I wanted to get some views on working with clients who are reluctant or resistant. I would particularly like to hear views that are relational and that seek to understand resistance in the context of where and when it is encountered. The setting I am thinking about is an assessment programme (residential) for young people who are parents. They spend 20 weeks in placement for assessment and development of their parenting skills. Some do not want to be there and resist efforts to help them.
All sorts of variables are involved, one
being that some of the staff are close in age to the young parents and
the young staff are not parents themselves. I have looked at the
topic in some of the family therapy literature – not found it helpful.
Thanks in advance
Johnnie Gibson (Ireland)
I work with adolescents in treatment, and encounter the same resistance. For many of them, they aren't reluctant to admit that they could use the help in improving their skills, it's what the placement represented in the first place: a power struggle in which someone else "won" and they "lost" (by virtue of being placed)...so to engage and benefit, on some level, represents capitulation to the demands of those who "won"...being on the losing end of the power struggle.
I find myself going up against a mighty
powerful idea in my clients' minds that is difficult to get around...so
I don't try to get around it. Often I have to gently challenge it
head-on from the start, and begin to win my clients over through
invitations to talk about what their hesitations might be, how this kind
of imagery and thinking can hurt them in the long run, etc. If I
can get past that bugger, then often the client sees me as more of an
ally than just another accuser.
Complicated issue, John. I would say that like any other 'helping' context, if as a practitioner one finds resistance, it would be important to ascertain from the client where the resistance is coming from. Maybe the approach is wrong; maybe there is no buy in for the service being offered. I would avoid pathologizing the client (not suggesting you are doing this) and begin with an inquiry approach to understand the issue locally as it is emerging in that context.
Look at the "Motivational Interviewing" approach as a way to get a different perspective on the therapeutic alliance between professional staff and clients. Resistance is an interactional and environmental dynamic between these relevant people. If the helper can tweak their perspective to prioritize the alliance with the client and facilitate empowerment then resistance dissipates. Look at what Motivational Interviewing says about Resistance and check out ways to respond.
Besides letting you know that there is no such thing as client "resistance", I hope that Hans Skott-Myhre and Jack Nowicki would lead this discussion.
I'll quote Bill O'Hanlon for starters. Resistance is simply a label that folks give to certain client behaviors when an impasse has been reached.
Unfortunately, labeling our clients as resistant can
limit our ideas about possible solutions and cause us to give up using
the clients as partners in the change process. Paying attention to the
cooperative elements of the client-staff relationship and build on these
more productive aspects. We no longer "see" resistance because our field
of vision is filled with observations of the things that clients are
doing to reach their goals and to cooperate. Focusing on these aspects
of the situation usually creates a positive atmosphere in which the
staff are likely to give genuinely warm, positive feelings toward
clients and clients are likely to feel the same towards the staff.
This word resistance always interests me, as it seems to be one of those words we find easier to apply to other people than to ourselves (like 'defensive' or 'judgmental').
What about our own 'resistance'? I am resistant to being asked to do or say things which I do not like. I am resistant to having other people's decisions or judgements imposed on me by colleagues or bosses who themselves seem to resist my own attempts to influence them. On some notable occasions I believe I was not resistant enough, and colluded with decisions which I should have opposed more strongly.
So at what point does other people’s resistance become a positive rather than a negative quality, or is it just a question of re-framing the way we interpret their responses to us? For example, current thinking values the quality of ‘resilience’ highly – but what is resilience other than the ability to survive and thrive under pressure, to remain whole, strong and free when others seek to undermine or humiliate you? Resistance by another name.
In the assessment service you describe, it must be frightening for the young staff trying to help these equally young parents to change, and maybe they are still only beginning to learn the deep level of skill involved in reaching out to and supporting people in such extreme difficulty. Maybe these young staff need a lot more support and education themselves, so that they can feel able to give something of themselves to these parents, including – where appropriate – acknowledging their own 'resistance'.
This is not to devalue the real frustration and pain which we all feel when we really want to get people to change their ways and they simply refuse, often to their own detriment. But often this frustration is a message which we can understand as mirroring the frustration felt by the other person who may feel that we either don’t understand them or like them or approve of them, and who assumes that this is why we are trying to change them.
Remember the story of the sun and the wind competing to get the man to take his coat off (drop his resistance)? The more the wind batters away at the coat, the tighter the man holds on to it, but the more the sun beams … you know the rest!
I have found Froma Walsh's take on "resistance" very to be a refreshing and hopeful perspective. Here is a link to an article reviewing one of her books, Strengthening Family Resilience:
Ah, resistance. You gotta love it for so many reasons . . . I was with a group of people the other day and when someone asked about resistance, I gave back that I think maybe there is no such thing as resistance, just feedback that the way you are going about it is not going to work.
