The Sticky Topic of Stuckness

Stuckness is a word we hear frequently in coaching and mentoring, but what does it mean? Here, Professor David Clutterbuck and Melissa Richardson have identified six kinds of stuckness in mentoring, each with its own context and challenges:

  1. When the mentor suddenly doesn’t know what to do or say next
  2. When the mentor feels trapped by the relationship
  3. When the mentor feels trapped by circumstances (for example, by being confined during Lockdown)
  4. When the mentee is unable to act, because they can’t choose between different ways forward
  5. When the mentee feels trapped, because they cannot see any way forward
  6. When the mentor and mentee find themselves in circular conversations, where no progress happens and they repeatedly go over the same ground.

When the mentor suddenly doesn’t know what to do or say next

As a beginner mentor and coach, David used to dread these moments. He says “Then I realised that I was taking all the responsibility for what came next, when it was a shared responsibility with the mentee. So, I learned to pause and ask the mentee “If this path isn’t taking you where you want to go, let’s go back a way and choose a different route.” We would review the choice points in the conversation and begin again at one, where the conversation felt purposeful.”

“Nowadays, I have learned additionally to be intrigued and excited about these moments of stuckness. The more experienced we become, the more we can predict where the conversation is going to go – and the greater the danger of becoming restricted by our own expertise. So, now I am grateful for an opportunity to learn and develop new insights and additions to my mentoring repertoire. So much so, that I am comfortable in saying to the mentee: “This is a unique situation in my experience. So, let’s reflect on how we can use it to learn together.”

When we have sudden creative insights, they are almost always preceded in our minds by a short period of stuckness. Now I know, whenever I experience stuckness, that I may be on the cusp of a significant insight!”

When the mentor feels trapped by the relationship

This can be an issue for some mentors. Our rational brain tells us that we should withdraw from a mentoring relationship, but our emotional brain tells us that we can’t “let them down”, because they need us. Mostly, this is a trap of our own creation – it’s about our need to feel useful and to have a positive impact on other people’s lives. Three questions for self-reflection help here:

  • What value are the mentoring conversations having for the mentee?
  • To what extent is the mentoring relationship substituting for other kinds of help that the mentee needs to draw upon? (And therefore, limiting the mentee’s ability or willingness to face up to issues?)
  • How dependent is the mentee becoming on the mentoring conversations before making critical decisions?

Supervision (a process by which a mentor develops their own mentoring mastery by talking with a more experienced practitioner or with peers) helps clarify the responsibility the mentor has towards the mentee and their stakeholders and the conditions, under which the assignment might or might not be viable going forward. Understanding the roles that the mentor is playing for the mentee establishes clearer choices: either change those roles or end the relationship. Time and again, when we explore why the mentor has known instinctively what needs to be done but has not acted, it emerges that they are motivated by avoiding the pain of parting – both their pain and the mentee’s pain. In formal mentoring programs, it is important to explain there is a “no fault separation clause” that allows either party to extricate themselves if necessary, without fear of offence to the other.

When the mentor feels trapped by circumstances

An example of this is when a mentor signs up for a formal mentoring program that is not well designed and managed. What looked like a straightforward developmental engagement turns out to involve working with a mentee that has not been well prepared for the relationship and who does not take accountability for their own learning. To withdraw could damage relationships with the mentee and with the mentoring program host organization. Mostly, mentors opt to go ahead, going through the motions with the mentee all the while knowing that the mentee is missing out on a significant learning opportunity.

Again, this is an issue that can be resolved through supervision. Resolution may take the form of having a difficult conversation with the mentee about their apparent lack of understanding about their responsibilities in the relationship, joint exploration about how to work together productively, and a request to the program manager to provide more educational materials to better prepare the mentee to engage with a mentor.

When the mentee is unable to act, because they can’t choose between different ways forward

This is a common and probably the simplest issue to address, because there are so many practical and effective tools to help people clarify and attach values to the elements of difficult choices. Among our favourites are:

  • The change balloon, where every “want” becomes a sandbag on the basket of a hot air balloon. The mentee has to choose the order, in which to release sandbags to keep the balloon afloat.
  • Separate selves, where the mentee adopts one of two opposing parts of their persona (e.g., their mean self, versus their generous self). The mentor explores the issue with each of these selves separately, then the mentee chooses which self’s arguments they are most drawn to.
  • Extremes, where difficult choices are spread out over a spectrum. Both ends of the spectrum are unacceptable. Mentor and mentee explore the pluses and minuses of different positions on the spectrum until one becomes the clear choice.

