Overcome Resistance Through Listening

supervisor lecturing employee

Resistance is common, whether at home or work. You propose an idea and someone pushes back. It’s a good idea, even in their best self-interest and yet they resist. It’s easy to get frustrated and end up entangled in a power struggle that demoralizes everyone and harms the relationship. So, what do you do?

Here’s an example from a work setting, although the principle applies just as well in our personal relationships. See what you can learn about how this supervisor overcomes resistance.

Round One

Bob:  I don’t like this idea of teams.  They waste everyone’s time.

Supervisor:  You’ll get used to it.  It’s really a much better way to run a business.

Bob:  It doesn’t seem better to me. Things were going just find around here in the past when people understood their jobs and could do them without so many interruptions.

Supervisor:  You’re right that for many years that worked just fine, but not today with the speed of business, all of the competition and customers who demand so much.

Bob:  Well, I don’t see how being part of a team is going to help that.  You’re always pulling us away from our work to attend another meeting.  These meetings seem like a huge waste of everyone’s time.

Supervisor:  You know, I used to feel that way too.  But then I learned that meetings are the only way we can coordinate our work and make decisions.  Before long, you’ll see how valuable these meetings can be.

Bob:  How can they ever be valuable when it takes forever to make a decision?  We’ve been at it for a couple of months now and it’s not getting any better.  In fact, I’m getting a lot less done than in the past. I could accomplish a lot more if you’d just let me get back to work.

Supervisor:  Well, I know it seems that way now Bob. But give it more time and you’ll see.  If we can start working like a team, everyone’s productivity can go up and, overall, we’ll do better.  You just have to trust me and give it a little longer and you’ll see what I mean.

Bob:  I’ve already given it enough time. Maybe teams work in some companies, but the concept will never work here.  I’m sorry I brought the topic up with you in the first place.

What’s going on?

Let’s pause and assess what’s going on here. The supervisor was polite and even showed patience. But, he also didn’t listen. He may have heard Bob’s words, but did Bob feel heard? The supervisor’s objective was to persuade and convince Bob that teams are a good idea. In his mind, if he could just counter each of Bob’s objections and offer enough rationale, Bob would see the light and get behind him.

But rarely does it work like that. It doesn’t matter that each of the supervisor’s arguments was logical or “correct.” He did not really listen to understand and, therefore, Bob is likely to continue being resistant. He may be less vocal, but resistant and even less productive nonetheless.

The sad thing is that conversations like this go on all the time. A manager or boss (or parent) thinks he or she is responding well to someone’s complaint but the employee (child) walks away frustrated and unconvinced. So, let’s stay with the story and see what happens when the supervisor does a better job of listening. Notice what you can learn from him.

Round Two: Supervisor gets a do-over

Bob:  I don’t like this idea of teams.  They waste everyone’s time.

Supervisor:  You’re not convinced we’ve made a good decision to implement teams.

Bob:  Right.  I really don’t see how teams are going to benefit us.  You’re always pulling us away from our work to attend a training session or a meeting.  They take a lot of time, it takes forever for us to make a decision, and by then we’re behind the rest of the day.

Supervisor:  It seems that the time we’re spending in meetings is poorly spent since it puts us behind our production schedule.

Bob:  Yes. It seems to me that things used to go well around here when you were making decisions and we were free to do our jobs without a lot of interruptions.  Anyway, isn’t that why they pay you the big bucks?

Supervisor:  (Chuckles.) You like it when I make the decisions so you can go about doing what you were hired to do. Is that right?

Bob:  Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. It’s just that our meetings can be such a waste of time.  It takes forever to make a decision.  We get hung up over the silliest things.

Supervisor: You’re saying that these meetings aren’t good use of your time.

Bob:  Yeah. I’m a doer.  I like to work with my hands.  That’s why I was hired and that’s what I enjoy. Too much time in meetings and training keeps me from doing what I’m good at.

Supervisor:  The value you bring to the job is your ability to work with your hands.  It’s what you really like about your job.

