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Working with Resistance

By Martha Lasley  April 19, 2011

Martha Lasley

My business partner, Virginia Kellogg, has helped me understand the beauty of resistance. She says:

If we feel ourselves “grinding away” trying to push people through their resistance, we can simply stop and go into the experience of the resistance. Getting really curious about the resistance rather than trying to get people out of the resistance comes from tuning our listening to that energetic stance of “arms out in front, holding something at bay. There is no need to do anything about it, no need to direct them out of it, and no need to rescue them from their resistance."

Resistance shows up as “bracing against” something, but if we push back against the resistance, we miss what they are protecting or embracing. People always have the choice to explore their emotional resistance and when we point people toward choice, they have a sense of control, ownership, and partnership. We can invite people to exaggerate their bracing by choosing a posture or a movement that embodies what they are bracing against. As they hold it, they become fully present and experience resistance in their bodies. By going into it they build awareness and often a shift will happen when they get clear about their underlying needs, and new choices.

Some clients don’t shift even after we’ve tried everything. Occasionally I’ve seen clients get really, really stuck, and I’ve been stuck a few times myself. More than a few times. Empathy is the most powerful experience I know for helping clients move, but there are times when even that only helps clients spiral deeper into the abyss. If clients talk about the same issue week after week, without any sense of progress, I recommend therapy. Usually my referrals are based on the therapist rather than the type of therapy, but some of the types I find especially useful: Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing (EMDR), feminist therapy to recover self esteem, family system therapy, group therapy and relationship therapy.

Dissatisfied with the effectiveness of therapy, Frank Farrelly[1] developed provocative therapy, a process that promotes transformation in people who struggle with chronic and recalcitrant behaviors. He plays the devil's advocate, court jester, or mischief maker by siding with the client's self-judgment, finding laughter in the absurdity, and puncturing old belief systems. Clowning with clients, without losing the sense of the sacred, he offers laughter as clients explore the edges of their limitations. The Latin word "provocare" literally means to "call forth", but safety comes first. Some of his interventions fly in the face of conventional therapy:

  • not paying attention
  • misconstruing the client's comments
  • joking
  • nonverbal mirroring
  • offering outrageous suggestions
  • making the client ludicrously responsible for absolutely everything that has happened in the past, present and future!
  • insisting they continue with the behavior even when they say they want to stop

 Some of the language might include:

  • What’s wrong with that?
  • If that happens you’ll probably die.
  • It’s your karma.
  • You must have gotten really bad parenting.
  • Sounds like a bad soap opera.
  • This has been going on for a decade? Three more decades should be about enough.

Whether they’re shocked, shaken, confused, or angry, clients often have breakthroughs simply because the coach jolts them into discovering their own insights. Behaviors that seem so impossible to change suddenly become so repulsive that the client can’t change their behavior fast enough. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t experienced a breakthrough myself. Laughing at clients is so antithetical to a spiritual, empathic approach – it sounds ridiculous, even cruel. I couldn’t imagine actually saying such things. But when I actually tried it, there was something about the laughter that loosened me up so that I could receive their empathic caring in new ways. The jolting insight for me was that inconsequential as it seemed, I wanted to be fully heard about something that happened thirty years ago. Back at home, when Dave and I got into our usual gridlock where he was trying to get me to tell him how I feel and I was revealing nothing, I remembered this insight. So I started talking about it and Dave said, "You do realize you've told me this before?" I yelled back, "Yes! And I didn't feel heard then and I don't feel heard now!" Then he silently empathized, with his hand on my back as I cried and talked until I’d said everything. When I got it all out and really felt heard, I remembered the provocative therapy session and I started laughing... David started singing full throttle, "I haven't got time for the pain... I haven't got room for the pain..." which I found very amusing, very cathartic.


About the author:

Martha Lasley is a founder of Coaching for Transformation, an accredited coach training program and ChangeMakers, a year-long facilitation training program. She creates results-oriented programs that inspire, motivate, and transform. “I surround myself with people who take risks and look for new ways of doing things; we explore both the solid ground and the edges of transformation.”

Martha is a certified trainer in Nonviolent Communication and is a professional member of the Indian Society for Applied Behavioral Science. She has written three books: Courageous Visions; Facilitating with Heart; and Coaching for Transformation.


[1] Frank Ferrelly. Provocative Therapy. http://www.provocativetherapy.com/

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