Rick Maurer, author of Beyond the Wall of Resistance and other books on leadership and change, developed the Energy Bar™ as a free tool to help people in organizations get their ideas across in ways that get people committed and engaged. RickRick has advised leaders from many countries on ways to apply this new tool successfully.


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Tips for working with the three levels of support and resistance


The purpose of this paper is to help you think about ways to build support for your ideas at work.

The foundation for these comes from the three levels of support and resistance that I first started writing about in Beyond the Wall of Resistance (1996). I have been learning and clarifying my thinking regarding these levels ever since.

People usually support us or resist us for three possible reasons. If it is resistance, then:

  • They don’t get it (Level 1) and/or
  • They don’t like it (Level 2) and/or
  • They don’t like you or who you represent (Level 3)

If they’re supporting you, they understand what you’re talking about (Level 1), they’re having a favorable reaction to it (Level 2), and they have sufficient trust and confidence in you (Level 3).

These three levels are always alive when you are trying to create something that involves other people. Either that energy is working in your favor, or it’s working against you.

Begin with what you know

Before I make some suggestions, I urge you to think about what’s worked for you in the past. And, of course, consider the things that you’ve learned to avoid. Please don’t skip this section. It is far easier to build on things that we already understand or do pretty well than it is to try out new things.

Here’s an activity. Think about a time when you were successful getting the support you needed from others at work. What did you do?

  • Was there something different about the way that you explained this idea? One of my clients told me that he got his typically long PowerPoint presentation down to just five slides. He said he gave people much more space to talk with him about the idea.
  • What allowed people to get excited or engaged with your idea? Perhaps the timing was just right. Perhaps you gave them such a vivid example that the scales were lifted from their eyes. Perhaps you gave them a chance to see or figure it out for themselves.
  • Why were they willing to trust you this time? Perhaps you had to earn their trust over the past couple of years, so they tended to take you at your word. Perhaps you brought somebody in—a person they all trusted—to assure them that this was going to be a success.

Think about another situation where you were successful, and apply those same three questions. What you’re doing is building a repertoire of things that have worked for you in this organization. (I ask you to think of more than one situation so that you can identify the repertoire that you already use successfully.)

Don’t depress yourself with the next activity, but take a few minutes to recall past situations that didn’t go well. Focus on these experiences in order to avoid them in the future. As Peter Cook, the great comedian, said in a routine, “I’ve learned from my mistakes; I could repeat them exactly.”

Ideas for building support

Almost every good approach to building support for our ideas includes attention to Level 1 (information), Level 2 (emotional reaction), and Level 3 (trust and confidence).

Some strategies may primarily be just one level. For instance, you made a great presentation. People threw flowers and sent you money. You could analyze what you did in preparing the presentation, and what you said and did during that session. That is primarily the stuff of Level 1. But they got energized and enthusiastic. That’s Level 2. You might take a look at what caused that. And then you could look at your relationship with them. You must have connected with them in some deeper way. That’s Level 3. It’s fine to think “I have a Level 2 challenge.” Just remember that the other levels are still present and can be used to build support if you pay attention to them.

Level 1 – Getting people to understand what you are talking about

  • Keep presentations as short as possible. The Roman orator Cato the Censor once said, “Stick to the point, and the words will take care of themselves.” In organizations, there is a tendency to overload presentations with far too much mind-numbing detail and too many digressions.
  • If you’re sending emails or recording short podcasts, the same advice applies, with one addition: People tend to read only the first item in an email. So, if your email message has three points, and the third point says “Get ready—the world is ending tomorrow”, most people miss it.
  • Leave lots of space for give-and-take. Question and answer sessions can be helpful, or they can be deadly. If you are someone who gives a five- to ten-minute response to every question, you are inhibiting the ability for people to talk with you about what’s going on. One tip: give a succinct answer, and then ask, “Did I answer your question?”
  • Find opportunities for people to engage with what you’re telling them. It’s one thing to look at the numbers on a quarterly report; it’s quite another to be asked what we think about their implications.
  • Open-book management gives people information that helps them make good decisions all the time. As successful as open-book management seems to be, it still appears to be used infrequently. I believe that it is a secret sauce that too many individual leaders and too many organizations overlook. John Case has written extensively about how organizations have successfully opened their books.

