Breaking through personal resistance

Call on the Hero’s Character

Golden ring from The Lord of the Rings

Once people catch on to a new idea, a new way of viewing a problem reframed as a possibility (Introduction), they must be enrolled as the heroes who can make that possibility happen.

As soon as your people start dreaming about new possibilities their status quo is threatened. This automatically leads to at least five kinds of resistance. The first kind is personal resistance.  Your audience is asking: Why me? How is this relevant to me?

The most effective strategy to overcome this kind of resistance is to make an appeal on the prospective hero’s character as revealed in their core values. From this perspective, personal resistance often relates to moral objection and can be extremely hard to address, if you don’t do it on the values level.

Why does Horton save the tiny city on the clover?

In Dr. Seuss’s Horton hears a Who Horton, an elephant,  take up the dangerous opportunity of saving the tiny city on the clover. His motivation? Because Horton believes “a person’s a person no matter how small”. It is this belief that sets him apart from the other creatures in the story – interestingly underlined by the fact that he himself is the largest ‘person’ in the story. This belief not only gets Horton to commit to the adventure, but also pulls him through when it becomes difficult to continue.

Gandalf convinces Frodo in Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ to take on the treacherous journey to destroy the ring and save Middle Earth, by appealing to his Hobbit nature. It is because he is a Hobbit, that he can do it.

It is the ability of the guide or mentor to see the best in the hero that inspires the hero to take on the challenge. It is similarly the job of us as speakers and trainers to see the potential in our audience and view them as possessing the special qualities that will make them successful. In this way we begin to overcome personal resistance early on.

The teacher who looks at her class and sees difficult teenagers who would rather Mxit than learn, has a very hard time teaching them. Another teacher looks at the same group and sees teenagers desperate for something intriguing and worthwhile to learn.  She has a ball in class inspiring them to achieve new heights. She even uses Whatsapp in her learning strategy to help them internalise her teaching.

How do you enrole your audience as heroes?

Here are some examples we have used with success:

1. Name tags: At a youth conference we printed the designation ‘chosen one’ on the name tags worn by the audience identifying their roles as heroes with an important job.

2. Hand outs: with a vision and values alignment workshop we printed the handout in the form of a passport and enrolled the delegates as ‘ambassadors’ for the newly articulated vision and values statement…

3. Interactive devices: At a customer service training workshop of Spier Wine Farm, we asked the observing participants to be judges of apresentation enrolling them as the experts on customer service. We devised a tool whereby they could intervene and fix the service disasters we were presenting to them.

As we look over to our audience what do we see? People in need of our rescue or people endowed with exactly the right character and nature to make the change themselves?

Sure, you say, but what of those experiences where the resistance in the room and the skepticism is so thick you can cut it with a knife?

Here it may be helpful to remember that there are generally speaking two kinds of people in front of you: optimists and pessimists. Optimists are motivated by the dream of realising potential. When you paint the picture of possibility to them, they get motivated by that dream. These people are natural ‘yes and’ people. But there are also pessimists in the room, people who are motivated by the void. They see what is wrong, and what obstacles lie in wait. They get motivated by the idea of fixing the problem.

Once you have called the hero to action, you must open a space for people to air doubts and reservations. You can also allow some debate. If you don’t, the pessimists do not get a chance to see the obstacles and voice them, so they do not get motivated. You may experience this as negativity as a blocking ‘yes, but’ energy, but people do not have to be happy to be motivated to go on. As Adam Grant says in his article on The The positive power of negative thinking: “IF you want to sabotage a pessimist, make him happy’.

What is crucial, though, is not to think you have to answer the obstacle or show hoe to overcome it. Again, you will spoil the pessimist’s fun. All you need to do is create a space to hear the objections and validate them as being reasonable. The invitation here is for you to ‘yes and’ the objection, not ‘yes but’ it. If you block the objections, your audience will go into a threat response triggering the limbic system and then you have lost them. You can click here to read about strategies to help you work with doubts and reservations.

