(Visual metaphor: also helpful advice about knife sharpening.)
I’m going to assume that there have been times in your life when you have encountered friction during a group discussion. Maybe it had to do with a disagreement about where to eat lunch, or perhaps it was a bigger decision about how to approach a project or best ways to handle a client. Regardless of the situation, I imagine that you have experienced times when the tension felt uncomfortable and abrasive.
Most of us look at those moments when there is tension in a room and when we meet resistance as though something were going wrong. This is especially true if we are trying to lead that group towards a specific goal. That resistance can seem both frustrating and counterproductive. I find that there are two basic responses to that kind of friction:
Most managers and leaders who fall on the “directing/domineering” side of the leadership spectrum tend to choose force or coercion as a tool to get the team to “get on board” or to “move the ball forward.” If you have ever sat in on one of those meetings, you know that they are usually confusing, scary and unproductive. At their best, they tend to create a lot of “yes” people who don’t have any clarity about what they need to do or why.
The managers who capitulate to a group fall heavily on the “enrolling/engaging” side of the leadership spectrum and tend to worry about losing the team or seeming like a domineering boss. They tend to acquiesce when there is push back or when the team shows a lack of enthusiasm for an idea. These meetings can be easily derailed by one member who challenges the vision, but who doesn’t actually speak for the rest of the group. The result can be a feeling of a lack of leadership and a sense of pointlessness to the meetings.
These extreme approaches to communication and influence can be dangerous to leadership and group dynamics; learning how to hone these skills is much like learning the proper way to sharpen a knife.
Too Much Resistance:
If we try to sharpen our knives by scraping the blade directly on the stone, we will inevitably dull the blade and make it useless. The intuition that more force will solve the problem (coercion), actually creates the opposite intended effect. Force alone will not sharpen that knife:
The same is true if we avoid that resistance altogether; you can’t sharpen a knife if you don’t ever touch the stone. When we try to avoid any conflict at all, we run the risk of never changing anything. People will lose their focus and the group will feel unformed and rudderless. A good leader has to be comfortable with a certain amount of conflict and with resistance to his/her ideas.
How Best to Meet Resistance:
In truth what matters the most is how we meet the resistance. For example, in gestalt training therapists and facilitators are taught to focus on the feeling of a discussion, rather than on just the content. It is through the investigation of any resistance that they find in a discussion that allows them to help groups move through transformational change (both individual and organizational).
To hone your own ability to gauge how you meet resistance, try cultivating and nurturing the following skills:
- Awareness – notice when you begin to feel resistance both in yourself and in the group. Just as with sharpening the knife, the more aware you are of the impact on the blade, the better able you are to adjust the pressure to make it sharper.
- Curiosity – stay open to what is happening in the room. When we let go of the assumption of what the resistance means (example of assumptions: people are lazy, they don’t like your idea, they are not smart enough) and instead get curious about what they are hearing and experiencing, real transformation becomes possible.
- Empathy – once you are open to what is really happening with the resistance, learn to have empathy for everyone in the room, including yourself. While that may sound strange, there are a lot of feelings that can come up when we meet conflict, especially when it is in reaction to our idea. Notice those feelings, be curious about them and have some compassion and empathy for them. There is no right and wrong in that setting, only what is.
The better you get at practicing these skills, the braver you will feel when faced with any resistance in a room. The ability to transform that friction into positive, transformative power will enable you to become a more impactful leader. You will learn to use that energy to sharpen your vision and improve the collaborative spirit of your organization.
So rather than meeting resistance with either coercion or capitulation, we instead become curious, both of what our internal resistance is and what is happening in the room. That curiosity will lead to better skills when communicating with and leading a group.