If you have ever played chess, checkers or dominos, you have experienced a stalemate — when neither player can successfully move any of the pieces and neither player can win. Aggravating!

Imagine two large trucks trying to pass on a narrow road. Standstill!

Watch the news and you will hear numerous examples of two politicians unable to reach agreement on a policy. Deadlock!


Another word for all of these is Impasse, which in business is essentially resistance to any workable solution — a clenched state of mind that can stifle creativity and any kind of breakthrough.

Because nothing can move forward, an impasse can be costly. Representing a failure of the ability to reach a settlement, it usually provokes anger.

There are many reasons for a stalemate, which can be caused by constraints of time, authority, scarce resources, personality styles and clashes of values as well as external factors such as politics, economics or health conflicts.

Often, impasse is a result of unmet interests (why someone wants what they want) or emotional barriers to resolution. It may simply mean that someone is not yet convinced, or there’s not enough information. Maybe it’s refusal, a threat, a dare or a bluff. Whatever the cause, it stops things dead in their tracks! The price can be high, so I offer a few tips to either prevent or break through an impasse.

Perspective taking is key

  • See the situation from all sides; go to “the balcony.”
  • Stand in the other person’s shoes.
  • What’s next? Why is that important — to you and to the other person?
  • What’s the primary outcome you desire? Define the qualities of an acceptable outcome.
  • Parties need a legitimate reason to move or change their position (what each person wants).

Tools for breaking impasse

  • Take a break; stop thinking about the problem.
  • Slow down the process; don’t press for an answer.
  • Welcome creative and unconventional ideas.

Showers and early morning mind wanderings are good.

  • Set the issue aside temporarily.
  • See the forest and the trees.
  • Focus on the future, perhaps a year from now.
  • Describe your fears of breaking the impasse, or of staying deadlocked.

There may be a legitimate reason for the impasse. But, it’s not necessarily a block to problem solving. Think of it as an opportunity for a creative solution to a vexing problem. Lean into the process and be receptive to new and unusual ideas.