Being a wizard

In The Lord of the Rings Frodo gets very angry and resistant when Gandalf calls on his Hobbit nature as motivating ploy. But Gandalf does not try to argue with him, he listens patiently and then tells him a story about Bilbo that goes even deeper to the core of Frodo’s character. . The story talks about ‘the pity of Bilbo’ as a trait that could be the key to success. Frodo, who dearly loves his uncle and who is also Bilbo’s heir, understands the gravity of this idea that he had also inherited Bilbo’s nature as one who takes pity. He sees that he is the one to take up the challenge.

I must admit, I am seldom clever enough to take a doubt or reservation and turn it into a call on character – we are not all wizards. As long as you did not block the objections,  you can move on until you hit one of the other four types of resistance. Read the next installment dealing with relational resistance: “Why you? Why would you know how to help me?”








Five types of resistance and how to break through

James and the Giant Peach

Introduction:  Paint a picture of the possibility

What made James in ‘James and the Giant Peach’ climb inside a giant peach, befriend life size bugs and steer across an ocean to go to New York? What made Cinderella get out of the ashes and off to the Prince’s ball? What made the frog turn into a prince?

The answer to all these questions is the same: they believed that it was possible. OF course, none of them started out believing it, they all needed someone to paint them a picture of the possibility. James lost hope when his cruel aunts destroyed the picture his deceased father had given him showing the big vibrant city of New York.  This dream needed reviving by the peculiar little man with the shiny green things. Cinderella was shattered and crying in the ashes when the Fairy Godmother found her. As for the frog: it was the arrival of the princess that sparked his hope.

Before the dream was planted, there was no resistance to change, only stuckness and possibly despair, or maybe just ignorance of what is possible. Yet, once a dream is planted, one type of resistance after another pops up to frustrate both the dreamer and the dream giver, the hero of the story and the story weaver, both you and your client.

Do you have a dream for your people?

Any dream will inspire some people immediately, but as they try to realise it, they will hit obstacles. Some of these obstacles are personal, some are relational, practical or social. Others are just nasty interruptions from outside.

On the other hand, some of the people you want to influence may be skeptical from the outset, seeing all the problems that might occur and anticipating (or inventing) problems that may never happen.

Either way, there are 5 types of resistance. In stories these five types often follow a similar sequence in which they occur. Here they are in the most common sequence.

1. Personal Resistance – Why me? How is this relevant to me?

2. Relational Resistance – Why you? Why would you know how to help me?

3. Social Resistance – Who is in this with me? Do I belong with them and they with me?

4.  Practical Resistance – How is this going to work? What is the process and the strategy?

5. Cosmic Resistance – What happens when things don’t work out as planned? If it or I fail?

Each type of resistance corresponds with a certain kind of information that your people need in order for them to come with you. Over the next few posts I will share these with you one by one and give suggestions on how you can overcome them. I will offer practical tools that you can try out or adapt as you like.

What makes break through possible?

Without a proper dream, you may not even encounter resistance because your invitation is not different enough from the status quo. Too often that French proverb comes true that says: The more things change, the more they stay the same. That is because no true shift was made and true break through never occurred.

The term ‘break through’ only makes sense in the context of resistance. Without resistance, there is no break through needed and no real change occurs. What makes break through possible is the fact of resistance itself – resistance that arises because the Call to Adventure that you issue is so different from the Current Reality that people experience.

What does a proper dream look like?

It takes the form of a Visionary Goal, not a SMART goal.

A Visionary Goal is one that paints a picture of a possibility that seems unrealistic and that no-one in the room really knows how it can be reached. This is in contrast to so called ‘SMART’ goals which are Specific, measurable, actionable, Realistic and Time oriented. A visionary goal can be specific and measurable and it may even have a target date for completion, but it is not realistic and few people can see how to make it happen.

An example of such a dream is the Volkswagen (VW) visionary goal of 1, 10, 100 by 2010. They wanted to be first in the country on customer service, among the top ten in terms of local quality and make a turnover of 100 million (I am going on memory here, let me know if I have it wrong). In her talk at the Knowledge Resources Organisational Development Conference earlier in 2014, Joan Peters, Leadership Development Manager at Volksvagen explained how few people in the organisation thought reaching this dream was possible, and yet they were mobilised into action and managed to achieve it.

