By Dr NEETA PANT

Learning to live with ambiguity is learning to live with how

life really is; full of complexities and strange surprises.

~ James Hollis

People generally ask me – “What skills or habits should I acquire to be successful ?”  Can there be a sure shot answer to this that fits one and all? Yes, without a blink, it would be – “Befriend Ambiguity.” 

Believe me – That’s the MANTRA.  If one does not know how to handle an unknown, unprepared, not thought of situation, which is ambiguity, one would be thrown completely off the track, will be in a helpless situation often.  All the  planning, organisation skills, rehearsals just go down the drain and like how. 

The million dollar question here is what is AMBIGUITY 

Ambiguity is a type of meaning in which a phrase, statement or resolution is not explicitly defined, making several interpretations plausible. When we encounter an ambiguous situation, we might be unsure of how to proceed because the goal is vague and in all likelihood, we don’t have access to all of the information we need.  Worst, it might be when we come to a conclusion about a situation, but before we can act on it, the situation has already changed.  Ambiguity, in other words, is uncertainty.”

Ambiguity can be pure kryptonite for people like me with perfectionist tendencies – who prefer to be organised, planned and to know what to expect at all times J

Pandemic, if nothing else, has taught all of us to deal with ambiguity, uncertainty and unpredictability.  In future too, we may have to face unknowns, perhaps, throughout our lives.  It certainly would not help us to freeze when we encounter uncertainty.

So what’s the way to get more confident with ambiguity? How can one learn to embrace uncertainty, instead of panicking or gong wrong at such times?  Let us try to unfold the mystery…..

One can adapt the following strategies to build up ambiguity muscle and confidence both!

  1. Learn Strategic Thinking  –  Strategic thinking is an intentional, rational thought process that focuses on the analysis of critical variables that will influence the long-term success of any project.  It can help us ignore most of the clutter.  It includes deliberate anticipation of threats and vulnerabilities to guard against failures.  It provides a clear set of goals, plans, and new ideas required to thrive in a competitive, changing environment.
  2. Develop An 80-20 Attitude –  The Pareto Principle suggests that in any situation, 20% of causes drive 80% of the outcomes. If we understand & become comfortable with this principle, our ability to deal with ambiguity will increase manifold. This should be the thumb rule to encounter ambiguity.
  • Visualisation – Translate all available information into a visual. Thoughtfully sketching the spinning thoughts in head can be really empowering and illuminating.  It’s like looking at a bar graph versus staring at a bunch of numbers. Visualisation could mean developing a rough sketch of what’s known versus the unknown like an iceberg. It could even mean using a Ishikawa/Fishbone diagram to analyze how each move is connected to or dependent on another.  
  • Interpersonal –  Think of data we can gather from our stakeholders to get an insight into what we could plan next. Enhancing our interpersonal skills, so that we can have more patience with others and they can have more patience with us can bring miracles. Aim should be to have a consensus style where others can provide input. The more perspectives, the more likely the decision will be accurate and useful. 
  • Mindset –  One must strive for a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset enabling us to see ambiguity as an opportunity for learning.  See the positive in ‘not knowing everything’! Use the experience and creativity to look for alternative uses for the processes, products or systems we already have. It’ll reduce effort, increase comfort with change and invent new pathways ahead!
  • Learn the Art of Stepping Back. – Just stepping back and asking ourself what best possible solution can be prevalent, will help. It can help us to set the path for needed clarity. 

7.   Plan For The Future  –  One must have a general outline for future.   It can help us to develop more defined goals that help progress even if one is facing ambiguous situations.  Make a list of the steps needed to complete to get where one wants to land as an outcome.

8.   Remain Confident and Calm – Staying calm is a good way to manage an ambiguous situation.  Take a moment to consider what we should be doing and what outcomes our actions can achieve. Approach each task with confidence knowing that we have the required skills, experience and education. We must use qualifications to complete duties to the best of our ability, despite being ambiguous.  Ask for feedback about the quality of work once done. Following steps will tremendously help –

  • To be more present in the moment, practice mindfulness.   
  • Do not focus on confusion and frustrations.
  • One can be more patient with the confusion and frustrations that often occur when dealing with ambiguity by managing time and stress effectively.
  • Knowledge of our own stress triggers can help cope with levels of uncertainty; build resilience.
  • Build in means to make changes to plans as necessary.
  • Be realistic in expectations and deadlines.
  • Accept Change –  Changes in plans, workflow, organisation structure can often create ambiguity. Acceptance of these changes and further questions will provide more clarity.  It’ll help one to navigate these uncertain situations. Consider change  to learn more skills and competency.
  1. Make Decisions Without Having All Of The Facts –  Many a times, we need to make decisions without having complete information.  In such scenarios, try to gather as much information as we can to make a guided decision.  Making notes to explain our reasoning, monitoring the outcome of our decision ensures we have more facts and details if we encounter a similar situation in future.
  2. Improve Problem-Solving Skills – To improve problem-solving skills, try to define the situation and ideal outcomes as best as one can. If one needs to choose from multiple options, one must weigh the pros and cons of each option.  Documenting the process helps in revisiting choices later.  Problem-solving skills can help to better use the limited tools and information one must evaluate the situation and clarify uncertainties.
  3. Plan Possible Alternatives – Creating different/alternative plans can help find more success in our endeavours.  If one is unsure of how one feels about chosen or potential career path, thinking about other types of jobs helps.  Researching these opportunities can help one create a more defined long-term plan should one design to make the switch. 
  4. Communicate Often – To prevent ambiguity, continuously communicate.  Asking questions and explaining your plans and progress encourages others which can help one work toward the same goals and objectives.   Be as specific as possible to ensure the message is clear and easy to understand while communicating.
  5. Strengthen communications skills so one can be even more clear in expressing the objectives without others inadvertently interpreting something else.
  6. Explain ambiguity and its causes to others, so they can be more patient with themselves and others.
  7. Creative Approach – Ambiguity should be seen as means to more creativity and innovation as it challenges the mind to see things from a different perspective.  Get self out of comfort zone, putting self in new situations, doing something new and different will not only give one the confidence but also the experience to cope with uncertain situations.

Key Take Away(s) –

Ambiguity is a part of life as the circumstances constantly keeps changing around us which leads to lack of clarity on many dimensions. Ambiguity not only overwhelm us but also prevents us from managing uncertainty. Good news is that as we learn the art of managing ambiguity, we are equipped to handle increasingly more ambiguous situations. And while yes, ambiguity at times add on to the stress, it also encourages innovation and agility and ensures we’re evolving.

As per Psychology – someone who can deal with ambiguity “can effectively cope with change, shift gears comfortably, decide and act without having the total picture, and handle risk and uncertainty.”  Those with a strong ability to deal with ambiguity are often described as adaptable, flexible, and comfortable with uncertainty.

When in an ambiguous situation in future, remember that ambiguity is POSITIVE too!

Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment

and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to

happen next – ‘Delicious Ambiguity’ ~ Gilda Radner

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