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Overt vs Covert Resistance: Knowing the Difference Makes the Difference.

Employees using overt resistance to push against door being held by team lead
October 5, 2023 3:08 pm

Resistance is Inevitable…

As facilitators, most of us are going to find ourselves met with resistance daily. With workplace demands extending beyond the office thanks to mobile technology, extra demands on time, attention and resources can provoke more push-back than ever.

In my previous post “Pull vs. Push”, we looked at the effectiveness of the “Pull” approach to resistance as superior to the “Push” approach. ‘Pushing’ against resistance only escalates the conflict further, whereas ‘pulling’ on resistance removes the resistor’s power to sustain conflict since there’s nothing to push against. Understanding that ‘pulling’ is key to managing resistance is critical, yet how do we identify when to use it?

Overt and Covert Conflict in The Workplace

Resistance is not always obvious. When walking into a new meeting, facilitators need to pay attention to the tone and energy of the team from the first moment. Of course, resistance can be overt, as in the outspoken team member who isn’t afraid to voice his colleagues’ doubts, but it can also be covert, like the team member who sits with her arms crossed and seems to have little to say, despite being capable in her role. Both have their challenges, but if we apply specific facilitation techniques, we can identify and diffuse either.

Identifying Overt Resistance

Overt resistance is the easier type of resistance to identify and usually involves one or more team members at the meeting speaking up and objecting to our process as facilitators.

Overt resistance can sound like…

● “We’re a creative team; we work best when we’re loose and ideas are flowing”

● “Can we apply structure AFTER we’ve spitballed/brainstormed for a while?”

● “This process stuff is bogging us down!”

● “We’ve had tons of meetings without a facilitator and they’ve been fine; we don’t need him!”

● “Can’t you just write down what we say and let us do it our way?”

Overt resistance can be especially common when facilitating teams of senior management, as they may feel they are “above” being facilitated. This type of resistance is best dealt with using the “Pull” approach.

If we make the team member(s) feel heard, using non-confrontational language and tone, we can gently restate our roles as facilitators, while reassuring the team that we are there to help. Assuming the meeting is more than 2 hours, you might say something like:

How about this? Let me try helping you guys out in the way I know how for an hour. If at the end of that hour, you don’t feel I’ve improved your process,  you can go back to doing it your way. Maybe I’ll learn something!

Setting the tone of open-mindedness, and demonstrating a non-competitive attitude, will influence the team to adopt the same approach. You’ll also reinforce your role as someone who is being neutral, there to help, not take over. But what about passive resistance?

Identifying Covert Resistance

Have you ever experienced subtle forms of resistance during your meetings? Perhaps you’ve noticed colleagues offering a vague agreement, subtly changing the topic, or posing challenging questions in a seemingly innocent manner. These are all typical displays of covert resistance – a nuanced form of opposition that manifests through indirect actions and communication. It can be harder to address as team members may not say directly what is bothering them, which is why it is important to be able to pick up on the signs.

Some more examples of what covert or ‘passive’ resistance looks like are…

● Lack of participation, silence

● Crossed arms and closed body language

● Furrowed brows and/or a look of skepticism or boredom

● Exchanging sideways glances with other team members

● Avoiding eye contact or behaving in a distracted manner

Drawing team members out of their silence is the key to overcoming passive resistance. Once you get people to express their misgivings or doubts about the meeting, the resistance becomes overt, and you can move to the “Pull” approach.

How to deal with covert ‘passive’ resistance 

Let’s look at a step-by-step process for overcoming passive resistance:

1. Report what you see and encourage people to express their doubts or negative views.

a. I’m noticing a lot of crossed arms and what seems to be worried looks right now. It’s important that we all know what’s on each other’s minds. What’s your sense about what’s going on?

b. I’m sensing a lot of resistance in the room right off the bat here. I’d love to know what’s on your mind before we move forward. What issues or concerns may be stopping you from committing to today’s agenda?

2. Restate their concerns and reinforce that you are hearing their concerns without judgment.

a. All right, I’m hearing a lot of you mention (Problem X) and (Concern Y). I can really see where you’re coming from, I would be concerned about that too if I had that experience. I want you to know I’m here to help you develop solutions to these problems.

3. Encourage them to accurately assess their own level of resistance.

a. I’m going to ask you all to give yourself a rating of 1 to 10, 10 being fully committed to this project, and 1 being completely against it. This number is for you only- you’re not going to have to reveal it.

4. Ask them how this rating can change.

a. Whatever your rating is right now, by the end of this meeting I want everyone to be closer to a 10. So, what is it going to take for each of you to walk out of here with a more committed feeling?

5. Respond positively, then restate and reinforce once again.

a. All right, I hear you! It sounds like you need (X) in order to get closer to a 10. Let’s work together to make sure that happens.

The next time you’re faced with resistance, try using these approaches to identify it and overcome it. Let us know how it works for you. Share your stories or questions by emailing: [email protected]

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Do you have a unique meeting challenge not covered by one of our blog posts? We’re always looking for different dilemmas to discuss in our articles!