How Well Do You Deal With Ambiguity?

Uncertainty will make you uncomfortable, but don’t let it defeat you.

Posted Oct 21, 2020

Certainties in life are scarce, almost non-existent. Reality can be stingy with definitive knowledge about the world. So if, for fear of taking a risk with something that challenges our comprehension, we feel compelled to avoid it, the likelihood is that we’ll end up forfeiting opportunities to accomplish what’s vital to us.

Ask yourself: “How many times have I shied away from tackling a project because I couldn’t be sure about the result of my efforts?” And, of course, “How would I feel about myself if my efforts weren’t successful?” If you’re like too many of us, that doubt would be sufficient for you to back off—to give up before even starting.

It’s also likely that in making your decision you wouldn’t compare the penalty of prematurely bagging your labors to the costs of trying and failing. And that’s ironic not only because failing lacks any inherent link to seeing yourself as a failure, but also because failure is often the first step toward later success. Here patience and persistence are key, two virtues that far outweigh surrendering to your anxieties and thereby not taking the chances that could lead to substantially rewarding breakthroughs.

Deciding to pursue what’s presently indeterminable takes guts. You need to arrive at a point where an unconditional acceptance of self—or non-narcissistic, healthy, unassailable self-love—isn’t threatened by failure. It’s in the courage to allow yourself to be vulnerable that, paradoxically, makes you less vulnerable. For that’s how you come to terms with your (frankly) inescapable vulnerability. And this willingness to risk failing can guide you toward the self-affirmation that’s eluded you. It’s the optimistic attitude of “can do”—as opposed to “can’t do”—that over time should serve you well, as long as your aspirations don’t reflect magical thinking or imaginary pipe dreams.

In “Managing Polarities,” L. Ferguson (2010) states that “if you are feeling stuck in some course of action ... the polarities of two opposing desires, goals, values or commitments [pull] at you simultaneously. Knowing when to shift from one side of the polarity to another takes discernment, experience, and sometimes just plain trial and error,” concluding that it’s best to “let balance and flow be your guides.”

And, as noted in an article by C. Osborn, "The Essential Skill for Career Development--Dealing With Ambiguity," (2018), “leaders who are able to deal with ambiguity can effectively cope with change, shift gears comfortably, decide and act without having the total picture ... and navigate risk and uncertainty.  [They] are often described as adaptable, flexible ... and can operate with confidence to make decisions or move forward, even without [clear-cut or decisive] information.”

The personality traits enumerated above are crucial. For what worked in the past may not work now, so past solutions may need to be reevaluated. Moreover, most problems have more than a single solution, so if one’s best judgment is to be available, it’s necessary not merely to remain flexible but calm, unshaken, and open as well (i.e., your thinking isn’t controlled by your anxiety). And, too, it’s possible that before you can even act on your chosen solution the situation, which you’ve been closely monitoring, has changed. Even beyond these considerations, those comfortable with uncertainty realize how convoluted reality can be—as in good persons sometimes act badly (and the reverse also being true).

Not that this approach can’t be overdone. Because there are occasions in which time constraints dictate that, ready or not, a decision must be made quickly. In various circumstances, leaving things undecided too long or procrastinating can contribute to a whole new set of problems.

All the same, taking time to consider in detail the likely results of different alternatives is typically much to be preferred over being too hasty in making decisions. This can be disastrous when, failing to appreciate the psychological dynamics, subtlety, or complexity of an issue, a snap decision is made just to resolve a distressing anxiety.

Jessie Singal, in his piece “How Well Do You Handle Uncertainty?” (2015), discusses the need for cognitive closure. To get past their anxiety, many individuals require, as soon as possible, “an answer on a given topic, any answer” [italics his], and Singal’s article, incorporating a test developed by A. Roets and A. V. Hiel,  includes 45 items for ascertaining your own tendencies. This same author also cites Kruglanski and Webster’s “need for closure” scale to help distinguish between people in their relative need to reach anxiety-reducing conclusions.

Those seen as high on this measure are viewed as black-and-white thinkers, simplistic in their ethical valuations, and as deriving verdicts on others that—without the willingness to reconsider them—are tough to displace. They’re extremely uncomfortable in leaving important issues undecided, not recognizing that, realistically, most things are ambiguous, existing in hard-to-decipher shades of gray.

An additional problem with quick deciders is that they don’t take the opportunity to learn new things. For their mindset is fixed rather than focused on the growth that comes from comparing and patiently assessing different options. On the contrary, the mindfulness of slower responders keeps them more centered on the present, permitting more thoughtful—and wiser—decisions.

To conclude, the most concise summary of the dangers associated with those who rush toward closure is furnished by R. W. Eichinger and M. M. Lombardo, who, citing J. Holmes in his seminal volume Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing (2016), list the surprising upside of ambiguity, contending that those unable to get comfortable with ambiguity:

  • May move to conclusions without enough data
  • May fill in gaps by adding things that aren’t there
  • May frustrate others by not getting specific enough
  • May undervalue orderly problem solving
  • May reject precedent and history
  • May err toward the new and risky at the expense of proven solutions
  • May overcomplicate things

Allowing Holmes to get the final say in this post, his book's takeaway is that “we’re programmed to get rid of ambiguity, and yet if we engage with it we can make better decisions ... be more creative, and ...  a little more empathetic.”

And how could that not be the better route to take?

© 2020 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D.  All rights reserved.