Episode 206: Resistance is Not Futile – Featuring Tonjala Eaton

Sometimes our learning designs go off without a hitch… and sometimes, they don’t! We’ve all been there – you’ve thoughtfully planned out your learning tasks and facilitation techniques, but when you get in the room it’s just not working for one (or more) of your learners – the resistance is palpable! GLP Consultant Tonjala Eaton has a few tips to help you embrace and respond to resistance.

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This show is produced by Global Learning Partners and Greg Tilton JR.

Theme music: ‘Pretty Face’ by Una Walkenhorst.

Read more about resistance on this blog post here.

Read the transcript for the episode below.

Meg (10s): [MUSICAL INTRO] Hello and welcome to “Shift the Power: A Learning-Centered Podcast”, where we talk about the revolutionary power of a learning-centered approach. Through this podcast, we hope to inspire creative thinking and provide practical tools and techniques to deepen learning through dialogue. I’m your host, Meg Logue. At GLP, we talk a lot about learning design and all of the important steps that you need to take in preparation for a meeting or learning event, to make sure that the learning event is relevant and engaging. Now, we do as much discovery as we can ahead of time, but it’s still not possible to know everything about our learners. And sometimes when we’re in the event, we can encounter resistance to our learning tasks or topics.

So today we want to talk with GLP Consultant Tonjala Eaton about a shift in mindset that may help us embrace and respond to resistance. Welcome Tonjala. So glad to have you here with us today.

Tonjala (1m 10s): Hi, welcome. It’s so good to be here.

Meg (1m 14s): So Tonjala, I’m just going to dive right into it. How does a learning-centered approach help you to adjust your mindset on learner resistance?

Tonjala (1m 25s): Okay. That is an excellent question. So I’ll start here by talking a little bit about the focus of dialogue in education and being learning-centered. So it’s always focused on the learning itself. And so what I’ve learned, especially after this year of consulting with GLP is to welcome the resistance and not fear It. I’ve also come to realize that in order for learning to occur, safety must first be present. So the learners have to feel safe enough to express doubts, concern, happiness or any other emotion as it relates to the learning experience itself.

So if there is enough safety, hopefully that level of safety will overcome any resistance present. And so now I don’t fear resistance as much as I did before, because resistance is really indicative that something is occurring for the learner — whether it is grappling with the content, examining the process, or incorporating this new information into their current perspective — there is something happening in the mind of the learner when resistance is present.

And so therefore I’ve learned to just embrace it and then deal with whatever it’s missing in the learning experience that will benefit the learner. And then we can move forward.

Meg (3m 18s): Wonderful. I love that that approach in that shift in mindset. It’s not an easy one. It requires, I think a lot of vulnerability on the part of a learning designer or facilitator to really be open to that mindset of embracing resistance. So thank you for sharing that. So from what you said, an open mindset to resistance and building a culture of safety in your learning events is key, what would you say is one concrete strategy that you would suggest for facilitators when they face resistance?

Tonjala (3m 50s): Wow. I think what’s really important is to acknowledge what is being actually resisted. So is it the content? Is it whatever the subject is that you’re presenting or facilitating on or discussing? So sometimes resistance can be content related. It can also be process-related and it also can be resistance of the messenger. So for me, it’s very helpful to explore what is actually being resisted. And then once I have more insight into that piece, I can add on other qualities to overcome whatever is missing.

So if you don’t mind, I can share a story that may illustrate this a little bit further. Do you think that would be helpful?

Meg (4m 53s): Absolutely. Please, go right ahead.

Tonjala (4m 54s): Okay. A few years ago I was teaching an English class, and my student’s and I were in class, in session, we we’re in a circle discussing “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas. It’s cold in Michigan in the winter time, and this day or this evening, it was about maybe 10 degrees outside. So very cold. And it’s late at night, maybe about 7:30 ish. You know, that’s late for a learning experience. And so we were going through the book looking for examples of passages that really spoke to us.

And out of the blue, one of my students just ask very flippantly, “like… umm.. You don’t have another way for us to discuss this?” And then another student kinda looked, like, y’know very confused. And the student goes on to say, “You know, you’re the instructor. You should have more strategies, because I find that this boring.” And so I was very taken aback, and after a few seconds and a deep breath, you know, I recomposed myself and I reiterated to the student that yes, I was an instructor of the course, but the learning and the learning community — which we were — was everyone’s responsibility.

