We started off this exploration looking at why self-help books don’t work. We then took the discussion to look at how our habits are built and how habits inhibit our ability to change. Habits make change more difficult. A more intractable problem is that of resistance.
Resistance is not a well-known concept outside of psychology circles but it is a powerful force that prevents people from reaching their goals yet are rarely aware of the process.
You can think of resistance like this.
You’re out in the garden watering the flowers. It’s a beautiful midsummer morning. The sun is warm and the flowers are lush. The sound the spray of water from the hose off the leaves is musical against the soft birdsong that flitters through the air. You pull the hose further down the hedgerow and the stream of water falters, dribbles and then stops. Only a few drips come out of the end of the hose. You click the trigger a few more times, tug on the hose, but no matter what you do, no water.
Somewhere there is resistance to the water flowing that is making your further progress impossible.
In the real world we can look at our tough love CEO in our example on habits. A successful executive in a number of previous positions, he comes to the new company as CEO and demoralizes the staff with a demanding, critical style that he believes should be effective. Rather than change, his experience has shown him his style should work and is the right way to help people. The fault must lie somewhere else, other than with him.
Sports also provides a fertile ground for analyzing the way we fail because it magnifies the everyday struggles we all cope with. Take a baseball player in a hitting slump, or a basketball player who lost their 3 pointer. We can go on and on, but the point is, here are professionals highly experienced at what they do, with a high level of long-term success, who suddenly find themselves blocked in the very arena they have previously reached a high level of success.
So what happens?
Sometimes the problem can be traced to injury, affecting their ability to execute, but most often, like a golfer suffering the yips (choking on small, simple putts), the cause is difficult to directly trace. The squads of team coaches, specialty coaches and sports psychologists often are ineffective.
Of course, I doubt the stress of having several thousand people booing us as we walked into a meeting to give an important presentation would help us either, the point is we all, at various points in our career, find ourselves stuck in ways we cannot understand, change or correct.
Resistance in business, shows itself in myriad situations – not getting selected for the position we want, failing with a new boss where previously you were a star, an inability to adjust to new business conditions, or, as with another client of mine, the inability to give the kind of presentation at meetings that would advance his career.
James (identity changed for confidentiality) was a fairly senior executive at a large professional services company. His work was flawless, well planned and executed by a staff that were dedicated to him. He found his progress stalled by his inability to effectively present his team’s accomplishments and goals in meetings with senior management. His talents were appreciated and the company wanted him to succeed, which was the reason he came to see me.
James was dumbfounded by his inability. Whenever the time for a presentation approached, his stomach tightened, he became nervous and twitchy and his performance fell. When I asked him during our meetings what he wanted to communicate in his presentation he would say he didn’t know, then clearly, concisely and commandingly describe in detail a masterful presentation.
When I told him, “well, why don’t you just write down what you just said and use that,” he would immediately have amnesia and respond blankly, “What did I say?”
This is one the myriad ways resistance shows itself in action if you are listening for it. Clearly James knew what to do, he was able to articulate his plan verbally when not under pressure, but was disconnected from it.
There are many other ways resistance shows itself and interferes with our goals. Sometimes we find ourselves frustrated by our inability to do what we want, no matter how hard we try. Other times the source of the block remains a mystery, but the results, an inability to perform up to our ability, to expand our ability and maximize our success is inhibited.
Self-help books fail to resolve resistances because the self is a difficult thing to help. Books are forced to be general to appeal to a wide enough audience to get published. Sometimes we need a solution designed for an audience of one to fit our unique experience and current position. Resolving resistance is a process, not an event, because the solution resists our efforts.
Take the garden hose that mysteriously stops working while we were watering the garden. The solution requires us to stop trying to succeed at watering for the moment and backtrack, following the hose back towards the source – the faucet it is attached to.
As you are walking along the hose you find a kink, the hose bent over itself choking off the flow of water. You unfold the kink, straighten the hose and you can again feel the water flowing freely through the hose. You can then return to watering the garden without problem.
The garden hose is a simple analogy, clearly people are more complicated, and the solutions are often not as simple. But the process is the same – find the kink and remove the impediment to success.
To resolve our resistances we need to learn to become scientists examining ourselves, our thoughts, motives and behaviors. It can be difficult to do. We need to look at ourselves with ruthless honesty and without criticism; as if looking down from a distance, looking for the kinks that hold us back, understanding their cause and resolving the resistances that prevent us from achieving greater success.
Struggling and trying to fight our way through resistance is futile. The battle becomes like trying to untie a knot, the more we fight it, the tighter and more intractable the knot becomes. Our frustration grows and we flail, making matters worse. It is only when we stop, regroup, regain control can we analyze the shape of the knot, determine where to gently tug to relieve the bottleneck and remove it. The battle is often difficult, but, I can tell you that it is always worth it. The reward is regaining an ease with yourself and your environment and the ability to perform at new levels of ability to create greater success in your life whatever your goal.