Six Signs of Resistance to Change
and What To Do About Them


Melissa Killeen

It is hard seeing your client struggle through a difficult emotional experience, and at the same time, struggling in sobriety, mourning the loss of a job, thinking they are of little worth and working on some of the hardest relationship challenges they have ever faced. Yes, it is hard for the coach to keep pushing; it is just as hard for the client to keep showing up for the appointments and completing the homework assignments. But push we must and the following paragraphs explain why.

I have come to the conclusion that my client is resisting change. This is the same person I have been writing about for a few months. The same client with 120 days clean who is coaching a little league team that is 4 and 7. Last week we discussed humility as part of an ongoing campaign to repair his relationship with his live-in girlfriend. I can see this change is extremely hard for my client to move through. He has commented that it is like taking the college course, Communication 101. He’d really rather go back and do what he has always done; it was easier, he knew how to do it, and the relationship, at least, limped along. This is what coaches call resistance to change.

Expecting resistance to a coaching assignment and preparing how to deal with it is the most crucial part of developing a plan of change for your client. In my book, I reference this as the Coach’s Plan of Change. In order to forecast any type of resistance, a coach needs to understand the most common reasons people object to change. Below are some examples of the reasons possibly underlying your client’s objections. Some will be artfully combined and, depending on you and your client’s circumstances, the order of their prominence will frequently shift. What‘s imperative is that the coach anticipate each instance of resistance, having ready a response in their back pocket.

1. Denial — I like to use consequences as the perfect wake-up call to denial. This is my classic change-resistance stand-by: When my client says, “I can’t see any reason to change,” my response is taken from an AA slogan, “If you keep doing the same thing over and over, you’ll keep getting the same results over and over.”

2. Anger — It’s remarkable how closely these stages of resistance mimic the five stages of grief. In the case of anger, I use the same response I would in replying to a client who is grieving the loss of addiction or a relationship. I mix with it a bit of empathy. Rationally, my client understands his live-in girlfriend is not responsible for the onset of his addiction. I point this out. Emotionally, he may resent her for causing him pain, shame or putting pressure on him. I suggest he may feel guilty for being angry, and this makes him even angrier. Teasing out these threads of anger helps eliminate the “fuzzy feelings” standing in the way of progress.

3. Fear and Confusion — One of the most common reasons for resistance is fear of the unknown. People will only take active steps toward the unknown if they genuinely believe — and perhaps more importantly, feel — that the risks of standing still are greater than the risks of moving forward in a new direction. Once again, I bring out my bag of slogans and request he use affirmations on a daily basis. One of my favorite quotes is by Eleanor Roosevelt: “Every time you meet a situation that you think is an impossibility, then you meet it and live through it, you find forever after you are freer than you were before.” Another is from Dr Susan Jeffers: “Pushing through fear is less frightening than living with the underlying fear that comes from the feeling of helplessness.” The basic emotion of fear jumbles one’s thoughts, resulting in confusion. Using simple affirmations can break through the underlying emotion of fear and help redraw the line, nudging it forward toward change.

4. Depression — Again, a classic symptom of grief as well as resistance to change. This phase may be eased by a few kind words. However, I have to battle for this particular change model, and fight against my client’s old thoughts of living an “easy life” in addiction. That old life seemed easier than all of this work. So first, I ensure my client is following his medication-assisted treatment protocols. Then, I pull out my depression-buster toolbox: Get some friends and talk about it — my client’s assignment is to have coffee after his next NA meeting and talk specifically about his depression as well as having to work on his relationship. Depression-buster tool number two is to read inspirational messages. My newest favorite book is National Geographic‘s Daily Joy — 365 Days of Inspiration, uniting inspiring words with lovely National Geographic images of the world. Tool number three? Distraction. When depressive thoughts come creeping back in, get out of that bed, no sleeping until noon. Walk, workout, mow the lawn, go to the grocery store and shop for some nutritious ingredients for this week’s meals. Write in your journal, call your coach, talk to your sponsor and best of all, hit your knees and ask your higher power to take from you these thoughts and feelings of depression.

5. Crisis — No matter what, there will be a crisis during the period of time in which you are implementing change. So ready yourself for it. In this particular coaching situation, a crisis can be deadly, so I pre-empt any thought of my client ‘using’, head-on. I talk about how addiction will transform thoughts of escape or defiance into the thought of using. I urge my client to prepare for this with a Fire Drill:

“What are you going to do if these thoughts enter your head? Write this down and use it just like a fire drill is used in a school or office. Thinking of using? A bell starts ringing! Call a friend, call me, take a walk, go to a meeting, hug your girlfriend, write in your journal, and don’t drive down that road where your ex-dealer lives.

I have my client write all of these reactions to a fire drill down on a 3×5 card and carry it in his wallet. Defining and breaking down a crisis helps, too: Picking up a drug is the biggest crisis; a minor fender bender is not. Heading out to an old drug-dealing location is a crisis; bouncing a check is not.

6. Acceptance — Sometimes it takes a crisis to move to acceptance, and hopefully a minor crisis like a fender bender or a bounced check is the crisis my client will experience. In his case, he can use the experience of dealing with a crisis as a sober person to more effectively communicate with his live-in girlfriend as compared to his pre-sobriety attempts at communication.  Of course, as his coach, I follow up by asking him about his girlfriend’s response and the eventual resolution of this minor crisis. I am confident he will see how his change of communication styles has helped improve their relationship. Most importantly, he will have accepted change and gained new found confidence in what he has learned about using this aspect of change.

And confidence is really the strength my client has needed all along.

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