When the mentee feels trapped, because they cannot see any way forward

This is particularly poignant condition, because the stress it causes can lead to burnout and either (or both) physical or mental illness. For example, fear of losing one’s job, combined with disliking the work and /or the work environment, feel like an impasse that can only be broken by moving to a new employer. When similarly paid jobs are not easily found, even that release may be blocked.

What makes it worse is that the stress makes it more difficult to think creatively to find ways out of the impasse. The temptation for a mentor is to do the creative thinking for the mentee but this often fails to work, because the ideas are a product of the mentor’s imagination, not the mentee’s. More productive approaches shift the mentee’s focus of attention. Instead of concentrating on the view from inside their private prison to outside of it, the mentor takes them to the vantage point of the contribution they want to make to the world, then looks back over the prison walls to the cell they are in. The question then becomes not “How are you going to break out?” but “When you have broken out, what do you want to do with your life and career?” Hope theory has lots of practical guidance on how to manage this discussion. By setting a goal completely outside the confines of the mentee’s current role, they are able to make progress towards it, which helps them find the energy to invest in ameliorating the conditions that make them feel stuck now. (To continue the analogy, they are earning release for good behaviour!)

When the mentor and mentee find themselves in circular conversations, where no progress happens and they repeatedly go over the same ground.

This is another of the top 10 issues that come to us regularly as mentor supervisors and program managers. There are multiple causes, but among the most common are:

  • The mentee is going through the motions but has no intention of fully engaging with the mentoring process. They enjoy the emotional massage, but have no intention of undertaking radical personal change.
  • The mentoring conversations are dealing with superficial issues, because the mentee is unwilling or unable to engage with deeper issues that are too painful to address.
  • The mentee has selected to work on a goal that is not theirs (it may be their manager’s) or is not important enough to them.

When David encounters the first of these two situations, he asks the mentee: “What is the big challenge, which will stretch you intellectually and emotionally, force you to develop new skills and question much of what you think you know now?” If they simply talk about getting to higher levels of position, he explores with them the scale of the changes in their cognition, behaviour and people skills. If he gets a lot of waffle, he may respond with “Is that it? With all the talent and potential that you have, that’s all you can come up with?”. If the mentee is willing neither to challenge themselves or be challenged by the mentor, he decides they are not ready for mentoring – at least by him.

For a new mentor it may feel hard to take such a challenging stance. Melissa suggests another approach. Share observations with the mentee about their apparent lack of momentum and then say: “I can hear that you think you want to change, but it feels like you may not be committed enough to really engage in what it would take. Let’s explore what might be holding you back. What are the costs/benefits of making a change and the costs/benefits of not making a change? What other (unspoken) goals or needs might conflict with this goal, that could unconsciously be driving your behaviour/ procrastination?”

In the case, where the mentee is avoiding painful issues, one pragmatic approach is to say something along the lines of: “I feel a bit like a frustrated dentist. I’m feeling a sense of pain in you, when we talk about [whatever the issue is]. But I can’t help you unless you show me where the pain is. What can we do together to make it safer to explore what you are afraid of?” Other useful questions include:

  • “What is it that you can’t bring yourself to say to yourself?”
  • “How could you say those things to me instead?”

Bear in mind, in any of these cases, that there may be underlying psychological issues that require a different solution than mentoring. Many psychological problems in the workplace go unaddressed, because there is no mechanism to bring them to the surface. However, one of the ways, in which we add value as a mentee, is to create the conversations, where these needs can be articulated and a referral made.


As mentors, we need to be able to recognise the different kinds of stuckness and have to hand a toolkit shaped to work with each of them. Whenever we encounter stuckness, in ourselves or our mentees, it is helpful to review:

  • What’s different about this stuckness compared with others I have encountered?
  • What’s the learning opportunity here, for me and for the mentee?

© David Clutterbuck & Melissa Richardson, 2021


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