What is uncertainty?
If we listen to the famous Chinese proverb: “May you live in interesting times”, we can see it as both a blessing and a curse. We are certainly living in interesting – if not uncertain – times.
With the continuing impact of COVID-19, geopolitical tensions and even the wonderful world of conspiracy theories, we can feel that there is uncertainty all around us.
These uncertain times drive very specific responses. Often, these responses are not the best possible responses for the individual or the society in which they exist.
How do people respond to uncertainty?
When people experience uncertainty, it can mean that the person is out of their comfort zone. When there is uncertainty, people struggle to decide on what to do moving forward. They get stuck, and often have a lack of skill or strategy in deciding how to move ahead.
When people are out of their comfort zone, they will seek safety. The discomfort is often countered by closing off exposure to the outside stimuli of uncertainty (often through avoidance) and shut down as much as possible. They can be seen to withdraw back to simple and familiar patterns of behaviour. Like a rabbit cowering in their burrow.
We saw with COVID-19 that the market dropped rapidly, as investors escaped any uncertainty by shifting their investments to ‘safe havens’. The consumer confidence dropped in the days and there was massive uncertainty about what was going to happen next.
It happens in all domains in our lives. In our closest relationships, in the workplace, even in our own personal circumstances. When we are exposed to the discomfort of uncertainty, we flee for safe, familiar and known.
This can seem like a great strategy. The ‘flight’ response can seem like a useful approach to dealing with uncertainty. However, there are significant problems to both performance and prolonging the uncertainty by taking this approach.
Often the habitual patterns that we return to in times of stress or uncertainty are both low-performance and often self-sabotaging.
Seeking to protect ourselves from uncertainty is one of the hallmarks of anxiety. If a person feels uncertainty and lacks a suitable strategy for managing, they will project their worst case fears into their perceived future, attempting to plan fully to protect themselves – but mainly just unreasonably scaring themselves with imaginary catastrophes.
People who respond to uncertainty with excessive anxiety and fear will ask ‘what if’ questions, to which they have no answers (and keep scaring themselves more).
What can we do?
If we consider that the feeling of uncertainty – or recognising that we are spending too much time asking unanswerable ‘what if’ questions- is a signal that we are out of our comfort zone and sitting in uncertainty. This can be a trigger to a level of self awareness from where we can choose our responses, rather than be controlled by circumstances.
In fact, this represents the overall strategy that can help move someone forward. By asking the question ‘what is in my span of control’, we can start to identify those things that we can control or influence, and those things that we can only ever respond to.
By changing our question from “What if”, to “What is the next smallest thing I can do” shifts us from avoidance to action. As soon as we start taking action – by doing even the smallest things within our control – we shift from a place of discomfort towards something else. By acting towards out goals, even in the smallest ways, we shift from being stuck in old behavioural patterns, avoidance and safety that are habitual and instinctive to positive, logic based steps that get us going forward.
The longest journey can then start with the smallest step. As we decide to take positive action, we start to build momentum. We teach ourselves that whatever that uncertainty was about, we have the capability to respond and cope.
Importantly, if we are clear on what our bigger ‘purpose’ is in any circumstance, it gives us a clear ‘light on the hill’ to start acting towards. Our purpose provides a direction, when often in uncertainty, we can be stuck and not know which way to go. Our purpose gives us direction as well as resolve, because as we remember why our ‘Why’ is so important, it motivates us to take the actions that might feel uncomfortable and unfamiliar, but can allow you to begin that process of moving forward
Consider the uncertainties in your life. Maybe it is not knowing what your partner things about you. Maybe it is customers who may say ‘no’. Maybe it is changes at work that may lead to job redundancies. In every case (and whatever your uncertainties are), deciding what is your span of control, choosing a positive, logical action and doing it will change everything.
We may live in interesting times. However, if we are able to realise that these don’t have to mean fear and anxiety but instead opportunity and possibility, we can choose great, high performance responses and continue to operate as our best selves.