Why do you gotta love it? Well, it gives us great information, it points to a place we need to work differently, it means that the person cares about something and is letting us know, it means the person is able, at least in this area, to protect self, it gives us reasons to think about our own self, it suggests the person has courage, and it definitely keeps you from napping.
Individuals are NOT resistant. I learned in graduate school that individuals are not and can not be resistant. Resistance can only exist in the context of a relationship between 2 people and develops as a result of the mis-alignment of goals between these 2 people. As the adults / professionals / caregivers, we must take the lead to help get on the same page as the adolescent (or person of any age). Let's shift our narrative from one of pathologizing the individual to one of empowering and joining them on the journey to healing and wellness.
Pertinent to Steve Bewsey's comment (Steve is one of those amazing practitioners for whom resistance doesn't seem to exist) Steve deShazer wrote a great piece call The Death of Resistance in Family Process (23) pp. 1-17
Check out Gordon Neufeld's work on "counterwill".
Dr N. draws on a wide body of knowledge and pulls it together in a way
that makes sense on both intellectual and intuitive levels. Look
him up on youtube to hear him speak or better still invest in his DVD
series. Find the Neufeld Institute at the link below. I'm
not on commission but for all the times I've recommended his work I wish
I was – no-one I know has been disappointed yet!
Let me just offer a brief thought. I heard someone during the course of this week frame resistance in an interesting way. He said: Resistance is a multi-party process – it is not a quality of an individual, it is a quality of an interaction. I am sure we can all see the implications of this view. What do others think?
Werner van der Westhuizen
I don't think there is a big research literature on
resistance, but for what it's worth here are a few titles:
The Extreme End of a Spectrum of Violence: Physical Abuse, Hegemony and Resistance in British Residential Care, Children and society, 15/2 (2001), 95-106
While researching the history of traditional child care institutions – children's homes, orphanages, industrial schools and reformatories – the author was impressed by the similarities of regimen across the spectrum of traditional care. Underpinning all forms of care was a severe discipline which often became abusive. Sexual abuse was also reasonably common. There were differences but it is the similarities which are stressed in this article, which seeks reasons for the perceived sameness. Children in care came mostly from the same deprived social background, and no matter what the intentions of the carers, traditional care involved a confrontation with cherished working class values which many of the children were bound to resist. Resistance was met by severe staff reaction; hence the violent
One child care worker's approach to resistance in adolescents
CYC-Online: Reading for Child and Youth Care Workers, Issue 33, October 2001
One of the most pervasive myths about good child and youth care is the idea that the competent practitioner is able to "break through" the resistance of the client. From this perspective, resistance is seen to be something that gets in the way of progress and, from here, many of our most coercive, intrusive and manipulative techniques become justified. In our experience, it takes a certain courage for a practitioner to challenge this belief since such a challenge is often taken as an act of resistance by those who supervise and monitor front line practice. Once the issue of authority is understood, however, the basic wisdom of such a challenge becomes painfully
Professional advocacy as a force for resistance in child welfare, British Journal of Social Work (2003) 33/8, 1043-1062
The development of child and youth advocacy is a relatively recent phenomenon, increasingly recognized by both practitioners and politicians as a way of establishing communication spaces for young people who are looked after in state care. Literature to date has focused on the development and underpinning principles of child and youth advocacy, which is a necessary starting point for establishing good practice. However, while policy and legislation promote the view that young people are actively involved in decision making, their advocates can be placed in a passive position, effectively denying young people a position as social actors. This paper argues that the problemitizing of independent advocacy as unprofessional can serve to further marginalize young people and render advocates impotent. It suggests that while it is structurally necessary for adults to take on the advocacy role, this must be undertaken in a way that actively resists the oppression of young people. Through consideration of accounts of advocacy activity, by way of illustration, the paper takes the debate beyond the principles of participation, empowerment and rights to a consideration of strategies that take into account the complexities of advocacy practice in child welfare.
Working with hostile and resistant teens: voices from the front pavilion. Attainment Company Inc. staff development guidance series, Verona, Wisconsin 1993
Hope this helps,
I know when I label someone as being resistant I have already committed to the change and mastered the capacity to achieve the change and their decision to not move forward is what I call resistance. However, when I am resistant, the other person, in my mind, does not have a clue what they are talking about in every situation, and are trying to put me in an unsafe situation. As a result I choose to become moody and hostile so they will go away.
Nova Scotia, Canada.