When I’m mediating, coaching, or training, there are moments I want to illustrate why resistance builds up. There are moments I want to help someone understand in a quick and visceral way that pushing their agenda relentlessly is contributing to getting things good and stuck.
In those moments, I often turn to one of my favorite conflict resolution activities, the Fist Press. It’s a 60-second exercise with an enduring message. I first saw a version years ago in a Tom Crum video and it never fails to make the point.
Fist press instructions
Try it right now and you’ll see its power. Turn to your spouse or teenager or colleague across the hall. Then…
- Make a fist and hold it out in front of you, like you’re going to do a fist bump.
- Ask them to make a fist the same way.
- But instead of doing a fist bump, hold your fist out, with your elbow bent, and ask them to put their fist against yours (the wording is important here — “put” is intentionally chosen). Don’t give them anymore instruction than that.
- As their fist touches yours, put some resistance against their fist — not a lot, just enough to make it obvious you’re pressing. They’ll press back equivalently.
- Once they’re pressing back, ask, “Why are you pressing against my fist?” (Remember, you didn’t instruct them to press, you only instructed them to put their fist against yours.) The answer is always a version of, “Because you’re pressing.”
- Now slightly increase the pressure against their fist. They’ll increase theirs, too, usually without thinking about it. Ask, “Why did you increase the pressure against my fist?” The response I always receive is, “Because you did.”
- Now slightly decrease the pressure against their fist. They’ll usually match the decrease. Ask, “Why did you just decrease the pressure against my fist?” The response I always receive is, “Because you did.”
I’ve done this exercise literally hundreds of times. I have not yet had a single person who did not automatically increase or decrease the pressure against my fist the equivalent amount I increased or decreased my pressure. One hundred percent matched the force I put out. One hundred percent!
I don’t like someone to feel duped or stupid, so I always make a point of highlighting that every single person does the same thing they did. I tell them that it’s like we’re wired to deliver exactly the amount of force we feel like we’re receiving and that’s why, in conflict, things can get so stuck. We push, they push back. They push, we push back. And since so much of the pushing happens subconsciously, resistance builds stealthily until we grind to a frustrated halt.
(If you’re into the theory, both escalating conflict spirals and reciprocity theory offer us insight into this behavior.)
How I use it
In mediation: I’ll use this in a private meeting (aka caucus) when I want to help a participant understand the impact their own pressure or pushing is having on the other participant(s). I’ll use the exercise as a way into a strategic exploration about how to stop pushing so hard and choose another way through the conversation with my help.
In coaching: I like this exercise when I’m working with a client who’s hired me to help them become less reactive in tough negotiations and/or conflict situations. Since I’m usually coaching by phone or skype, I’ll walk them through the steps and have them do the exercise a few times with people around them after our call. Then we’ll talk about it in our next conversation and use the learning to consider alternative habits that can yield different results for them.
In conflict resolution training: Audiences always tell me this is a highly memorable exercise. And I make a very special point of deeply thanking the person in the front row whom I randomly chose to do the exercise with me (or the volunteer who came up to the front of the room).