Even though visionary goals do not seem realistic or actionable, they inspire action by releasing positive energy in the brain. The brain loves to dream and follow visionary goals..

Why does the brain like to dream?

The brain loves to dream because of the effect expectation of reward has on its chemistry. Dreaming inspires hope. Hope is an expectation of something positive being fulfilled in the future. This expectation of reward releases dopamine into your brain, the same stuff that gets released when you laugh and exercise.

What is extra interesting here, says Dr. Ward Plunet, is that studies show people with higher status is more prone to hope in relation to people in lower status positions. This is because they have more hope of getting the pick of the crop in terms of food, shelter and sexual partners. A sense that you have power to choose adds to the feeling of autonomy and certainty that you will not go hungry, cold or deprived.

This means that the more people think they have control, the more they are likely to take action on your invitation, but the more they feel dis-empowered, the more they will block your enthusiasm. This ‘blocking’ of ideas can be termed a ‘yes, but’ energy. It stands in stark contrast to a ‘yes, and’ energy that accepts new ideas and builds on them.

As we explore the five types of resistance and how to overcome them, both neuro-science and the ‘yes and’ principle will be our conversation partners.

What do I need to do?

As guide and mentor the first step in breaking through resistance is to paint a picture of the possibility so that they can ‘feel the pain’ of not being there yet and begin to yearn for change. Your first job is to ask ‘What if…” What if a neglected orphan  could go to New York in a giant peach What if a lowly Cinderella could dance with the royal heir?  What if a frog could be a prince?

What if you understood the five types of resistance and get Cinderellas and frogs to change their own fates?

The next instalment will look at the first type of resistance, Personal Resistance, and how you can increase your people’s sense of autonomy and move them to say ‘yes and’.

Watch this space for the next instalment of using SNE (Strategic Narrative Embodiment) to break through five tyes of resistence…

Dr. Petro Janse van Vuuren

Professional Facilitator, Coach  and Story Strategist

“Yes and” exercise

“Yes and” is a phrase that improvisers use to describe the principle of accepting ideas and building on them.  This principle is important for any team that wants to develop an innovative team climate (click here for an article on innovative team climate).

Here is a quick exercise to introduce the principle of “Yes and” to your team. Let everyone pair up with a partner.  Tell them that together they have to plan a company Christmas party.  One must start by sharing an idea. The other replies with the words “Yes but”, and a reason why the afore mentioned idea cannot work, and then this participant shares another idea. The first then replies with “yes but” and so they go back and forth blocking each other’s ideas.  After a while stop them and ask them to plan the same party but this time instead of saying “yes but” they must start their sentences with “yes and”, accepting the other’s idea and building on it. Reflect on the exercise and ask the following questions.

  • How did accepting feel different from blocking?
  • How were their outcomes different?
  • How did they feel about the other person when being blocked or being accepted?
  • What are the benefits and the costs of accepting?
  • What are the benefits and costs of blocking?

<iframe title=”YouTube video player” width=”480″ height=”390″ src=”” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen></iframe>

Team Innovation Workshop

A half day workshop for managers and team leaders who want to learn practical ways to develop their team’s ability to collaborate and innovate.

Contact us to make a booking or find out more.

Innovation, Teamwork and Improvisation

The world of work is characterised by high levels of uncertainty due to constant change, forcing organisations to innovate recurrently in order to survive. Researchers agree that working as part of a team plays a very important role in the process of innovation within organisations, as teams stimulate creativity and innovation. The development of Team Innovation is therefore crucial to help organisations to adapt faster to the demands of change. This emphasis on team innovation is very prevalent in value statements and guiding principles of many organisations.

Having teamwork and innovation as values laminated on your wall is however not going to improve your team’s ability to work more creatively together. Having people work in teams and expecting them to therefore automatically be more innovative, often has the opposite effect. Individuals become in many cases less innovative when they work in a team. The reason for this is the nature of the team’s climate. Team climate refers to the shared perceptions of team members in terms of what is expected of them, work standards, recognition and their feelings about their manager and one another.

The following table shows the characteristics of an innovative team climate in contrast to a non innovative team climate.

