Attune With Empathy

EP 10

How can we more effectively understand and respond to change resistance? Attuning with empathy can provide fresh insights into what’s really happening for those who are experiencing the change on the ground. In this episode, Simon explores simple framework leaders can use to develop a theory of resistance and identify the next best steps.


Tuning in with empathy is one of the superpowers of leaders involved in long-term change journeys. It can be so frustrating, can’t it? When you’re well-intentioned, you’re hardworking, you’ve tried to make things as easy and as useful and as compelling for colleagues, but you’re still getting growing levels of activae and passive resistance to the change that you’re leading. There aren’t any easy silver bullet solutions to this, but one of the things I have found helpful in coaching teams when these kind of conversations come up is sometimes just to pause and to try to attune with empathy.

Now, we don’t attune with empathy because we’re necessarily agreeing with some of the perspectives that are coming up. We’re not doing it because we think, oh, well yeah, let’s just be loving and kind to our colleagues who are pushing us in these ways. Maybe you function on a higher plane than me and you can do that, and if so, please carry on. But for those of us who struggle to be that enlightened and have a little bit more of a pragmatic lens and sometimes to be honest, even just want to yell, “Can’t you just do your job? Can’t you just do what you need to do here? Is it really that much of a big deal?”

But we can take a breath and just think, how could we be a little bit more effective and successful in leading this next element of the change journey? And I found it quite helpful to stop going back and forth in the conversation about the person, not using the kind of noun of that person is a resistor. And sometimes we’ve used those comments like, “Oh, don’t water the rocks,” the rocks being the resistors and, “Just carry on without them.” And I get that logic, but they’re there. And especially if you’re in a smaller school or a smaller department or team, it’s going to keep rearing its ugly head over and over again, and it’s going to create all sorts of dynamics that are going to leave an emotional residue for you.

So I want to suggest it’s worthwhile doing a quick activity that I call an empathy map. And what it can do is it could help you build what I call a theory of resistant behaviour. You see, all of us have a capacity to be resistant in certain contexts. If you stop this recording right now and said, “Simon, put down your microphone. And what I’d love you to do is to step over here. We’re going to get right into a salsa class lesson,” I can tell you you’d see some resistant behaviour from me. All of us have certain contexts or requests that we are going to resist, and we resist it because of some underlying things that might matter to us. Maybe we don’t want to look silly in public. Maybe we feel a great degree of apprehension about a certain thing. At deeper levels, although we don’t name it, we might fear a lack of status if we move to that new approach.

If there’s a shift that’s occurring, that means that, for example, my 20 years of experience is no longer regarded as expert craft. And indeed this new approach that we’re moving towards actually critiques the current approach that I use. Well, that’s not just a behaviour change challenge I’ve got to work through. It also might have meaning of a whole loss of status and self-identity and a whole range of other things are occurring. So I guess what I want to say is that it’s worth actually tuning in and saying, “Do you have a working theory in your mind about why you’re seeing that pattern of behaviour and resistance? Do you have a theory of resistance for that person?”

Now, you can’t get inside that other person’s head and heart. You don’t actually know what’s occurring, but it is worthwhile stopping just the response to their behaviours and starting to think about, do you have a theory about what’s actually driving their behaviour? So a simple task I do is I pause, and maybe I’m working with a colleague or two in a team, and we just say, “Think of a person that’s really demonstrating some pretty active resistance to this. What does that person say?” You’re only allowed to say what they actually say. “Well, they say nothing.” Okay, write nothing. “What do they say?” And they say things like, “We’ve already done this before,” or “It’s not going to work with our kids,” or, “I don’t understand what this change is all about. I’ve never had any complaints from the parents of the children I’ve taught, I’ve served.” Well, what do they say? And what do they do? So this, again, can only be a description of real behaviours. Please don’t infer, just stay in the what do they actually do or not do.

The third one, what might they be thinking? Now, this is an inference, so you’ve got to be careful. Don’t assume you can understand the mind of others that. One of the great capabilities of the human mind is you can actually have an attempt to understand other minds, to empathise with other minds. So what might they be thinking? And then the most important question, what might they be feeling? What’s the actual emotional response that they might experience as a result of this change agenda? And sometimes what this helps teams to do is to pause and stop getting in the I’m right there wrong, which by the way might well be correct, but it’s not about being correct, it’s about being successful in the change journey.

And what this often does is it surfaces a conversation where people say, “Oh, this person, I think they might be feeling a sense of loss. I feel like this person might be feeling a sense of anxiety. I feel like this person might be feeling a sense of frustration. When they think about it, it’s almost like they’ve been looked over, that what they used to bring is no longer valued.” “That’s interesting.” Now, you might be wrong here, but it’s worth at least having a turn of trying to develop a theory of resistance.

And then I just ask the simple question, “What might this person need more of? What might this person need less of? And how might we, as leaders of this change, be actually contributing to the state that they’re experiencing?” And so we just pause and we dwell on some of those insights. Very rarely do we have the solution, but often it can move the conversation away from going back and forth, being frustrated and repeating things that they’ve said or done and help us actually say, “But what’s our theory about this pattern of behaviour we’re seeing, this pattern of resistance? And how might we, through understanding that, better consider what this person might really need?”
We can understand that all change has deeper meaning for people, and you can be particularly attuned to changes that ends up meaning that people have shifts in their identity, in their status within the team or common room, in their perception of their level of expertise, and a whole range of things like that. You might actually find yourself with a better lens to both interpret the behaviour you are seeing from other adults, but then also be empowered with a set of strategies that might support you to make some more meaningful progress.

So if you’re caught in a situation where you’re constantly debriefing with a few leadership colleagues about some key cases of active and passive resistance to change, why don’t you pause and start to develop a theory of resistance, understand what they might be saying and doing, and therefore thinking and feeling, and then reflect on what you could do based on that emotional state that you think they might be experiencing to minimise the negative states and to help them actually make progress. Develop a theory of resistance. Attune with empathy. It’s one of the things that can help you get unstuck. If you stop thinking that empathy is only a thing you do when you like someone and you actually start to realise attuning with empathy is also something we all need to do in the professional landscape if we’re going to be successful working with other humans.


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