Near the top of the list of FAQ’s I get asked as a counselor is, “How do you help someone who needs to change, but is not open to change?” This is truly one of the great questions of counseling. On the list of possible answers is:
- You don’t. Invest your energy in people who do want to change. Life is too short to waste time.
- You can only pray because softening a hard heart is the work of the Holy Spirit.
- You speak the truth more forcefully (yet in love) because it’s what they need to hear. Nothing else will help.
- You wait. Jesus was patient with your resistance, so you show Christ-like patience with them.
- You practice church discipline because true Christians are open to needed change.
- You shift from focusing on the life struggle to the gospel, because they must not be a Christian.
Reading this list, two things strike me: (a) each of these seems like a reasonable, even biblical, response at times, and (b) each of these seems to contradict one another. I think we resolve the tension between A and B, by realizing each of these, when appropriate, are talking about different stages in the change process.
So if I can narrow our question a bit, this article is attempting to answer, “What is an effective strategy for early or initial conversations with someone who needs to change but is resistant to change?”
As you consider this question, it may be helpful to think about the type of struggle that is in view. Examples would be:
- someone who struggles with addiction but doesn’t want to stop drinking,
- someone who expresses violent anger but says “everyone gets upset from time to time,” or
- someone who is becoming dangerously thin but won’t acknowledge an eating disorder.
Early in my counseling experience, I found working with individuals in these situations very difficult. I didn’t know how to effectively engage with someone who didn’t want help, or worse, was offended at the notion that help was needed. What was my role? What was my initial goal? What strategy gave the best opportunity for success? These kinds of cases are still difficult, but I believe there is a preferred approach to each of these questions.
- Role: To serve as a mirror to help the individual see their situation and self more accurately.
- Goal: To raise their level of motivation and commitment to change as a means of navigating ambivalence.
- Ambivalence is the feeling of two contradictory emotions about the same thing. In this case, feeling upset that life isn’t going well and wanting key behaviors causing the disruption to remain the same. This 30 second clip for the movie, The Secret Life of Pets, is a humorous example of ambivalence towards dieting.
- Strategy: Roll with resistance (the topic of this blog post)
This strategy, “Rolling with Resistance,” is one method developed by the Motivational Interviewing approach to working with addicts. The premise is that if you are working with a counselee (or have a friend) who lacks the motivation to change, then the initial goal (i.e., the first step towards the ultimate goal) should be on raising the level of motivation rather than fixing the problem. Going directly after the problem with someone who doesn’t want to change only creates more resistance.Going directly after the problem with someone who doesn’t want to change only creates more resistance. Click To Tweet
At one level, that is profoundly simple and common sense. Honestly, that is what I appreciate about the approach. Reading the material you think “that makes sense” and “I could do that.” What is profound is that it shifts the focus. Our instincts cause us to want to argue a loved one out of drinking, being abusive, or starving themselves. Here is the basic progression:
- We see our friend / loved one / counselee hurting or hurting others.
- This pains us. We want better for them.
- We start to want change for them more than they want it for themselves.
- We try to control or coerce what we can’t control in an attempt to create relief from the pain we feel.
- Our friend begins to resist us forcing change on them that they don’t want.
Rolling with resistance is an approach that disrupts this cycle between Point #3 and Point #4. It throws up a warning flag when the dynamic in Point #3 emerges and calls for a different strategy at Point #4.
For clarity, rolling with resistance doesn’t guarantee change. It is just a more effective way to engage with resistance that acknowledges the limits of the helper (i.e., counselor, pastor, friend, etc.) in an interaction with someone who doesn’t want to change. This means when you are talking with a friend, you may still need to:
- Conduct an intervention for an addiction or eating disorder because the well-being of the individual is in danger.
- Appeal to law enforcement or call CPS for abuse because the well-being of others is in danger.
Safety is always the first concern in any helping interaction. The most helpful strategies of engagement do not remove the responsibility or possibility that these steps will be needed. Rolling with resistance helps ensure that your approach to helping doesn’t become an unnecessary or unhelpful distraction from the help you are trying to offer.
If you want to learn more about rolling with resistance as an approach to engaging effectively with someone who is resistant to change, here is a 4 page PDF describing rolling with resistance.
As I have sought to reconcile this approach with a biblical or pastoral counseling approach, which are appropriately more directive in nature, here are a few things that have been helpful:
- Rolling with resistance is a pre-directive strategy. Rolling with resistance is a strategy used prior to teaching, giving advice, or confrontation in order to give the person every opportunity to be receptive to a directive approach.
- Rolling with resistance is designed to navigate ambivalence. It is a strategy to get around an obstacle to change. Other approaches are needed after resolving ambivalence.
- Rolling with resistance helps the messenger not become a distraction from the message. Premature confrontation focuses the tension about change on the helper instead of the life struggle.
- Rolling with resistance doesn’t mean being “soft” or endorsing immoral values. It does entail drawing out the contradictions in how the person is thinking and living from their split emotions (ambivalence). In that sense, it is helping the counselee argue with their emotions (i.e., “I want things to be better” and “I want things to be the same”) instead of with you.
In ministry, we frequently find ourselves in conversations with people who need to change, are experiencing the life consequences that call for change, but are resistant to change. I hope this article helps you navigate the early stages of these interactions more skillfully so that a larger number of them arrive at the ultimate goal we have for these conversations: repentance and reliance on Christ.
If this post was beneficial for you, then consider reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Counseling Theory” post which address other facets of this subject.