Design Dough: Understanding and Working with Resistance
Picture this: You are working on a project proposal for your client. You have been through weeks of planning and research, drafted the timeline and working plan, and refined it based on feedback from your team members.
But as you present this carefully crafted framework to your client, they start picking at the details. They question the duration of each phase, refusing to budge with their judgments even when you help them to understand the reasoning behind your planning. They respond with sentence starters like “I understand, but…”.
The conversation goes around in circles, frustrations mount, and you struggle to keep your composure. As you plaster what you hope is a calm smile on your face, you start to think to yourself:
- “How can I convince my client?”
- “Why can’t the client see that I know best?”
- “Why is my client being so difficult?”
For many of us who work in client-facing roles, or who interact with stakeholders on a daily basis, the scenario above illustrates resistant behaviour that is, frustratingly, a common experience.
As part of our third Design Dough on 5th July 2023, we partnered with Wendy Tan of The Flame Centre to host an interactive talk providing insight into this topic. A lively group of 68 gathered to discuss their experiences with resistance in the workplace and to explore how to manage such occurrences.
The session began with a discussion of the nature of a consultant’s work. With Wendy’s guidance, participants considered: What is a consultant? What is consulting? What is a client?
After participants shared their stories and experiences of resistances they have encountered, Khai Seng, Wendy, and a participant volunteer engaged in a role play to simulate a real-life scenario of resistance. Through the live demonstration, participants named client or stakeholder behaviours that indicated resistance, including:
- Saying “yes” when they mean “no”
- Questioning methodologies
- Pushing for tighter timelines
- Making belittling remarks, or even being aggressive
The live demonstration revealed a key insight: Resistance is fear made visible. It may show up as aggression, but it appears when something is at stake and needs to be protected.
At the core of such seemingly unreasonable behaviour is the harsh reality that the client faces. This reality carries risks that cause them to be fearful and vulnerable, and drives their need for control in these conversations. In short, resistance hints that there is a deeper inner concern that is not being conveyed.
Participants further realised that resistance stems not just from clients, but also the consultant themselves. These can come in the form of:
- Taking offence and being defensive
- Shying away from continuing the conversation
Like the client, the consultant faces a harsh reality as well, necessitating them to appear legitimate, competent, and possessing self-esteem.
Through constructing a deeper understanding of resistance, we helped participants to reframe the client as someone to understand and work with, not to manage or work against. The consultant’s true work is to recognise their own resistance, understand the harsh realities that clients face, and support the client accordingly.
Participants were then introduced to some tangible steps to manage resistance:
- Listen actively and give at least two good faith responses;
- Describe the client’s observable behaviour;
- Keeping silent to allow clients space to process;
- Give support when clients explain their deeper concerns
At the end of the evening, participants walked away with an understanding of some foundational steps to work with stakeholder resistance.
At Studio Dojo, the skills of consulting and knowing how to work with resistance are key in being an effective change-maker. To learn more about picking up these skills, check out The Flame Centre’s course (25th to 27th October 2023) on Peter Block’s Flawless Consulting.