Bob:  Exactly. (He pauses and his supervisor is quiet.) But if I’m honest, I have to admit that I can see the logic of involving us employees more in making decisions.  It’s been frustrating in the past when we’ve had to wait for you or an engineer to tell us what to do and we knew all along.  It’s not so much that I mind the responsibility.  It’s that, well, I’m not very good at this reading stuff.  You know what I mean?

Supervisor:  I’m hearing you say that you really understand there are reasons for teams and you’re even willing to take on more responsibility. But the reading bothers you.

Bob:  That’s right.  We’re learning a lot right now.  And I’m not very good at book learning.  I never was.  I can’t read very well.  And, to tell you the truth, I’m afraid I could really be embarrassed if my teammates ever found out.  Right now, I’ve got their respect.  Everyone looks up to me because of how well I know the job.  I’m really afraid I would lose that.

Supervisor:  So, as you see it, a team environment is, in some ways, like being back in school again, something you didn’t feel very good at. You’re afraid you could be embarrassed in front of your teammates because of your difficulty reading.

Bob:  That’s right.  Teams are really okay.  In fact, I understand why they’re better than our old way of doing things.  But I’m worried about how well I, personally, can make the adjustment.

Overcoming Resistance Through Deep Listening

This time through, the supervisor did not just hear Bob, he practiced deep listening. Instead of arguing with him, he made it safe for Bob to open up and, as he did so, the conversation got deeper and deeper until they were dealing with a real issue—Bob’s poor reading ability and fear of looking foolish in front of his co-workers. The issue was not the concept of working as a team all along. It was his fear of losing face.

So, an important part of listening is making it safe enough that people can really express themselves. We often presume to understand what people think and feel and so move quickly into problem solving or telling them what to do. But do we really understand? So often we do not.

Bob’s resistance masked his deeper anxiety. Only by listening was the supervisor able to understand and help Bob overcome his resistance. Of course, they still have to solve the underlying problem and they can now work together to do so.

I’m not suggesting that all resistance can be overcome by deep listening. But, I am saying that listening is a good place to start. Not only does it help us get to deeper, real issues, but the process of listening softens people so they are more open and receptive to our input. There may be occasions in which you still need to move ahead with your agenda, if you’re a parent or leader, but you’ll do so much more successfully if you’ve taken the time to listen.

In what relationships could you do a better job of listening?



  1. Ed Engel

    This happens a lot in my experience. One reason certainly is that very few people get trained in these skills by very many businesses, and parents certainly don’t get it very often. But another difficulty in business settings is that most businesses are in the mode of “doing more with less”, which almost always means less staff because upper management is trying to drive the cost of labor down to be more profitable. Most often there are huge demands on the employees time – more work to do than time to do it. The end result is that things that are urgent like completing the work at hand are favored far more than things that are important like taking time to effectively listen and communicate. Even if some kind of a staff meeting is held, there is an agenda that is longer than the time allotted, and it is the shotgun approach instead of the rifle approach. Always doing more with less may produce short term profitability and a perceived higher/faster job completion rate, but there is a long term opportunity cost that cannot be calculated when everybody is rushed to “just hurry up and get the job done”.
    Thank you Roger for the always excellent content and tips on how to be better! These effective tools can still be used in small segments daily as the work gets done.

    • Roger Allen

      Yes, Ed. You make an excellent point. It is true that many companies are trying to do more with less and putting greater pressure on their leaders and employees to be more productive, which squeezes time from communication and listening. Unfortunately, it’s a short-term strategy and not in the best interest of employees nor the company. What you’re getting at is a fundamental flaw in our focus on short-term financial results in this country at the expense of caring about a broader set of stakeholder interests and success criteria.

      My hope, however, is that as leaders learn the skill of listening, they will listen in a different way, even if in shorter segments, that makes a difference to their people and makes them more effective leaders.

      I appreciate your thoughtful comment.



Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Write Your Story

    Once you submit your story, I'll review it and get back to you. This may take a few days. I'll let you know when it will be published and invite you to then share your post with your friends and family.