How to Respond When Someone Resists Change

Your adrenaline is pumping. You hide your eyes and scream out in terror, clutching the arm of the person next to you.

Even though you know you’re safe and what you’re seeing is just make believe, a particularly scary horror movie can elicit some pretty strong reactions.

So it’s ironic that, from an early age, we figure out how to masquerade our real-life fears, whether it’s through bravado, avoidance, minimization, rationalization or anger.

What frightens us in real life? Well, sometimes there’s nothing scarier than having to deal with change. It’s human nature to view it with fear and dread.

I know because I see these masquerading faces whenever I talk about change or any issue that will require change. But as a leader, I’m realizing that if I respond to the façade rather than the interior reality, I might end up doing more harm than good.

For example, recently during a group coaching session, I noticed that one of the participants was withdrawn. He kept looking at his phone, and from his body language, it was clear he was disengaged from the discussion. I went over to him to check in with him.

“How are you feeling about this session?” I asked.

“Good,” he responded, with a facial expression that said “apathetic.”

“How relevant are these ideas to your work and your objectives?”

“I’ve been to a lot of sessions like these and they are all generally saying the same thing. Never hurts to get a refresher and affirm what I’m doing, I suppose. It’s especially good for newer people.”

Now my first impulse was to say, “Well, if you already have all of the answers, why aren’t you meeting your objectives?” Perhaps if I were to communicate the ideas with more vigor or to put this guy on the spot and humble him through tough coaching, he’d submit his arrogant posture.

Businesswoman change landscape from dry to spring

But I resisted that knee-jerk reaction.

Here’s how I’m working on responding instead.

  1. Empathize with the Mask. Don’t take the defensive posture personally. It’s not about you. Defending and pushing will only widen the gap of trust.Instead, feel compassion for the other person—not in a patronizing, self-righteous way, but in a way that expresses awareness that the other person is a human being making constant efforts to self-protect. In the words of Billy Joel in the song The Stranger, “You’ve done it, why can’t someone else? You should know by now. You’ve been there yourself.”
  2. Affirm the Good. The first two principles in Dale Carnegie’s seminal guide to building relationships are: 1) don’t criticize, condemn or complain; and 2) give honest and sincere appreciation.I often wonder how much more trust and connection I could establish if I simply committed to those two concepts—to rid myself of a critical spirit and affirm what’s good in another. This might lead me to say to my defensive participant, “You’re wise to see the consistent themes that surface in sessions like these and how they can apply to the work that you do.”
  3. Create Space for Self-Exploration. My tendency is to want to rush others’ growth and insight process. I see the change needed. I’ve gotten there in my mind. Come on already!As I expressed such a frustration with someone to my mentor recently, he made a powerful suggestion: If you rush their process of changing by pointing out their fears and flaws, they will only get defensive. Instead, listen, ask questions and endure your own discomfort. People are usually changing a lot more than we give them credit for simply through their own self-reflection.

Who is frustrating you right now with their defensive posture to change? Could it be that they are afraid and that it’s you who needs to do more of the changing?

Try these three simple steps the next time you’re trying to influence and lead others to change, and see if that makes the difference.



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  • Mike Norman
    February 18, 2015 at 9:38 pm

    Matt, I attended a meeting this morning where the speaker was Larry Kudlow of The Kudlow Report and CNBC. He was humble, vulnerable, and transparent. He was asked what he has learned through a very successful career on Wall Street, a television personality and a recovering alcoholic. Among other things, he said “I have learned to be more patient and I am really trying to be focused on helping others in all that I do”. As I read your blog, I am reminded of the need when attempting to influence others to be patient and to be more focused on truly helping them versus trying to impress them with my great wisdom and experience. This seems to get harder with age but I have now been reminded of it twice in one day. Thanks for the helpful ideas.

    • Matt Norman
      February 24, 2015 at 10:11 pm

      Thank you, Dad. I want to be more patient with myself and others rather than being rushed and hurried.

  • Margaret Smith
    March 2, 2015 at 3:10 am

    One thing I’d like to add is the value of questions. I have found that asking a question versus telling someone what to do is powerful, demonstrates support and belief in them and gives me the chance to listen and be truly present. It works in a wide variety of situations !

    • Matt Norman
      March 2, 2015 at 2:57 pm

      Great add Margaret. You make an excellent point that questions show belief in the person and help us to be present. Thank you!