Innovative team climate Non-innovative team climate
All the members participate in discussions and decision making. Members don’t participate and decisions are made by the most dominating person.
Members are aware of others and listen to one another. Members don’t listen to one another.
Members take risks and make it safe for others to take risks by accepting failures. Members don’t take risks and ridicule others who take risks that fail.
Control is shared by the whole group.  Individuals take initiative and allow others to take initiative . Control belongs to one person and others aren’t empowered to take initiative.
Ideas are appreciated and there is a high level of trust and support amongst team members. Members don’t trust or support one another and ideas are criticised rather than appreciated.
Members accept and build on each other’s ideas. Members block each other’s ideas.
Members share a clear and common goal. The goal is not clear and not shared by everyone in the team.

So is your team’s climate innovative or non-innovative?  And if it is non-innovative, how can one change it to become innovative?

This was the question that I grappled with when I was doing my Masters research in Industrial Psychology. I looked for teams who succeeded in working together in a team, very creatively under high pressure and much uncertainty, to see what I could learn from them. I found such teams in a place very out of the ordinary, namely Improvisational Theatre. Improv theatre groups work together very creatively under the pressure of a demanding audience and the uncertainty of having no script. How could these people do something so daunting that most people would rather die than do? And this may also be exactly the reason why most teams tend to be more non-innovative that innovative – it is because being creative is scary. It is making yourself vulnerable in front of others. Yet, somehow improvisers have found a way to make it safe and to create a team climate in which creativity can thrive. Improvisers do this by applying a few basic principles of which I will share two in this article.  These are 1) appreciation and 2) building on ideas or in Improvisation lingo … as 1) “make your partner look good” and 2) “yes and”.

In her book, “Time to think”, Nancy Kline emphasizes the importance of appreciation to create a thinking environment. This appreciation of another’s idea is described in Improv by the phrase “Make your partner look good”. It means that when a fellow player makes an offer you make him/her look good by accepting it with enthusiasm. This relates in an organizational context that whatever idea your team members share, you don’t make them feel foolish for sharing it.  You regard their offer as a gift of great value. When team members start appreciating each other’s ideas by focusing on the value of the idea instead of criticising it and looking for reasons why it won’t work it builds trust amongst the members and people start feeling safe to share their ideas.

It doesn’t stop with appreciating ideas however. After you appreciated your team member’s idea, build on it. Actors in an Improvisation theatre group call this acceptance and building on ideas the “yes and” principle. When an idea is not accepted, it is called a “block”. The way we often block one another in real life is by saying “yes but”. Most people are more used to saying “yes but” than “yes and”. Every time someone shares an idea and it is blocked by another team member, the likelihood that the person will share another idea is diminished. Therefore to create an atmosphere that promotes idea sharing, start applying the “yes and” principle.

The “yes and“ principle is more a mindset than anything else. In her TED talk entitled “Improv not just for comedy anymore”, Cat Koppet states that applying “yes and” doesn’t mean that you agree with everyone, but rather that you accept others reality. It is a mindset of accepting a situation and doing something useful with it. Kline notes that the human mind works best in the presence of a whole picture of reality. This contains positive and negative aspects. Most of the time there are more positives than negatives in the complete picture of a situation. Carol Painter, the developer of the Negative Reality Norm Theory, states that according to society a realistic picture of reality is more negative than positive.  Being positive is regarded as naïve and vulnerable. Whereas being critical is informed and sophisticated. Therefore most organizations function on this negative norm, resulting in the pervasiveness of “yes butting” and team climates that stifle innovation.

Right now you might think “yes, but I can’t say yes to all ideas all the time”.  Yes and you might be saying this because you are already in a mindset of “blocking” rather than “accepting”. It is true there are appropriate times to block, but they are far less than appropriate times to accept. Try the “yes and” principle for a day and see what happens.

Click here for an exercise to introduce the “yes and“ principle to your team.

Team Innovation Workshop

A half day workshop for managers and team leaders who want to learn practical ways to develop their team’s ability to collaborate and innovate.

Date: 20 May
Time: 9:00 – 13:00
Venue: Stellenbosch
Contact Burgert on 0822559625 or