Friday, June 21, 2024

Difficuly in Dealing with Ambiguity

“Ambiguous” means having several possible meanings, interpretations or outcomes. Some people don’t like ambiguous situations where new variables can pop up any time, or where novel outcomes emerge rather than being designed from the beginning. It has to be Either/Or. One way or the other. They get nervous in the face of the unknown. They’ll say: “Let’s nail this down.” “Let’s choose one and go for it,” way before an idea has been fully developed. At some point that approach may be necessary. But rigid people like to get closure on one meaning, one interpretation, one outcome, as early as possible. And often that approach leaves out the contributions of other people. It certainly leaves out the possibility of novelty and serendipity.

We’re all being asked to tolerate more ambiguity these days. Technology is changing the nature of the work we do, or in some cases, whether we have any work to do. For the past 20+ years we’ve been experiencing tremendous ambiguity in gender roles – what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman.

If you’re in a role of leadership or responsibility, there’s no doubt you must make room for surprises and uncertain outcomes. Imagine being told in 1962 that the Soviets had nuclear missiles positioned on Cuba aimed at the United States, and that they might fire them, or they might not. John F. Kennedy faced that ambiguity. Imagine yourself on March 9, 1965, leading several thousand demonstrators in a march for civil rights in Selma, Alabama, where only two days earlier, hundreds of people had been beaten and attacked by police dogs for doing the same thing. Martin Luther King, Jr. faced a very ambiguous situation.

Fortunately, most of us don’t have to deal with THAT level of uncertainty. If you’re a person who has trouble dealing with ambiguity, you like to do routine things with familiar people who behave in traditional ways. Changes and surprises make you uncomfortable because they alter the routine.

If you recognize yourself in this discussion and feel that developing a greater tolerance for ambiguity would allow you the flexibility you’d like to have, here are some tips. Begin to stretch yourself a bit by taking on different duties and activities beyond your comfort level. In other words, consciously introduce some novelty and ambiguity into your life. Avoid doing things the same way every time. Realize that there’s almost always more than one way to accomplish a task. When you encounter a situation which has several possible outcomes, don’t try to avoid it. Take the time to consider each possible outcome, from the most optimistic to the most pessimistic.


Attentiveness means being aware of what’s going on in your environment. It can be as simple as noticing when someone is getting bored, to sensing that now’s not the right time to put your ideas across. It’s knowing when to act and when not to act.

Attentiveness is also the ability to tune into a problem and come up with its essential components. “What’s really going wrong here?” That insight provides the basis for envisioning something that will truly work better.

The fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, who was created by Arthur Conan Doyle, had legendary powers of attention to detail. Sherlock would notice a dropping of cigarette ash on the carpet, or a faint smudge of billiard chalk on a finger, or recognize that a person’s accent didn’t go with his Middle Eastern garb and he’d have the clue he needed to solve the case.

Attentiveness means you’re open to outside stimuli entering your field of perception or, if the stimuli are more subtle, entering your intuition. It means you’re open to more information coming in through your eyes and ears, through your sense of touch and through what’s known as your kinesthetic sense. That means how your muscles and the organs of your body react. Our bodies can tell us loads about how other people are feeling if we’re attentive enough. Earlier we discussed the trait of empathy, putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. The ability to be attentive to others allows you the access to the other person’s feelings, and sometimes those feelings are mirrored in your own body – feelings such as fear, sadness and discomfort.

There’s an old parable about a very educated English gentleman visiting a well known Buddhist master to see what he could learn from the spiritual teacher. The holy man poured a cup of tea for the Englishman and kept pouring and pouring until there was tea all over the floor.

Finally, the Englishman could not sit silently any longer and asked: “Why are you overfilling the cup?” The Buddhist master replied: “This cup is like your head. It is so full that nothing else will go into it. You must empty yourself first in order to learn anything new for me.”

The trait we’re discussing – attentiveness – works a lot like that. In order to be attentive, we need to empty ourselves of other thoughts and set ways of seeing things. When we use our senses to take in all we can about other people, we can much more accurately adjust our behavior to the needs of others. When we’re attentive to situations, we can exercise that power of vision we spoke of earlier to make positive changes for ourselves and others.

Dr. Tony Alessandra helps companies out-market, out-sell, and out-service the competition with his street-wise, college-smart perspective on business. He has authored 13 books, recorded over 50 audio and video programs, and delivered over 2,000 keynote speeches since 1976. If you would like more information about Dr. Alessandra’s books, audio tapesets, and video programs, or information about Dr. Alessandra as a keynote speaker, call his office at 1-800-222-4383 or visit his website at

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