The concept of Significant Unresolved Issues arose from David Clutterbuck’s unpublished research in the 1990s on what issues mentees brought to their mentors for discussion. Participants in workshops were asked to write down and reflect upon all the issues, about which they felt a level of anxiety that they had not resolved them, or found time to think through. Comparing these lists with how people felt about their levels of stress and ability to focus on their work, a very rough and ready guide emerged that most people in professional and managerial roles, who were mature, stable in personality, and mentally healthy, could cope with between 25 and 35 SUI’s before they noticed a severe impact on their ability to cope.

Of course, this crude indicator couldn’t take into account the intensity of the SUIs – just one major issue (for example, a life-threatening health matter) could have the same effect. What’s more, people vary considerably in terms of their personal resilience. So over the years, the approach has been refined so that the person listing their SUIs assigns them an anxiety score of 1-10, with 1 indicating “I am not worried about this at all” and 10 indicating “I am in total panic about this”. Multiplying the score for each item by itself and adding these secondary scores together gives an overall score. So 5 SUIs at an anxiety strength of 6, would give a score of 5 X 36 = 180. A score of 10 on one issue would equal 100 SUI points.

For a coachee or mentee under stress, it is helpful to help them work through this analysis until they have an understanding of the scope and pattern things they need to think through. If they have an issues with an initial score of 10 (so 100 SUI points), it is normally necessary to help them reduce their anxiety level about this first, by establishing some control of the situation, before they can attend to lesser issues.

As a tool of self-management, reviewing SUIs in this way helps people decide what they want to focus attention on first. Many people use the tactic of “rewarding” themselves for dealing with a relatively high-point issue (say 36 or above) by allocating the next hour or so to working through a batch of lower scoring items – this can be very satisfying! The process also helps them to work out when to seek help – “When I see my total points going over 150, I know I’m in trouble…”  — and to become aware of repeating patterns of SUIs.

In general, the greater the level of anxiety someone feels about not having dealt with an issue, the more important it is to have a reflective conversation about it, both with themselves and with someone else, who can help them with the quality of their thinking about it. We therefore now recommend that coachees and mentees include some time for this in their preparations for coaching and mentoring sessions.

We have only anecdotal evidence for the impact this has on building a person’s resilience, but it appears that regularly reviewing SUIs leads people to develop better tactics for self-management, become more skilled at knowing when to say “No”, and to re-establish more rapidly a sense of being in control when anxiety-producing issues mount up. With practice, people learn recalibrate their own thresholds, such as when it is important to take time out and step away from single problems and examine their SUIs from a wider perspective.

© David Clutterbuck, 2017

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