Level 2 – Getting people to connect emotionally with your idea

I know that the word emotion doesn’t come up much in organizations, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not alive all the time. People, us included, make decisions based on emotions. Data, such as numbers and trends, provide the fuel, but emotions ignite the fires that get us to want to act.

  • Holding meetings that matter

Too many planning meetings are long on presentation and short on actual planning. Here are some tips that are important to consider when holding a planning meeting.

Use The Energy Bar™ to guide you. What’s the energy you need? What’s their energy today? What will you do to try to earn their support? How will you know if you were successful? For a reminder of what The Energy Bar™ is, please watch this three-minute video

Some ideas for holding an effective planning meeting:

  • Invite representatives from all groups that have a stake in the outcome of this change. When possible, invite everyone. If that’s not possible, make sure all groups and interests are represented.
  • Consider using a planning group made up of many diverse interests to help you plan the meeting.
  • Pre-assign seats so that each table of eight to ten people is a maximum mixture of the whole. Every table should be a microcosm of the entire organization. Each table should include various departments, interests, and levels of the organization.
  • Allow time for conversation. Don’t try to speed things up.
  • Emphasize conversation, not presentation. Except for an introductory presentation that sets the stage (and even that might not be necessary), don’t make speeches.
  • Before getting reactions to a presentation, make sure people are clear about what has just been presented. Ask for questions of clarification before you get people’s reactions. If you miss this step, people will be responding from their assumptions about what they think they heard, rather than responding to the actual idea.
  • Invite resistance. Here’s a simple and effective tool borrowed from the work of the late Kathie Dannemiller, Robert Jacobs and colleagues. After a proposal is made, each table is asked to respond to three questions: What makes you glad (about this proposal)? What makes you mad? What would you add (or change)? And then use that information to revise your plans.
  • Tell people how you will use this information. And then keep your promises. If you say you’ll get back to them within three days, don’t miss that deadline. The old G.E. Workout allowed managers to say, “I’ll get back to you” only if they added “within 48 hours”.
  • Stay awake. Meeting agendas are merely roadmaps. Actual driving conditions will vary. If it seems clear that people are resistant to something, take time to explore what’s in their hearts and on their minds. I have seen good meetings disintegrate simply because the leaders felt compelled to get through the agenda in spite of what was occurring in front of them.
  • Be honest. If some items are not negotiable, tell people, and tell them why. Don’t pretend that everything is open for discussion if that’s not the case. You may take some heat for this, but it will be far better than implicitly lying to folks.
  • Create a feedback loop so that you know if the meeting shifted energy in the way that you had hoped. It often helps to keep it simple so that you get immediate feedback. See examples under next bullet point.
  • Monitor reactions along The Energy Bar™. Here are some ways to do that:
    • Hang out. Get to meetings early and stay late. I was recently in a meeting with a couple of managers and some union reps. The reps asked good questions and had good things to say during the meeting. But, after the meeting, over snacks, the conversation got a lot more candid and helpful for the managers who had been running the meeting.
    • Go on “listening tours”. Your purpose is to go out and learn. Avoid the temptation to defend your ideas.
    • Coffee with Joe (and Joe can be either gender). This is the person who will tell it like it is. These men and women can be invaluable.
    • Brief surveys can help. In The Magic List I describe a four-question survey that I adapt when I am working with clients. Feel free to use it. More
  • Field trips. Allow people to see for themselves and talk to their peers in other organizations.

Level 3 – Get people to develop trust and confidence in you (and in who you represent)

Trust is difficult to build and easy to destroy.

