Deal with Resistance using Critical Conversation Skills

If your critical conversation encounters resistance, focus your skills and turn the situation around. Critical conversation skills can defeat resistance in an argument by teaching you to be flexible, and knowing when to push (and when to stop).

Prevent resistance by being flexible during important conversations
The name of the game is balancing focus and flexibility when you encounter resistance during a critical conversation. If you tell someone who is already having difficulty that they have to do something or act a certain way, 999 times out of 1000, they will put their feet on the ground and do the exact opposite. But just letting the meeting go to waste isn’t a good option either.
Think of focus and flexibility as an off-limits line in a soccer match. Players, as long as they follow some general rules, have a great deal of flexibility to move one way or the other as long as they stay within limits. In a critical conversation, make those boundaries clear and then let the other parties know where you have flexibility in the discussion.
Here are two easy ways to show flexibility with boundaries:

  • State what is acceptable and what is not. Being flexible doesn’t mean you need to let someone pass you by.

If someone’s behavior is unacceptable – such as abusive language – you can say, “I am asking you to treat me like a professional and stop using abusive language. I want to work with you, and I am flexible in how we proceed, but first we need to talk to each other.” respectfully.”

  • Set the ground rules. If you think limits may need to be set during the conversation, set them now, and show flexibility when setting these rules.

Before you start the conversation, you might want to say, “I’d like to suggest some ground rules for our conversation, but first I’d like to ask if you have any ground rules you’d like us to follow.” Some ground rules might be agreeing to stick to the agenda, speaking the truth, being punctual, or using a professional tone throughout the conversation.

Know when to pay during a critical conversation
A wide variety of problems can rear their ugly heads during critical conversations. If the behavior interrupts the agenda or any forward progress, you have two paths to take. First, you may need to assess whether or not all parties in the room are willing to work toward a common goal. If not, explain the process and purpose of the conversation and check for agreement.
This is a good way to connect with someone who is starting to show signs of resistance.
“At the beginning of the meeting, we agreed to work on a solution to why team members were uncomfortable with the language you use in the break room. Are you still willing to work on this issue together, or do you want to find a different way to solve the problem?”
If this calm and gentle approach does not work, be direct in finding a solution by offering two options for what to do next. Acknowledge what the person is saying or doing, check their opinions, then deal with the behavior or put it back for a later time.

  • Acknowledgment: Acknowledging the behavior by describing it impartially. When Mr. Negative comments that the problem is not just his problem but the team’s problem, you can say, “You don’t think you’re part of this problem, is that right?


  • Validation: Without making a judgment, let the other person know that they could have a different opinion than yours. Continuing with the previous example, you could say, “You may be right. We may need to work on this problem from multiple points of view.” Once the opinions are validated, the challenging behavior may stop.


  • Postpone or Deal: To put off resistance, ask if dealing with other opinions later is acceptable. For example, you might say, “I will commit to having the same discussion with other team members, if you can commit to working on this aspect of the problem now.”

The last resort is to give narrower choices – stop the behavior or stop the conversation. Be careful not to use this option as a threat, but as a way forward.
Here you can say, “John, it looks to me like you’re blaming other team members, and that’s making it difficult to make progress. I see two options. We can work on a solution together, or we can stop the conversation and I can formalize the performance improvement plan.” Remember that this statement is not a threat, but a statement with options.
Silence is an effective tool. Don’t be shy about using silence as a powerful tool when you encounter resistance. Listening or choosing silence allows others to speak and process information.
Take a step back during important conversations
One of the easiest ways to keep the critical conversation on track is to continue to build agreement on what to do next, and if the conversation drifts or if the conversation starts to encounter resistance, go back to the last agreement and work from there.
Suppose you are a mountaineer. Most mountain climbers (at least those who tend to go back down the mountain alive) use anchors to keep them from completely falling down the mountain if they slip or fall. Agreements during a discussion are your fulcrums, preventing the conversation from falling back to ground zero.
During an important conversation, you can use these types of agreements. When you need to step back to revise an earlier agreement, restating or re-summarizing the agreement can help clear up any doubts or ambiguities.
When the conversation begins, ask if all parties are willing to work on a solution. When exploring and examining what is happening, ask if all parties agree on what the problem is and why it is there. When deciding on options to move forward, make sure that all parties agree on the value in solving the problem and know which options everyone can agree to, make, and support.