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How to roll with resistance: Tips for better communication

Here is a scenario that you may have encountered as a Wellness Champion:  You are making progress with an employee who hasn’t previously opened up to you about their wellness or life before now. You offer them wellness resources and they show some interest in their personal well-being and all of a sudden, they shut down.  They don’t respond as openly as they have before, they don’t seem to be making progress towards positive change anymore, and you don’t know why.

We call this resistance (or denial or a “speed bump” or regression; call it what you will).

Resistance is very common. Resistance happens when a person is moving towards making a behavior change but they are not ready and they resist making the change. Resistance can be either conscious or unconscious. Those people who are resistant are less likely to change in the immediate future. There is no one reason why resistance occurs, but you can “roll” with the resistance by understanding what it is, why it occurs.


There are two types of resistance most commonly encountered: Issue resistance, which is change related to a specific behavior (e.g., quitting tobacco use or losing weight); and Relational resistance (which exists because of the relationship between you and the person).

You can easily tell when someone is resisting you if they interrupt you, seem distracted or disinterested in the information (they could keep looking at their cell phone or the door) or, more easily identifiable, they become defensive.


When this happens, how do you respond?  Do you leave them alone and talk about it at a later date? Or do you keep trying to help?

Your first thought might be to keep pushing your point, but continuing to give advice, described as “the righting reflex,” often causes even more resistance; it will likely cause them to distrust you, anger them, and avoid you in the future.  However, there are several strategies that you can use to show that you understand that they are resisting and that you still want to help them:

  1. During issue resistance, you want to express empathy. Show this person that you understand what they are going through without judging their actions. Ask the person how their current behaviors align with their goals or values. Most people know when they need to make a change but only do so when they decide for themselves when it is time to move forward towards changing that behavior. Your job as a champion is to promote confidence; no that you have confidence in that person but that you know that they have confidence in themselves. When someone is ready to change and has confidence in themselves, you may start to hear “change talk” (e.g. “I know what I need to do to stop smoking”; “I’ve had success in the past by doing….”; “I plan to start….”). Change talk motivates the person to change; the more change talk you hear the more likely the person is to change.
  2. When you encounter relational resistance, your main goal is the show this person that, regardless of the possible friction between you and the person, you want to help them and will do what they need in order to help them. You should show them respect and be prepared to apologize or change the conversation to a different topic. Whatever you do, do NOT argue with them.

Resistance is often the result of a fear of change or the unknown, for whatever reason.  Do not argue for change or avoid their resistance directly, but reframe or “roll” with their resistance and focus on the problem, not the person.  You can use resistance as a sign that you need to shift your approach as a communicator. You should always avoid judgment and keep their health and best interests in mind. If all else fails try to listen more and talk less; there is much to be learned when someone is resisting.

When you demonstrate that you care about this person and want to help them, he or she will know they can come to you for help.  You may not persuade them to change their behavior today, but they are more likely to come to you for help in the future and that is a great step!

And, as always, we at Designed Wellness are here to help if you have additional questions about positive communication with your friends, family, and coworkers!

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