Facilitating Through Resistance, Part 2

Earlier this year we wrote the blog Equity and Justice: Facilitating Groups Through Resistance attempting to provide context and answers for the often-asked question: When facilitating racial equity and social justice group sessions, how do we navigate resistance in the room? In that blog we identified why we encounter resistance during these sessions, when to engage that with that resistance and when to shut it down, and detailed descriptions of five of the most common forms of resistance we encounter along with ways to navigate that resistance. The blog has been read widely and we often receive feedback from our colleagues that it has been helpful in identifying the origins and expressions of resistance to racial equity and social justice work, along with tangible approaches to reframing, managing, and navigating resistance. If you haven’t had a chance to read the resistance blog, you should read it! It is a good foundation for the ideas and content covered here.

While the five most common forms of resistance covered in our previous blog illustrate the loudest resistance we encounter, there are additional– more nuanced yet still present– forms of resistance to equity work. We may not see these forms of resistance as often, though they are likely always present. As a follow-up, we have decided to write a Part 2 adding an additional 6 types of resistance to racial equity and social justice work. In this blog we also expand the conversation of equity resistance and group facilitation to include resistance within peer-based conversations, within coaching relationships and even within ourselves through guided self-reflection.

First, let’s explore the question, what does resistance to racial equity and social justice look like?

  •  Sometimes it is loud, vocal, and visible.  It might look like a person or group making public statements or taking actions that challenge equity and justice.
  •  Sometimes it is stubborn and obstinate, people or groups refusing to participate or collaborate to create or expand equity and justice.
  • Sometimes it is passive aggressive, it could look like lobbying colleagues or leadership behind the scenes to resist equity and justice measures.
  •  Sometimes it is lethargic or stuck, cycling through analysis paralysis with little movement or action.
  • Sometimes it is self-centering, focusing on personal feelings (guilt, fear, confusion etc.) over systemic progress.
  • Sometimes it is purely saboteur, refusing to acknowledge the existence of racism, inequity, or oppression or the need for systemic change.

These are descriptions of the behaviors of resistance. To successfully address and counter the behaviors of resistance, we must also have a solid understanding of the origins of resistance.  What are the thought patterns that lead to the feelings that lead to the behaviors?  In our work, whether it be large group facilitation, peer-to-peer conversations, coaching, or outlining self-reflection protocols, we lean on two primary frameworks for understanding the thought patterns activated within racial equity and social justice resistance.  The first is the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity. This model helps us to understand the cognitive frames people employ when they are faced with differences that make a difference.  When they are forced to grapple with divergent perspectives, approaches, or realities—how do they make meaning? How do they determine their actions? The second model we often lean on is the SCARF Model which outlines five human domains of threat and reward.   This model helps us to understand the origins of fear and incentive responses. It supports understanding of why people feel threatened (or rewarded) and how that will manifest in their behaviors. The following six forms of resistance are informed by these two models, along with years and mountains of professional and personal experience with navigating racial equity and social justice resistance.  See if any of these sound familiar to you. Have you encountered colleagues or even family members who exhibit these forms of resistance? Can you relate to any of these resistance roles? Have you found yourself in racial equity and social justice conversations that are hampered or stymied by these types of resistance?


The Feeler: “Pass the Tissue.”

Resistance from the Feeler is often found in their ability to stall forward movement in a discussion about equity with in-depth exploration or expression of emotions. In some cases, it can be centering their own feelings of (white) guilt and shame. In other cases, it is a request to process all the emotions in the space before moving forward or finding solutions to an issue. The worst-case scenario is when a white person or other systemically privileged identity requests that a BIPOC person or systemically marginalized identity share their feelings about an issue or the topic at hand so that they “can learn from” them.

Defusing Strategies:

  • Make some room or time for feelings, but remind the person, group (or yourself) that exploring feelings is NOT a substitute for action or systemic equity progress.
  • Encourage feelings exploration through journaling or personal time, maybe in close and trusting relationships, reading of books, etc. But not as a form of centering an entire group or progress toward systemic equity around the feelings of one individual. Feelings are personal and the responsibility of the individual to process.


