Stories teach us about five types of resistance that a storyteller must take the main character through in order for him or her to transform. If you want to turn a frog into a prince, and not just dress the frog up in princely garb, you must guide that frog through. And your strongest ally in this journey is information. People need information – five types of information, matching the five types of resistance:
- Personal Resistance – Why me? How is this relevant to me?
- Relational Resistance – Why you? Why would you know how to help me?
- Social Resistance – Who is in this with me? Do I belong with them and they with me?
- Practical Resistance – How is this going to work? What is the process and the strategy?
- Cosmic Resistance – What happens when things don’t work out as planned? If it or I fail?
When you are the speaker, facilitator or coach, you are the story weaver and your client or audience is the princely frog.
I spoke this morning at the Knowledge Resources Organisational Development Conference about these five types of resistance. I devised an ingenious interactive process to illustrate it and cleverly used Shawshank Redemption and The Great Escape as metaphors for breaking through (or out of) the prison of resistance.
But it bombed.
No, it did not bomb, it actually went just fine, but it did not wow the way I dreamed it would (being so clever and all). ‘Just fine’ is just not good enough.
Why did it not work?
At first I thought it was because I failed to get two thirds of the audience over the first kind of resistance.
The plan was for the whole group to get up and act the part of someone who had been in solitary confinement for two months and then gets released. One third of them were ready to do so immediately. The idea was that, by the end of it all, most of them would be willing to do it. But, it was mostly the same group doing it by the end. Yet I tried it the day before with another group and it worked like a charm.
What went wrong on Wednesday?
I know that personal resistance has two aspects. I worked them through the first aspect, but not the second.
The question: “Is this for me” has two sides: first it relates to my personality i.e. “am I the type of person who would get up and act out anything?” But the second part of it has to do with the relevance of this to me: “Is this relevant to who I am and where I am at in my life?” This latter question is the one I did not make room for, and therefore two thirds of the people did not come with me on the journey.
How did I miss this?
Firstly, the answer lies in how a story begins. No story starts with the hero at the first point of resistance. It starts with the hero somewhere in a situation of stuckness. In the midst of that stuckness, whether or not they are aware of this ‘prison’, they receive the Call to Change. Only then can they resist this call.
As the story weaver, I needed to ‘get’ the nature of this stuckness so that I can fashion an appropriate Call. Usually I take quite a bit of time to understand where the audience is at, and to let them voice their perspectives on their situation. Unfortunately, I did not have time to do this as part of the talk and I could not mingle with them enough beforehand. I also think that, unconsciously, I thought I knew where they were. I did not.
Secondly, I know that the moment of cosmic resistance is usually such that, if any of the other resistances were not overcome by the time you get to it, they will surface and you can loop back and deal with them. My time was up, though, and I could not address them. This idea is supported by the fact that one participant said: “I could not get up and play the role as asked, even though I was ready to jump up and do it when you first suggested it, because the details of the story (the rape and the pain in the prison) upset me and it is unresolved.”
I wish with all my heart, dear participant, that I had the time to explore this with you. I am sorry to have opened it up without the opportunity to loop back and accompany you through it a second time – you and anyone else who needed it.
But this was not the whole story.
Really it comes down to simple group dynamics (if group dynamics were ever simple). I talked with a delegate the next day about the presentation. Of course he told me it was wonderful. Then I asked him why it was so difficult to get them moving? He agreed that it seemed like a tough crowd, but then simply said: “These guys are all strangers to each other: and it is a large group of strangers. They just needed more time to warm up. Also, it took me a while to remember the Shawshank story. I’m one of those people who forget detail.”
And that means that, in spite of my efforts, resistance number 3, Social Resistance, could not be broken with no warming up and in the short time I had. It also means that I needed to spend more time on establishing the shared reality: the Shawshank story.
What did I learn for next time?
- I will never again assume I know where people are. It’s odd, I have learned this lesson so many times and still unconsciously made assumptions. So the word ‘never’ is an intention, but I may step in the trap again. To help me, I will remember to take time before a talk to speak to people and ask them about their current challenges.
- I will not accept only 30 minutes of time for such a talk, especially if it is the first talk of the day and there is not time before hand to talk to folks. I need at least 60 minutes so that I can talk to folks, tell the story. And later on, get the feedback from the group and loop back if needed.
- I will not rely on PowerPoint to set the scene, but play to my strengths which is facilitation and conversation rather than information transmission. I so badly wanted to show my clever pictures and get through my slides that I could not work with the group where they were. If ever I use PowerPoint, it must be embedded in a facilitation process and not the other way around.
Where did this last point come from?
I noticed a pattern that, of the three bombed keynotes I did over the last five years, all of them had in common that :
- It was based on a set of slides. In each case I worked on the slides till late the previous night, so they weren’t seasoned and embedded into my talk yet.
- Also, I noticed that all three occasions was for an audience larger than 30, I do not know yet what that means… But I will watch and reflect and keep learning.
So, why should 65 OD practitioners need to get up and act like Tim Robins in the role of Andy Dufresne?
How entrenched in, or ‘confined’ by, their current way of doing are the people in your organisation? How harsh would they experience the new ideas that you want to introduce? Do you truly get their current reality? What can you do to guide them out of their solitary confinement safely and yet firmly so that they, like Andy, can own their actions and so be truly transformed?