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Work with People, Not on Them

How do you reduce resistance? What are the best ways to handle difficult people? What tactics overcome impasse? How can you get someone to ___? These questions all have something in common: They position you to work on someone, instead of with them.

Overcoming resistance during conflict is not about a secret tactic or tool. It isn’t about a bigger arsenal to blow a hole through the barrier that’s blocking your route. And it surely isn’t about more brawn, smarter moves, or trickery.

When we notice something another person resists, it is seductive to interpret their resistance as defense against the truth that we see and they can’t accept. When we glimpse something we don’t like in another person, it is seductive to characterize it as a character flaw or even a personality disorder. These seductions may well be more examples of evolutionary baggage that isn’t very useful in 21st century life.

These seductions cause us to mistakenly assume we are a better judge of their life, their experience, and their self-awareness than they are. And they distract us from what is much more likely: That people are better experts in their own experience than we can ever be.

It is true that we can occasionally see in someone something they do not notice in themselves. But the occasional successful insight shouldn’t persuade us that our diagnostic abilities are particularly canny, accurate, or even useful.

What if we revoked our self-appointed permission to work on other people, and pushed ourselves to work with them instead? What would it mean for the way we act and speak and manage and mediate?

It would mean we lead with our curiosity instead of our judgment. Judgment is, after all, the great distancer. Curiosity without judgment is a tremendous gift to those we live with, work with, and serve. We are unduly stingy with this gift.

It would mean we teach ourselves to stop pushing. And pulling. We stop “trying to get them to ___.” When we notice resistance to something we’re trying to do, we must recognize that it is a defense against our attempts to work on them. They’ve discovered our agenda. And it is very natural to push back against someone else’s harsh judgment or even subtle manipulation. The resistance isn’t about their inflexibility; it is about our working on them instead of with them.

It would mean we fight the pop-psych diagnostic habit. It is seductive to think we know what’s wrong with them — their passive-aggressiveness, personality disorders, and other pet diagnoses we’ve read or taken a workshop about. Instead of focusing our energy on what is wrong with someone, we must push ourselves to do the much harder work of aligning our effort with what is right with them. There’s a bonus here — the list of what is right with them is likely much, much longer, giving us much to work with.

It would mean we become more vigilant about category errors. When we put someone in a category (“a difficult person,” “a bully”) our minds may well prevent us from seeing them in all their human richness (good husband, caretaker of her elderly mother, volunteer EMT, hard worker). Category errors blind us to other ways of viewing and understanding what’s around us and cause us to distill someone down unfairly.

It would mean we teach our non-judgmental presence to stay in the room with us. This is a habit we can cultivate with small acts every day. When our teen rolls up her sleeve to show us her latest tattoo, we can practice being curious without judgment for just three minutes. With small daily practices we build the muscle memory we’ll need for the tougher moments.

It would mean we actively look for the equal human in front of us. We allow ourselves to see the perfect, flawed specimen who is as perfect and flawed as we are. We push ourselves to look for that person when we are tempted to sit on a high horse. We keep ourselves humble in their presence.

What would it mean to you?


Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at… MORE >

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