The Status-Seeker: “We’ve Come a Long Way/Back in my Day…”

The resistance from a Status-Seeker often feels like a request to backtrack progress; they tend to use their airtime to explain the way things “have always been done,” the history of the organization, or how much equity work has already been done. The Status-Seeker tends to monopolize small group discussions and can be somewhat critical of – or condescending to – a facilitator from outside of the organization (or a less-experienced colleague). The Status-Seeker wants a lot of public credit for supporting racial equity or social justice, even if their support is marginal.

Defusing Strategies:

  • Publicly give credit if it is merited. Also use their desire for credit, accolades, and status to motivate more equity-oriented professionalism or participation. Ex: “As the department chair of the math department it is important to have you on-board with the plan to eliminate tracking. We are looking forward to you sharing your knowledge about how to effectively teach math in a dynamically skilled classroom.”
  • If you need to push back on this person’s self-perception (i.e. they have been harmful to equity and justice) focus that push back on as specific actions, topics and outcomes as possible and avoid generally or wide-reaching negative character assessments. This will keep them engaged in seeking equity focused solutions as opposed to defending themselves.


The Relater: “What About…”

The resistance from the Relater is all about belonging and community– which can be great, but it can also slow progress if all parties are not in the space (and they rarely are). The Relater tends to think outside of their own sphere of influence and can use their airtime to spin about hypothetical issues or assume perspectives of people/groups who are not in the room. They are also very concerned with consensus; they are not likely to move forward with a decision or solution if not everyone agrees.

Defusing Strategies:

  • Tap into the Relater’s value for belonging to illustrate how inequitable, racist, unjust systems routinely push people to the margins. Lack of access and resources limit opportunities and success—and this is unacceptable.
  • Ask the Relater to imagine and empathize with the painful experience and outcomes of being marginalized. Remind the Relater that any community, group or classroom is only as strong and effective as its ability to equitably systemically and authentically include and validate the most disenfranchised members.
    • Prioritizing feelings of belonging for the already privileged at the expense of true belonging for consistently marginalized is not the way to achieve their goal of community.


The Autonomy-Seeker: “What Choice do we Have, Anyway?”

It is likely that the Autonomy-Seeker will not fully engage in a discussion around equity unless they played a part in bringing it about. If the decision to engage in equity professional development or coaching was made in a top-down way, the Autonomy-Seeker will use airtime to express misgivings about the decision thereby making it challenging to move forward until their concerns have been addressed. The Autonomy-Seeker will also believe that you can not possibly understand their “day to day”, so therefore your feedback and guidance is irrelevant. They are not a robot; life is not predictable and they are not accepting of broad observations or uniform solutions.

Defusing Strategies:

  • Engage the Autonomy-Seeker in the evaluation and planning processes for following sessions. Once they see—and have a voice in—the fact that you are working to tailor your goals, questions, activities, etc. to their experience, they are more likely to engage and bring others along with them.
  • Offer them selection between acceptable choices. This can be done during a large-group session so it is public or during one-on-one coaching (as long as there will be follow-up). For example, “Would you rather use Case Study A or Case Study B? Which one best mirrors your school’s situation?”


The Denier: “Nope.”

It’s challenging to engage in a productive conversation about equity with someone who doesn’t believe inequities exist. The Denier holds fast to personal accountability (“bootstraps”) and a deep belief in the fairness of the existing system (meritocracy). They believe that the status quo is fundamentally fair and may say things like “I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else” or “Racism today is nothing compared to racism of the past.” The resistance from a Denier will often point to perceived flaws in people and cultures they perceive as “other” or will politicize the discussion. Oftentimes the Denier has anecdotes (or hearsay) to “prove” their point.