So therefore, I could come up with another process, another way of discussing the material, but if no one contributed to the dialogue, the conversation would be boring. But before I said that, I had to state to the student, you know, I was cold and hungry just like they were and ready to go as well. So I think by doing that, I recognized that we all are human and this night was just not a comfortable night to be on campus, in school, in a classroom talking about a novel, I get it.

But I think in that moment of resistance, re-evaluating the roles and responsibilities of everyone involved in the learning process, was a moment for my students to see that their perspective was just as valuable as my learning design. And the learning design is the only as strong as the contributions of the learners in the room. And I think after that moment, we were able to move on and have a dynamic discussion. I mean that night I left campus feeling so fulfilled, because after we got passed the resistance students shared stories of police brutality, we discussed social and economic differences.

We discussed gun violence. There were so many layers of the discussion that we were able to bring out once everyone recognized that, “Hey, I have a role in this process.” And so for me, that was very valuable and the student then took a little bit more accountability and, you know, started asking questions of other students. So that moment was one that really shed light on, sometimes there can be resistance of the process, and sometimes there can be resistance of the content, but resistance always demonstrates that there’s a need not being met.

And at that moment, her need of being engaged in the process was not being met. So after identifying the point of resistance, we had to re-orient ourselves. And so I just really think that resistance can be a good thing once we shift our mindset about it and maybe relate to it a little bit differently. So hopefully that helps explain my theoretical perspective on the first half of my response to your question, Meg.

Meg (9m 35s): It really, really does. I thank you so much, Tonjala. I have to say, I love that story. It’s just such a powerful example of how you can really, through the shift in your own mindset, through that- taking a deep breath and not taking it personally, and then taking that opportunity to really hear that student out and embrace the resistance. It’s clear from your story, how that just totally shifted everyone’s engagement in the learning from that point on, in, in that event. So thank you for such a powerful and important example. Appreciate it.

Tonjala (10m 16s): You’re welcome.

Meg (10m 18s): And I also love that it really illustrates the way that a learning-centered approach can equalize the power dynamic of, of student and teacher in, in a setting like an English class. And like you said, it then led to those students really feeling a sense of agency and their- in their own learning.

Tonjala (10m 39s): Yes, it was awesome. I mean, it really was. I was talking about that night for a few days after, because it really just left such an impression on me on what learning-centered is, but what learning at the collegiate level can really be. I mean, we were– we were all so engaged in that conversation that when it actually came time to go home, no one really wanted to leave, because the immediacy of the learning increased, the relevancy increased. There are so many other qualities that emerged from that moment of realizing that we are all learning from each other.

Meg (11m 28s): Love that. It’s- it reminds me of the axiom “pray for a doubt”.

Tonjala (11m 35s): Yes.

Meg (11m 35s): So when, when you have this shift in mindset to not just embrace resistance, you might actually start searching for it as an opportunity.

Tonjala (11m 45s): Yes, it definitely.

Meg (11m 47s): Well, thank you so much Tonjala for joining us today and for sharing your, as you said, your, your theory and your, your outlook on embracing resistance and also the concrete strategies you shared and examples. Really appreciate you taking the time.

Tonjala (12m 4s): Thank you. Thank you for allowing me to share.

Meg (12m 7s): Of course! All right, and as always, we’ll end with an open question for our listeners. This is an, an invitation for you to really pause and ponder what- what Tonjala shared with us today. So to our listeners, here’s your way for today: how might you better embrace resistance in your next learning event?

[OUTRO MUSIC] Thank you for tuning in to another episode of Shift the Power: A Learning Centered Podcast. This podcast is produced by Global Learning Partners and Greg Tilton JR, with music by Una Walkenhorst. To find out more about Global Learning Partners, whether it be our course offerings, consulting services, our free resources or blogs go to www.GlobalLearningPartners.com. We invite you to sign up for our mailing list, subscribe to our podcast and find us on social media to continue the dialogue. If you enjoy the show, please consider leaving us a review on Apple Podcasts or your preferred podcast player. [OUTRO MUSIC FADES]