Monday, 17 January 2022

Strategies to reduce client resistance

In an earlier post (here), I explored six questions we could use for reflection, which may help us to see the barriers for clients who are stuck. Those question were (Cianci et al., 2010; Gollwitzer & Brandstatter, 1997; Gollwitzer & Sheeran, 2006):

  1. What can we do when our client avoids the conversation, or avoids the topic?
  2. How do we move from problem-focused goals to decision-making goals?
  3. If scaling and reframing are useful tools to work with resistance, what are others?
  4. What happens when we disagree with client goals? Our own prejudices and values emerge. Is this helpful?
  5. How can we effectively challenge. What does that look like?
  6. Discuss clients who have been resistant. What does that resistance look like?

However, once we have thought through the potential barriers, we then need some strategies to better help our clients to find their solution.

Following are some potential solutions to each of the six questions above:

  1. Gently addressing avoidance. As the naive inquirer, we may ask our client "Do you see [X] as being a barrier for you?". We might want to follow that with "Can you tell me why that is?" - a nice open question to allow the client to answer honestly. Asking will help us identify where the the client 'is' in the process. It may turn out that our client is still in the information gathering phase, and is not yet at the decision-making phase (Su, 2016; also see here). Asking the question gives the client time to self-determine. 
  2. Getting to decisions. In moving from problem-focused goals to solutions, we must be led at the client's pace, by the client. Offering a potential strategic path to a solution before the client is ready to process it can be pointless. It often means repeating the same work (not that there is any harm in this, either, so long as we are able to keep our own act hunger from reducing our patience. While experience helps us to wait for the client to ask for potential solutions, sometimes we can wait for too long. There is a fine tension here. Sometimes a "What do you think your next steps might be?" question can move things along - and, again, identify where the client is in the process (Su, 2016).
  3. Strategies. Again, I think the naive inquirer model can help us here. Asking "How do you think you could change this?". Further, we could ask "What happens if you don't change this?" and "What happens if you do change this?" (Su, 2016). Sometimes this may sharpen the focus for the client. We can also consider using motivational interviewing techniques, which use nudges of roughly 2/3 ratio of reflecting back to the client what they are saying for confirmation, and 1/3 naive inquirer questions (Miller & Rollnick, 2013). 
  4. Client-focus. In my view, we must always allow the client full control. This process is not about us: it is about them. We are the mirror. If we disagree, we can ask open-ended questions, such as "Tell me more about that?" and "How might that work out for you?". We could even get more specific, such as "Do you see any risks with this strategy?" and "How might you avoid those?", but the choice is the client's, not ours.
  5. Self-determination. An important element to keep front of mind is that our clients have the rights to self-determine. This process is not about us. It is about letting the client lead the way, and us simply asking questions so our clients can consider things from a different perspective: but the outcomes, the changes, and the strategies need to be owned by the client. This approach enables us to leave our ego out of the process. We are an asker of questions; a suggester of possibilities; a source of ideas; a considerer of risks.
  6. Resistance indicators. If clients like the status quo, we may feel they are 'stuck' or 'stalled', and that we are no longer facilitating progress. But it is best to check in to see if our client feels that. We can ask naive inquirer-style questions: "are you comfortable with our progress?", and "where would you like to be by the end of this session?", and - a key one - "what stage are you at in your thinking: are you still information gathering, or should we be talking about how you might make a decision"? (Su, 2016). This latter is where we can so often get frustrated: we THINK people are at the 'decision-making' end, when actually they are three steps back down the track at the 'wanting information' end (Su, 2016). We may need to find out WHY there is resistance to change, if the client has expressed a desire for change, but is not making headway. We can ask clients when it appears that they do not want to move is "Are you comfortable with how things are at the moment?". If they are comfortable, then why do they need to move? Or, need to move YET? (Dweck, 2006). If they were going to move then have become stuck or were moving then lost focus, we can ask "Could you help me to understand what has changed in your thinking since we spoke last?” (Su, 2016).

Overall though, we need to be led by our client. Remembering that this is THEIR process - and that we are simply the guide - will assist us to do that.



  • Cianci, A. M., Klein, H. J., & Seijts, G. H. (2010). The effect of negative feedback on tension and subsequent performance: The main and interactive effects of goal content and conscientiousness. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(4), 618-630.
  • Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Baltimore Books.
  • Gollwitzer, P. M., & Brandst├Ątter, V. (1997). Implementation intentions and effective goal pursuit. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73(1), 186-199.
  • Gollwitzer, P. M., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Chapter 2 Implementation intentions and goal achievement: A meta‐analysis of effects and processes. In Zanna, M. (Ed) Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol 38, pp. 69-119). Academic Press.
  • Miller, W. R. & Rollnick, S. P. (2013). Motivational Interviewing: Helping people change (3rd ed.). The Guildford Press.
  • Su, A. J. (25 May 2016). What to Do When a Colleague Can’t Stick to a Decision. Harvard Business Blog.

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