Defusing Strategies:

  • While personally engaging in a one-for-one anecdote exchange with a Denier is not a good idea, surrounding them with stories, perspectives, and voices of people outside of their current circle is one strategy to try.
    • This may include books, articles, videos, podcasts, even fictional movies and TV shows are a place for the Denier to start. While it isn’t the ultimate goal of equity and anti-racist work, getting the Denier to see personal connections and commonalities between themselves and people who are not like them will help them begin to believe counter-stories.
  • Give this person even less airtime than you would other resistance roles. Be cautious of directly engaging them for extended periods of time; when you find yourself getting drawn into an off-topic or otherwise not forward-moving conversation with the Denier, seek other voices or offer to find resources for them later. Move on with the professional development or coaching session.


The Don’t Know What I Don’t Know: “Wait, really?”

The resistance from this person (or group) feels less like active resistance and more like an inability to really anchor themselves, their experiences, or their thinking within equity and antiracist work. Because they have not arrived at the conclusion that racism is inherent in the education system, the DKWIDK cannot articulate the problem and continues looking for someone else to explain. They demand a lot of hand-holding and feel they cannot take action or understand inequity because they have “never experienced it” themselves. They worry that white people (or other privileged identities) don’t have enough knowledge to engage in productive conversations about–  or solutions to– racism or injustice.  People in this category tend to be easily swayed by any of the other resistance roles.

Defusing Strategies:

  • This type of resistance often benefits from learning—and having opportunities to use—new vocabulary. Ask them to repeat what they have learned, read, or heard from reputable sources (including you—ask them to paraphrase what you just said).
    • Create opportunities for them to practice using their voice in small groups or one-on-one conversations. In many cases, handling resistance means rationing airtime, but for this particular resistance role, they may need more of it—just be sure it is structured.
  •  Empower the DKWIDK to take on small leadership roles. For example, if you are planning to do a role play activity make sure they take on the role of coach or equity influencer. If you are participating in a team-building exercise make sure they have a prominent role. Provide positive reinforcement or praise when you hear them using their voice for equity and anti-racism.


As you encounter these resistance behaviors, another general strategy that will support your work is to engage the allies in the room. Even in a very challenging environment there is likely to be at least one person who is “on board” with equity and anti-racism work. Ask this person to sit at the same table as the loudest resistor. Ask them to follow-up with someone after a particularly difficult coaching conversation. More often than not they are happy to be included. Even if they aren’t interested in directly managing resistance, they can likely offer some insight on handling the resistance from a specific person or can help brainstorm new approaches. Part of good facilitation and coaching—even equity influencing—is building coalitions and relationships with those who will support you along the way.

If none of the defusing strategies (including engaging allies) can adequately address the resistance you receive, it may be necessary to seek support from those with positional authority. If equity professional development or coaching is required as part of someone’s professional practice, it is acceptable to request accountability. Ideally, the person with positional power will also be an ally; if they are not, engage them as part of the team. Let them know that you are trying to support the resistor’s professional growth and ultimately support the organization’s goals. Ask them to reinforce the importance of equity and anti-racism work prior to your next encounter with the resistor.

Finally, as we mentioned in part one of this article, continue to monitor your energy level and care for yourself as needed. As we coach and facilitate we pour so much energy, time, effort, and care into our interactions with others to buoy them in their equity journey. And it is rare that we get outside support in doing so. Lean on friends and colleagues who also engage in equity work; ask them how they are doing and how they take care of themselves. When you’ve had an encounter with a resistor, take time to decompress and recharge. Remember that resistance is a sign that you are challenging power and upsetting privilege. You got this. We got this.


A Few Reflection Questions:
  • Which of the defusing strategies in this article have you tried? With which have you experienced success? Which have not been successful? How did you know?
  • What additional forms of resistance have you encountered? What additional defusing strategies have you tried?
  • How do you see context (large group, one-on-one coaching, peer relationship or positional power) impacting your ability to navigate resistance?
  • Have you ever found yourself playing one of these resistance roles during an equity session in which you were a participant? Have you bumped into resistance within yourself in moments of self-reflection?  Why were you resistant? What did you need to move through your resistance?
  •  How do you decompress and engage in self-care after encountering resistant behaviors?