Skip to Navigation

None of us is comfortable with uncertainty, and we all differ in how we respond when faced with information that is insufficient or conflicting (ambiguous situations). One of the great gifts bequeathed to us by our evolutionary development is the ability to predict – to make assumptions based upon past experience – which allows us to prepare for what will happen in a variety of situations. For example, June is usually warmer than February (where I live), so people plan to get married/go on holiday/plant beans and pumpkins in June.

The trouble begins when we start to believe our assumptions to be reliable predictions.  We don’t believe that the weather forecast is an accurate statement about what will come to pass, and no more should we trust our assumptions. But we do!

When we begin to act, or prepare to act, before the event because we assume something will happen in a certain way, we tend to see what we are expecting to see, and thus we filter out information that does not fit with our ‘prediction’. In so doing we may perpetuate unpleasant experiences and preclude opportunities for learning something new.

A simple example of this is my friend Dave, who has a reputation as the office bore (you can substitute any type of behaviour here). When people see Dave coming they either take a detour or, if they have to talk to him, switch off and go into a routine of courteous but meaningless responses while waiting for an opportunity to escape. The result in both cases is the same; they don’t get to hear whether Dave has anything interesting to say, and they are proved right in their assumptions. For Dave’s part, he has his social ineptitude confirmed and is given no opportunity to learn his way out of it by practicing meaningful social interaction.

We make assumptions to save time and to reduce uncertainty, in this they are useful. But we need to distinguish where there is uncertainty that implies real risk, and the sort that just makes us feel uncomfortable. Avoiding risk is sensible, (and probably why we have evolved the ability to make assumptions in the first place). When our preconceived ideas start to limit either our ability to see clearly or our openness to new experiences, however, they can cause problems. So much of life is uncertain that it is unavoidable that we will feel uncomfortable for much of it, so it is more useful to be able embrace the uncertainty and get used to the discomfort.

There are situations where it is vitally important to reduce uncertainty and where a low tolerance for ambiguity is an advantage, think of the role of surgeon, or airline pilot for example. But more generally we face daily ambiguities in our lives where procedures and outcome cannot be controlled or predicted as they can with a surgical procedure or controlling an aircraft. Human relationships and how people behave are obvious examples.

“Life”, it has been said, “is ambiguous”. So how does someone who has a low tolerance for ambiguity deal with life? Flexibilty: as long as they can apply different levels of tolerance to different situations there is no problem. Someone who needs a high degree of precision and to reduce certainty in their work can also adopt a more appropriate level of tolerance when waiting for a bus or managing their children, for example.

We are all different in our innate abilities to tolerate ambiguity and therefore to the degree that we are comfortable with life’s uncertainties. A higher level of tolerance for the things we cannot control and the uncertainty we experience is linked to creativity, lifestyle, management skills and resilience. Lower levels of tolerance for uncertainty can make us risk averse, overly worried, and tend to draw conclusions prematurely because we don’t allow ourselves the time to ‘wait and see’, gather evidence or reach a balanced conclusion.

Two conclusions

This post has two possible endings. If you have a low tolerance for ambiguity you will want to have a clear answer (preferably the ‘right’ one). If you have a high tolerance and are comfortable with uncertainty then you probably won’t be looking for an answer at all, but I’ve added one below anyway.

1) Working intuitively from your assumptions is a great skill, but beware of being too reliant on it because as we have seen it can lead to inflexibility and control-freakery. It also stifles creativity and it can be really tiring trying to reduce uncertainty all the time. The answer is to learn to lighten up and remember that, as Heraclitus said, “If you do not expect the unexpected you will not find it.” If you want to know more about how to do this, see either of the titles I’ve listed below.

2) If you’ve read this far and recognised that you are able to allow yourself and others some latitude when faced with uncertainty, then I’d say “go with the flow”, but there is a cautionary note: Some people might mis-read your higher tolerance for uncertainty as ‘laissez-faire’ and think that you just don’t care about things. You might want to challenge that assumption.

See also

Von Oech, R., (2001), Expect the Unexpected (Or You Won’t Find It), The Free Press, New York.

Marinoff, L., (2000), Plato Not Prozac, HarperCollins, New York

Related articles


Latest from the blog

Stop trying and start doing

Do you ever catch yourself prefacing your good intentions with “I’ll try…”?

We all have lists of things we haven’t got round to doing anything about yet. It doesn’t matter how important these are or how serious you are, if you are not making anything happen they mean nothing.

If you are really serious about making things happen for yourself this post tells you one really vital thing you must do.

Continue reading

Walking on eggshells, how to discuss sensitive issues

Difficult conversations

Most of us are careful about how we tackle sensitive issues with colleagues and family members. This article provides some pointers on how to go about raising a subject you have been avoiding, to help tackle delicate matters in a productive, fair and balanced way, and to be sure of getting the results you need. Getting the other person’s attention, striking the right note and ensuring that something changes is the challenge.

Continue reading

More Is Not Necessarily Better

Is choice good for us?
When I was a kid crisps (chips if you are outside the UK), came in one variety, ready-salted. Now we have thirty-six varieties and counting.

Having many options is not necessarily better for us, in fact it can distract and limit us. Some say that limiting choice could actually make our lives better.

Continue reading
FREE DOWNLOAD - Get it now.

How to be more Resilient

Get my super-helpful guide '9 Steps to Resilience' absolutely FREE, when you subscribe to my newsletter.

Understand the steps to resilience and you can develop the ability to cope with problems and setbacks with less stress and more confidence.
%d bloggers like this: