often, they will propose a trade that is better than what you might have asked. If you stick with this strategy, they will change one behavior at a time until they make the whole change you want.




In every persuasive communication, there is a simple format that does all the work of producing change. Two words do all the work: “if” and “then.” “If” you do this action, “then” there will be a consequence. This is the tool to use with the resistor.


When dealing with a resistor, you need to do a little planning. Planning should have these three elements:


  1. Specify the behavior or action outcome you want. The behavior is part of the “if” contingency.
  2. Specify what you will give the person. This is the “then” part of the contingency.
  3. Select the best time. You usually ask others to do things for you when you’re down to the wire. That’s the worst time because it puts them in a position of power. The best time is when they need something from you because that puts you in a position of power. How do you know when they need something? They ask.


If people don’t ask you for something before you need them to do something, go to them. Ask questions like, “What could I do to make your job more interesting? What could I do to make your job easier?” People will tell you. Shut up and listen.


When people ask you for favors, the tendency is to be wary. Take the opposite approach. Learn to love it when people ask you for favors because that’s when you can ask for the quid pro quo. The more people ask for, the more you can ask for. So learn to love it when people ask for big favors. It’s only fair and equitable that you ask for a big favor in return.

If they ask for a favor and you can’t think of something fair and equitable at the moment, don’t immediately grant their request. Tell them you will get back to them and then think of a fair and equitable return request.


When people ask a favor, they are asking you to incur a cost and give them a reward. Smile and say, “I’ll be happy to do that for you if you do this for me.” This is not some cheap psychological trick. This is an approach that works because it takes into account what really happens in a relationship.


It’s a good idea to plan ahead, especially with known resistors. Make a list of what you want from each employee. When you first do it, the list will probably be at 40,000 feet. Take the time to make it specific and bring it down to ground level.


Remember, with good employees this kind of technique isn’t an issue. They hold themselves accountable. This is for dealing with consistent resistors, people who continually don’t give you what you want.


Upon a request, never use the phrase, “Okay, but you owe me one.” Employees will readily agree because they know you will never call in that debt. Those lOUs depreciate very quickly in value. At the moment it looks like you are getting an even exchange, but you aren’t. You are getting the person’s intention, not the behavior. Get the behavior.


Don’t explain why you want something. Don’t give reasons. Say with a smile, “I’ll be happy to do this if you do that for me.” Then be quiet! Wait for their agreement.


The goal of the resistor is not to change. They will try to convince you they have a dozen other goals, but your goal should be to change the behavior. Nothing else. Your goal is not to understand why they are doing things or to prove how smart you are or how dumb they are. Your goal is to induce the desired change in behavior.


The basic strategy of the resistor is to distract you, and they are great at it. They will distract you with one thing after another. Your counter-strategy should be to stay on one topic, the ground level behavior.


Resistors will also try to create emotional disruption. “How can you be so demanding? That’s not fair! You’re putting too much pressure on me!” They will even try crying. Your counter-strategy is to maintain civility throughout. Don’t get angry or upset. Stay calm and positive.


Resistors will try to wear you down by hitting you with one form of resistance after another.

Don’t give up. That’s exactly what they want. Place a 5-minute time limit on the meeting.

Keep it very short. You are in the position of power; you should control the meeting.





People come into these meetings tense and defensive because of fear and apprehension. Go one step beyond the psychology. There are consequences causing the fear. People are afraid of three main consequences:


  1. Criticism.
  2. Being disciplined or fired.
  3. Having a large, costly request made of them.


When the person walks into your office, you may be irritated by a number of things: that you have to have the meeting in the first place; that you know you aren’t going to enjoy the meeting; that the person keeps not doing what you ask them to do. Don’t let your irritability show. Don’t say anything about how angry you are. Instead, say, “John, it’s good to see you. Thanks for stopping in.” Have a big smite on your face. Find something good to say about something they have done recently.


This puts them at ease. They are expecting criticism and you give them praise. This gets their defenses down. Then say, “There is one small thing I need to talk to you about, and I’m confident we can come to agreement on this. I’m so confident that… (tell them you have another planned activity in five minutes).” Tell them right up front that you only have five minutes to discuss the issue.


Don’t say, “John, we have something to talk about. I know we’ve been through this before and you don’t like it, but please let me get my part out first and then you can have your say.” That’s an open invitation to resistance.


When the person’s defenses are down, make the request. That’s when you use the “if-then” technique. Then be quiet. Pose the deal, be quiet, and smile. Don’t give the person explanations they can use as ammunition. Now comes the hard part: deciding if what the person says back to you is reasonable resistance. –


If the person has resisted 4-5 times in the past, chances are they will resist again. But they might also have a valid reason. Is it an excuse or a valid reason? By being quiet you can really focus on what they say to you to determine if it is valid.


If it’s a good reason, ask what they need to be able to fulfill your request. Or, modify the request or withdraw it entirely. Be prepared ahead of time to modify the request. But most of the time you will get resistance, not valid reasons.




The bamboo technique is your best counter-strategy. When you ask a person to do something, that’s like putting a force or vector on them. When they resist, they push a force or vector back at you. The usual temptation is to push harder. Don’t push back. Bend with the wind and then snap back. Bend, acknowledge the other person’s response to your request, and then snap back by restating your request. Acknowledge their excuses and come right back with your request.


When people want to argue, don’t make the mistake of arguing back. Say something like, “You make a very good point. You stated it clearly and it is a potential concern. On balance, I still think the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, and that’s why I am requesting you do this.” Acknowledge their response, say, “Good point,” and come back to your request.


Use the same technique with name-calling. Acknowledge it and come back to your request. You might event say, “In some situations I guess I can be somewhat of an SOB. Now, if you do this by then, I will be happy to do this for you.” Or you can say, “You’re not the first person to think that of me….”


Avoid using the word “but.” It tips people off and they react to it.


Some resistors will criticize your method. Instead of dealing with what you say they will attack how you say it. They will criticize your attitude or tone of voice. Again, the bamboo technique is your best bet. Acknowledge their response and restate your request.


Give people back their form of resistance. Acknowledge their fears. Say, “I can imagine how hard it is to change. I’ve found that when I break it down into small steps it gets easier. That’s why what I’m asking you to do is…”


Resistors love to use emotional displays. When people get angry or give you tears, say, “It looks as though this is upsetting to you. My goal isn’t to upset you. My goal is to propose that if you do this by then…”


Avoid this phrase at all costs: “I know how you feel.” People will say, “No you don’t,” and set off a round of useless arguing. You can’t win it. The phrases to use are, “It looks as though,” or “I can imagine how you feel.”


Resistors will also try to change the subject. They want to distract you from what you are talking about. Acknowledge their ideas and say you would love to hear about them at a later time, but postpone extensive discussions. Say, “Look, good idea. We can talk about that on Thursday if you like. What I needed to talk about now is if you do this by then….”


Resistors will want you to explain your request. This opens you to argument. Or they will keep asking more questions. Say, “Thank you for asking that question and I’ll be glad to answer that later. What I needed to talk about now is if you do this by then…”

If people persist in arguing, try this: “This seems to be one of those situations where we’ll just have to agree to disagree. It’s not a question of I’m right and you’re wrong or vice versa. It’s a gray area and there are a lot of different perspectives. We’re just going to have to disagree on this one. What I hope we can agree on…” and go right back to your request.


Occasionally you may get catatonia as a response. The person just sits and stares at you. Instead of interpreting their silence as disagreement, interpret it as agreement. Say, “I’m glad we have no disagreement on this. I’m glad you have no objections and I’ll look forward to having you do the request by when. And if you do this, I’ll be happy to do that.”


When using this technique, have the next topic of conversation ready. Restate the request and move right into the next topic.


When you do switch topics, people will go with you 50% of the time. People who won’t will raise their objections and disagree with you. At that point, go into the bamboo technique. If you bamboo three times, you’ll be amazed at how well it works.


Remember, the whole meeting should take no more than five minutes. If you bamboo three times and the person still resists, say, “If we can’t come to an agreement on this in the next 30 seconds, then I will be forced to…” This is when you bring out the major consequences. You always want to lead with the carrot, but be prepared to bring out the sword. Don’t rant and rave or threaten termination. Show the sword briefly and then go back to your request.


Never assume you have agreement. With someone who has resisted several times, restate the agreement at the end. “Let’s both be clear about what we’re going to do. You are going to do this by then, and I will do this by then. Agreed?”


Make sure you get the verbal agreement. Don’t accept a nod or a smile. If they smile, say, “John, you’re smiling. Is that a yes?” Make them say it out loud or they will come back to you and say they never agreed to the request.


SUMMARY                                                    –


Don’t buy into traditional psychology that says you have to change attitudes and values to change behavior. If you want people to change, use the power of positive doing, not thinking. First, don’t think in terms of changing people, personality, beliefs, etc. Let people have all those wonderful things. Focus instead on changing behavior. The more specific you are, the more likely you are to get it. Change one thing at a time. Life is hard by the yard; it’s a cinch by the inch.



TEC – Overcoming Resistance to Change – Jerald M. Jellison