Rethinking Resistance: New Insights into an Ongoing Inquiry

by Elena Aguilar, Bright Morning President

As a new coach, my number one question was, How can I coach a resistant teacher? I felt like most of the teachers I had to coach were resistant. It shouldn’t be a surprise then that this is the question I’m most often asked. In my workshops, within the first half hour, I offer suggestions on how to respond to resistance.  

I’ve written about coaching resistance here, it’s the content of an online course I’m slowly creating, and it’ll be the focus of the next book I’ll write (once I’ve finished Coaching for Equity). While it’ll be a minute before those offerings are ready, I thought I’d share some recent insights into coaching resistance.

  1. Resistance is Emotion. When we perceive someone’s unwillingness to do something, we’re picking up on their emotions. Resistance is often a mask for a range of feelings including anger, sadness, fear, confusion, exhaustion, and distrust. These emotions are prevalent in our schools—and world. It makes sense that we experience a lot of resistance.
  2. Coach Emotions. The reason that we find it so hard to coach resistance is because we don’t know how to respond to emotions when they surface in ourselves, nor do we have many strategies to respond to the emotions that other people express. Therefore, if we learned how to be aware of and respond to our own emotions, and those of others, we’d experience far less resistance. The question, “How can I coach a resistant teacher?” is a question about how to coach strong emotions.
  3. Implicit Bias Plays a Role. Our perception of other people’s emotions is formed through our race or ethnicity, our gender, our age, and the region that we were raised in or live in. And our perception of other people’s emotions is impacted by our cultural competency and by the distortions of white supremacy and racism. For example, I’ve heard many coaches complain about the resistance of black female teachers specifically—and as I’ve probed and explored their perception of this resistance, what becomes apparent is the coach’s implicit bias about black women. The coach perceives the black woman as being “angry” or “oppositional” and hasn’t unpacked their own assumptions.
  4. Triggers are Teachers. You can eliminate a lot of resistance by knowing yourself and your own triggers. When we are triggered, what happens is that our own strong emotions are activated in response to external stimuli. Triggers aren’t bad—they’re often an indicator that we need to have more understanding of a sore spot or a past experience. They might reveal a value that we hold deeply, that someone else doesn’t seem to hold. Or they might reveal a boundary that’s been crossed. When we understand our own triggers and when we can anticipate them, we won’t experience what another person does as “resistance,” we’ll have more skills to understand the emotions that arise in ourselves and in others, and we’ll have more strategies to respond to those emotions.
  5. Beware of Binary Thinking. Rethinking resistance is key to transforming schools and to creating equitable educational experiences for children. When we perceive and label someone as resistant, we’re erecting a barrier between us, asserting that someone else doesn’t want to do what we think they should do. Thinking about people as resistant drags us into a world of binaries and disconnectedness—and that way of thinking is at the root of the problems we’re dealing with in our world today. It’s the inability to see the interconnectedness between every living being, to see our mutual dependency. Calling people resistant or just perceiving them as such is a form of dualistic thinking—and we need to stay far from that mindset. We need to change the language we use to describe the problems we’re dealing with.
  6. The antidotes. If we shift how we see the problem, and if we recognize that “resistance” is emotions that often arise in response to change, then we can see the antidotes. Curiosity is one of the most effective responses to resistance. As a coach, I have successfully used gentle, persistent, compassionate curiosity more times than I can count to engage someone who seemed resistant (or afraid of doing something different).

When we shift how we see the problem, a whole range of actions become available to us as coaches. The following three blogs on this site (to be published in the month of November 2019) will focus on how we can respond to resistance through a kind, compassionate, curious and humane way—that ultimately means that kids will get what they need and deserve in our schools. Stay tuned!