Uncertainty...the Unknown and the Imperfect

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Most of us are grappling with uncertainty and in turn are also grappling with our responses to this uncertainty. My own response to uncertainty is a bit like “what do you mean it’s not going to go like that….it’s supposed to…that’s how I’d planned for it…” And while my intellectual self can acknowledge that we live in a time of ever-increasing uncertainty, my emotional and physical self usually take a bit longer to adapt.

I’ve had to practice adjusting my expectations and my responses which is a continuing practice for me. You’d only need to ask those who live with me to know that I certainly don’t have this figured out! Thank goodness for my clients who continually remind me that they too are in this mucky territory. While in the grip of expecting myself to have the answers, a wise person shared with me - you are two steps behind, two steps ahead or right there with another human being who is also just trying to make it. And so, as always, my guidance and advice for my clients is as much for myself as it is for them.

A client, in fact many clients, have been asking me – How do I manage uncertainty? I’m told that I must learn to work, to manage, and to lead in uncertainty and yet I’m also expected to make the right decision and to do the right thing. Does this sound familiar?

Managing uncertainty is essentially impossible because how can we manage something that we don’t know or can’t control? In my experience, it's been helpful to remove the term ‘managing’ to replace it with something more agile, possible and supportive. Most people tend to resist uncertainty or try to fight against it, thinking that they can control it or can make things certain. Sounds a bit like our physiological response to stress called ‘fight or flight’. Sometimes this is helpful but more often we learn that we can’t control or that what we thought we could control wasn’t so.

To my client who asked ‘how can I manage this uncertainty?’ I offer this as a starting place and hope that it will also be helpful to you.

  • Start paying attention to what you are trying to control or predict. Write them down in a journal. Then choose a few things that you suspect you could lessen your controls of and let go a little. Trying to control what is uncertain or not within your control takes up monumental energy that could be utilised and directed far more effectively.
  • Think of people or projects that need your energy more than this thing you are trying so hard to control. What would you invest your energy in if you redirected your ‘keep in control energy’? Make a list and see if this prompts you to take action.
  • Look for what is possible even when things feel uncertain or out of control. Whenever things are impossible there is always something that is possible. This is one of the beautiful paradoxes in life.
  • Slow down, gather the facts, take time to reflect and think more deeply, and take time to prepare.
  • When we take on too much at the same time we are most likely defending against the discomfort of uncertainty by trying to do it all. It can be helpful to simplify, lessen and let go of what’s not necessary. Step away, take a walk, clear out and then focus on that one important thing.
  • Trust in something beyond yourself. Discover the respite that can be found in knowing that you are not nearly as powerfully in control as you think. If your faith or religion has taught you this, feel into what that faith teaches you about control and uncertainty. Or simply sit and watch nature – the ocean, a river, a storm, or wildlife – then examine your beliefs about what or who is in control.
  • See the opportunity to build new capacities (what I commonly refer to as ‘muscles’) – agility, acceptance, and letting go are a few examples. This can be a cognitive, emotional, physical or spiritual practice. What can you do daily to build just one new ‘muscle’ that will support you in becoming more accepting of uncertainty?
  • Appreciation - notice where you’ve already built the capacity to handle uncertainty. Where are you already agile? Have you grown up with uncertainty? Do you have kids? Have you experienced an illness or injury? Have you moved cities, countries or continents?

Many of my clients are expected to function and to lead in daily uncertainty and at the same time they are asked to have conviction for their positions, decisions, opinions and ideas. This often feels impossible to many, a seemingly contradictory expectation. And yet it is a contradiction that is present whether we are leading a large team in an organisation or raising a family. This is because we are capable of both once we can acknowledge and appreciate this common paradox.

Human beings are full of paradoxes, it’s what makes us so interesting and complicated. In the workplace we see it in the need to both multitask and focus; to be strategic and to be operational; to be in the details and to see the big picture; to decipher what is complex and to make things simple; and to manage while also leading. More personally we can be loving and hurtful; gentle and fierce; accommodating and demanding; and generous and selfish. And so we can have conviction and we can be uncertain. When we are aware that we are full of these paradoxes then we are one step closer to lessening the strain we feel when we think we have to choose one or the other. We also make a step closer to truly understanding and accepting that we cannot control everything.  From here we are more willing to place our energies in building new capacities to be in the discomfort of uncertainty rather than trying to control it. And this takes time. As with so much else, we are all in this together. Knowing this can alleviate the stress and anxiety we feel when we are uncertain and can bring us closer to being in collaboration and community with those around us.

What paradoxes do you recognise in your own life, professional or personal? In my life I am often wondering, how can I be a fully present, dedicated and loving mother while also ambitious and dedicated to my career? How is that my husband and I are raising our daughters to be attached to us and at the same time, independent and adventurous? These are just two examples of mine but there are many more on a daily basis! What are yours?

I hope this sparks some further thoughts, ideas, and potential conversations with others about this. Ad most of all, I hope it alleviates some discomfort and angst you might feel when under pressure to keep things under control and be certain when certain is impossible.


Coaching leadership

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