Resistance, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary is “the refusal to accept or comply with something” (Oxford Dictionary, 2012). Resistance in coaching is often misunderstood and is viewed by many coaches as negative. There are many reasons for resistance in the coaching process and there are just as many ways to work with clients to help them move through resistance into action. Resistance is a topic that should be fully understood by coaches. Techniques used to manage it should be developed in order to achieve successful outcomes for the clients and to avoid stress and burn-out by coaches.
History of Resistance
Resistance was first addressed by Sigmund Freud in the early 1900s. He believed that “the discovery of the unconscious and the introduction of it into consciousness is performed in the face of a continuous resistance on the part of the patient. The process of bringing this unconscious material to light is associated with pain, and because of this pain the patient again and again rejects it” (Freud, 1959). Basically, Freud believed that resistance was an unconscious defense mechanism which surfaced when patients were facing changes that made them feel uncomfortable. He believed the origin of resistance lay inside the individual as they were repressing anxiety, provoking memories, or trying to suppress the therapist’s influence.
Freud held that therapists should allow clients to work through resistance. He thought that therapists should remain neutral, saying only as much as “is absolutely necessary to keep him [the patient] talking, so that resistance could be seen as clearly as possible in patients’ transference, and become obvious to the patients themselves”. (Freud, 1959).
Over time resistance has been studied by every type of therapist from cognitive-behavioral to systemic. Cognitive-behaviorists believe that resistance is due to the client lacking the skills or knowledge needed to complete the behavior. Systemic therapists believe that resistance is due to the client being fearful that the change will create a negative impact upon the family. In fact, “over 400 theories of counseling and psychotherapy acknowledge resistance as a common therapeutic experience and client response” (Watson, 2006). Every type of therapy has its own beliefs regarding the causes and associated techniques for working with resistance in treatment.
Resistance in Coaching
Psychological resistance is “a process of avoiding or diminishing the self-disclosing communication requested by the interviewer because of its capacity to make the interviewee uncomfortable or anxious” (Pope. 1979, p.4). Resistance is a generic term that represents a host of different states and reactions. It can take the form of the client restricting or controlling the information given to the coach. Examples include: when they talk about irrelevant topics, get stuck in the past or ask a series of meaningless questions. They may try and manipulate information or the coach directly in order to avoid certain topics. Being late for appointments or cancelling appointments can also be related to resistance. It can also manifest as blaming, excusing, minimizing, arguing, challenging, interrupting and ignoring. Basically any behavior displayed by clients which tries to prevent the coach from fully understanding their position could be viewed as resistance.
Resistance in clients can also be due to a number of different factors. It could be a sign of fear of failure, fear of taking risks, manipulation, passive-aggressive behavior, shame, jealousy, desire to sabotage the therapy relationship, exhaustion, personality style or a client who enjoys resisting (Mitchell, 2006). Other reasons include defiance, poor insight, fear, embarrassment, denial, misconceptions, concealing and feeling unworthy. (Rudlin, 2012)
Resistance in coaching is a natural process and should not be viewed as a negative in any way. Coaches need to learn how to recognize resistance and understand the client is responding in such a manner for a reason. It is up to the coach to see the world through their client’s eyes in order to understand the behavior. According to Clifton Mitchell, “encountering resistance is likely evidence that therapy is taking place. In fact, several studies indicate that successful therapy is highly related to increases in resistance, and that low resistance corresponds with negative outcomes” (Bischoff and Tracey, 1995). Coaches need to first identify what type of resistance is taking place and then apply the appropriate technique for helping the client move through resistance into goal achievement.
Techniques for Working Through Resistance
As stated earlier, there is no one single cause for resistance in the coaching process. That being said, there are a number of techniques for dealing with resistance. It is up to the coach to determine the likely cause in order to choose the appropriate technique to manage resistance.
Over the years, the concept of resistance has changed from something inside the client to a dynamic between the client and the coach. This is a beneficial change as the second view allows the coach to make changes in their interactions with the client in order to manage resistance.
Through review of the recent literature, the most cited cause of resistance is that the coach and the client do not have mutually agreed upon goals, or the coach has made incorrect judgments. At the first sign of resistance the coach needs to check in with their client and determine if they are both on the same page. The coach may have misunderstood the client’s goals or they may even have injected their own goals for their client. According to Shallcross, it is “important for counselors to connect with clients on the basis of the client’s reality rather than putting emphasis on the counselor’s agenda” (Shallcross, 2010). To remedy this situation, take time with your client to review all of their goals. During this review process make sure to establish very specific, attainable goals. The goals should be worded in a positive manner such as I will do (fill in the blank) instead of I will not do (fill in the blank). Once the final goals are set, work with the client to develop very specific goals and sub goals.
Another reason resistance appears is when a client wants to change but is afraid of the change process. Making changes, big or small, can be anxiety provoking in some clients. This is where resistance becomes a defense mechanism. In this situation, maintaining the dysfunctional behavior outweighs the benefits of overcoming them. In this case the coach should suspend talking about change and focus on identifying and addressing the fear. After the fear has been resolved then the coaching process can return to what actions need to be taken.