Quite often the issue of trust is the biggest stumbling block. On the other hand, when trust is high, people tend to give you the benefit of the doubt. This doesn’t mean that they become pushovers, only that they’re likely to listen more openly and to give your ideas a chance. When people trust you enough to keep listening without looking for the catch that will prove you are lying, you are doing something right.

I am still amazed at how infrequently trust is talked about with any seriousness when leaders discuss organizational change of any type.

Build trust before you need it. The same is true if you need to rebuild trust. And the same is true if you inherited a situation where trust is low.

  • I mentioned open-book management under Level 1. Revealing the numbers and the information that drives the business is a demonstration that you trust the people you’re working with. I highly recommend of the books John Case wrote about open-book management. I also love The Great Game of Business by Jack Stack.

Here are other actions that can help to build trust.

  • Make the first move

Extend an olive branch. People often wait for others to make the first move, and pride often gets in the way. Vera was estranged from her son. They hadn’t spoken in years. When she turned sixty, she called him and suggested meeting for coffee. They met. One brief visit turned into another and another. Over time, they found that, whatever the past problems had been, they could be put behind them. Today, their relationship is pretty strong. And Vera gets to be a doting grandmother.

It is the small first steps that get things started.

  • ind common concerns

A senior union official would meet with corporate leaders to look at common concerns. These meetings had nothing to do with any ongoing negotiations. They were simply an opportunity to discuss issues of interest to both parties. Those meetings were significantly different from traditional, antagonistic relationships between management and labor. His gesture was only a small step, and that’s its beauty.

  • Keep commitments

People liked Brad, but they didn’t respect him. He didn’t seem to be serious about his job. They couldn’t trust him. He made a significant change in his behavior. He began to keep his word. If he made a promise to do something, he did it. And he was careful to make only promises he knew he could keep. Over the course of about six months, people’s perception of him changed. They started asking him to take part in key assignments. Brad never saw himself as unreliable, but he realized that others viewed him that way—and those perceptions were all that mattered if he wanted to increase his influence.

Similarly, acting consistently in ways that appear worthy of trust makes a difference.

  • Mea culpa

Sincerely accepting responsibility for our actions can be a powerful force. Our own fears about losing face or power or control often get in the way of even seeing that we are part of the problem. By taking responsibility, we are creating a shift in the relationship. Even if the other person does nothing different in that moment, our mea culpa has shaken up the status quo.

  • Forgive them

After the fall of apartheid, few would have argued against blacks seeking justice and retribution. But leaders took a different approach; they established the South African Truth Commission. People would be forgiven if they came forward. What’s most important about this story is that the black leaders themselves were willing to lead the way by demonstrating that they could forgive their former enemies.

  • Turn your cards face up

In addition to open-book management, personally turning your cards face up can be very helpful. Playing cards close to your vest is good advice at a poker table, but it can cost you when you want people to work closely with you.

  • Find opportunities to listen

When Peter Johnson took over as head of Bonneville Electric Power, environmental groups hated BEP. One of the first things he did was convene meetings with environmental leaders just so he could listen. He said, “People weren’t sure I understood their point of view and, more often than not, I probably didn’t.” He explained that this opened the door to a two-way educational process. He sought ways to come up with win-win solutions. People saw that he was sincere, so when he had to hold firm to a decision, they accepted it.

There is no easy way to build trust, and it is even harder to rebuild it. But if you need people’s support, you have no choice. At times you may feel you are taking one step forward and two steps back. Progress can be slow, and the least little thing can set it back. It takes very little provocation to undo agreements. Keeping your eyes on the prize will be critical. Even when things seem terrible, it is important to keep your goal of building trust in mind. Just remember, you did answer yes when you said that you were willing to be influenced by the people you want to influence. Now would be a good time to focus on that.

I wish you well.

© 2015 Rick Maurer www.energybartools.com