A New Look at the Nature of Resistance in Learning

Awhile back we published a Voices in Dialogue issue on the idea of how we meet and plan for resistance and I’ve found myself thinking about it ever since. What is this thing called resistance and what is it’s value for facilitation and teaching? In one article in that issue, Valerie Uccellani wrote the following:

Resistance is a message. Resistance, particularly if we don’t understand the source of it, is a sign to me that something ain’t right. And thank heavens for resistance or we would never have change.

I’m going to challenge Uccellani’s thinking just a bit and posit that resistance might be a sign not that something “ain’t right” but simply that something is about to change. I got this idea from Michelle James of the Creative Emergence blog. James suggests that natural resistance “occurs in all of nature when something new is being born” and that it isn’t something “negative to be overcome, but rather . . . a natural contraction that happens with every expansion in the creative process.”

James goes on to say that creativity and the birth of something new is the process of expansion and contraction together, and that one without the other leaves the process bereft of its power. James suggests that being aware of and accepting resistance as a part of the creative/learning process is critical, and that we ignore or avoid it at our peril. I know Uccellani would agree with this since she deliberately structured a learning activity around encouraging the expression of resistance so it wouldn’t get in the way of change.

Jeffrey Goldstein, in his book The Unshackled Organization: Facing the Challenge of Unpredictability Through Spontaneous Reorganization, suggests something slightly different. He writes that resistance is “an attraction to an affirmative core that involves the need to survive with dignity, autonomy and integrity….resistance simply indicates that the organizational patterns that are operating are initially and temporally attracting the system to remain the way it is.” 

Goldstein writes that systems tend towards a state of equilibrium and are constantly adjusting to maintain that equilibrium. He suggests that resistance means that the attractiveness of whatever is new is simply not yet strong enough to counter the attractiveness of what’s currently known, and that by increasing the level of attractiveness of the new thing the system will be drawn towards that thing and, thus, to a new equilibrium. In other words, it’s all about competing attractions.

Once again we’re looking at a push-me, pull-you sort of birthing dynamic:  expansion-contraction-expansion-contraction. Which leads me to yet another thought:  how expansion and contraction relate to divergent and convergent thinking. Michelle James has created a terrific graphic that beautifully illustrates the principles of convergence and divergence. In the GLP SUREFire Meetings course, there’s a lesson on making decisions by consensus:  how to facilitate a group to move from divergent thinking (open, expansive, exploratory) to convergent consensus (refined, clarified, decided). This decision-making process has a “groan zone,” the part of the process that occurs between divergence and convergence. I suspect that this groan zone happens at exactly the time when the participants are seeking their equilibrium.

Whether they stay safely with their known equilibrium or are attracted enough to move forward into a new equilibrium is in large part a result of the facilitator’s understanding of the natural process of creative change (learning). So, facilitators, understand this:  what people need in order to give birth to new learning is both the contraction (resistance, or attraction to what’s known) and the expansion (acceptance, or attraction to what’s not yet known). Focus on both and you’ll facilitate great learning.

This blog post by Joan Dempsey