Meeting Resistance with Compassion
A tool I find myself teaching almost every parent I work with is to LAV on their children. LAV stands for Listen-Acknowledge-Validate. So often with the people we love most, we skip these three key steps and charge head first into fixing and finding a solution. I too am guilty of this both as a therapist and as a human. By skipping these three steps we often set ourselves up for what feels like resistance from the other person. But can you blame them? Two of our most basic human needs include feeling connected and understood. I personally do not feel either when someone swoops in and tells me how to fix my problem, how to be better. In fact in that moment I feel like the underlying message is “you are broken, you’re not good enough.” I may eventually want to brainstorm and figure out a solution but first I really just want to be heard, seen, listened to.
“It is not because I cannot explain that you won’t understand, it is because you won’t understand that I can’t explain.” ~Anonymous
Take a moment to think of a time where you struggled to LAV with someone you really love in your life. What was going on for you in this moment? As I examine the times in my life both as a therapist and a human that I have failed at using LAV, it is typically for three reasons; love, fear, impatience. I often love the person so much I don’t want to see them suffer and want to take away their pain and fix their problem. I am really afraid of what they are telling me, don’t agree with what they are saying, and want to make sure they hear that loud and clear. I become impatient and frustrated. I don’t want to be in the process and am caught up in my own agenda.
This alone is a very different way of approaching resistance. It is much easier to say, “my client isn’t open to change”, “my son is unwilling”, “my daughter is stubborn.” It truly flips the script to focus on ourselves, at how we showed up in the conversation, what might have come up for us, and what is inside our control to do differently.
In Listening, Acknowledging, and Validating we are not Agreeing or Condoning. We are simply listening to another person’s story and trying to understand and have compassion for their experience. In Motivational Interviewing, a therapeutic technique founded by William Miller, four basic skills are discussed. These skills include expressing empathy, developing discrepancy, rolling with resistance which recently changed to "dance with discord” which speaks to not placing the fault in the client and looking at the relational aspect, and lastly supporting clients’ self-efficacy (Miller & Rollnick, 2012).
Expressing empathy helps clients feel understood while reducing resistance and allowing for useful exploration of their internal process. This is at the core of LAV. Developing discrepancy involves helping clients see “the gap between their values and their current problematic behaviors” (Lundahl et al., 2010, p. 137). The key to this is taking a non-judgmental person-centered approach. Rolling with resistance encourages the therapist/parent/spouse/friend to expect reluctance and to avoid engaging in a power struggle that would incite further defensiveness (Miller & Rollnick, 2012). Supporting clients self-efficacy is a vital component as a client’s confidence in their ability to change is vital to successful change efforts (Bandura, 1977). This goes back to not fixing the problem for them but holding a safe space for the client to create their own solutions.
I think of a recent personal example in which a dear friend came to me and expressed a desire to quit her job and start working in a completely new profession. My first reaction was to make the judgment that she was being highly impulsive. I knew how hard she had worked to be where she was and that she was on the brink of an important promotion. I also knew that the new job choice was much lower paying and unsteady. Instead of saying all of that to her, I bit my tongue and allowed her the space to share why she was feeling so burnt out. I stepped back and listened, acknowledged, and validated her story and experience. It wasn’t easy.
I felt the fear bubbling up inside of me, the fear that she might make an “impulsive” decision that she would regret. I also felt an “obligation” to share words of wisdom and talk her out of making a potentially “wrong” decision. Again, I chose not to do this and I really listened to her process. As I did, I was able to better understand why she was struggling and how desperate she felt.
Also, because she felt heard and validated she was able to challenge herself and began to share some of the concerns that I had chosen to hold back. I recognized that if I had come with a solution she would have fought me on it and become more entrenched in her position. Instead, because I aligned with her and treated her like the expert on her own life, she rose to the occasion. Through the discussion, the final outcome became less important and we focused more on the process and her ability to weigh all the options outside of the two she was originally focused on; stay and be miserable or leave and be happier. Instead of feeling stuck between two intense options she was able to see a range of possibilities, and because I managed my own reactivity I felt more connected to her.