4 practices to navigate uncertainty [Wise Wednesdays]
“The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters” , said the philosopher, Gramsci.
This past month, it's been a challenging time to write amid the complex state of global affairs and their impacts on people and relationships. I was asked for my perspective on several occasions and shared a few strategies for navigating the conversations without escalating conflict.
In theory: the psychology of uncertainty
I believe that we’re entering a period of intense transformation. Old social, geopolitical and economic structures are unravelling while new ones are emerging, influenced by ecological challenges and technology-driven information flows. We’re living through a Great Eco-Social Transformation and weaving a new social fabric.
The psychology of the “in between phase” is familiar to me through working with service-driven clients going through significant transformation but also from directly experiencing the disruption of war and massive social change.
The “in between phase” is known by various names like the “space between stories”, the bardo, limbo, or liminal stage. It’s marked by the angst of uncertainty. We’ve all felt it when waiting for the outcome of a job interview, the results of a medical test or to hear a loved one is safe. It’s a time when we can imagine the worst and act hastily out of fear.
In practice: navigating uncertainty with Presence
Earlier this week, I shared a few practical insights with my clients on decision making under uncertain conditions which are marked by imperfect information. on making decisions in times of uncertainty, where information is often imperfect. These insights include three key principles:
Reducing Decision Overload: In the face of uncertainty, minimise the number of decisions you make.
Fact-Based Decision-Making: Base your decisions on the information available, steering clear of speculative guesswork.
Avoiding Irreversible Choices: Give yourself room to adapt by steering clear of irreversible decisions.
The science behind these principles lies in the workings of the human brain. Our brains operate as predict-and-control machines, constantly striving to foresee possible outcomes and formulate strategies accordingly. However, when confronted with inadequate information, the brain becomes trapped in a cycle of unsatisfactory predictions, leading to anxiety and fear – a whirlwind of imagined catastrophes that never materialise.
Why is this knowledge important?
The neurobiology of war: a prediction glitch?
Aside from consuming precious energy and time, excessive and unguided prediction results in an inner conflict between the various predictions the brain generates. Left unchecked, this inner turmoil can lead to collapse (such as burnout) or external conflicts. This mechanism serves as the neurobiological foundation of not only inner turmoil but also external conflicts because the prediction mechanism also generates what some call “enemy images” (c.f. Gramsci’s monsters above). While this is a simplified model and there are socio-economic factors at play, the Prediction Glitch is at the core of how humans react to uncertainty and threat.
In summary, unless there is a real and immediate threat to life, times of uncertainty are not times to go faster but to slow down, tune into the present and be mindful of the demons of black-and-white thinking and impulsive action. This gives us a path to effective ethics and justice.
But what can you do now?
Mastering your state: be the peace the world seeks
I invite you to explore an approach I call Creating a Felt Sense of Certainty. It’s aligned with Tony Robbins’ method of mastering your state by choosing what you do with your body, language and focus. Scientifically, we know that the brain can improve its predictive accuracy; restrict predictions to the present moment; and even completely rewire its survival model to something more sophisticated than the one that evolved millions of years ago. From a spiritual perspective, creating a Felt Sense of Certainty could be compared to the experience of faith because both result in finding certainty amid the unknowable.
As I've contemplated these ideas, it's become clear to me that we are in a time of liminality—the space between stories. Leaders and change agents must amplify practices of liminality, starting with those that cultivate a Felt Sense of Certainty.
I've identified 14 such practices, and I'm sharing four of them with you here:
#1: Ambiguity Tolerance: Tune into the feeling tone of ambiguity. Explore what it's like when you don't have all the answers. Get used to the sensations and emotions of ambiguity. For example, Dr. O noticed discomfort at the start of review meetings, where he felt uncertain about expectations. Instead of rushing to justify his competence, he learned to slow down, breathe through the tension, and let the conversation flow organically. His increased presence improved relationships and led to a significant organizational change he had sought for months, benefiting both patients and the team.
#2: Optimism Infusions: Since the brain tends to have a negativity bias in its predictions, consider taking control of your inner script through meditation or conscious visualisation. Rewrite the story you tell yourself, paying attention to the character you imagine yourself to be and the world you inhabit (which is all a prediction not the truth). Modify your script based on how liberating it feels. Mandela's boundless optimism sustained him through 27 years of imprisonment, seeing the humanity of everyone he came across, and it played a pivotal role in abolishing a seemingly unchangeable apartheid system.
#3: Daily Dimensionality: It's estimated that 95% of our thinking is repetitive and 85% is negative… We often get trapped in the thinking dimension of human experience fuelling fear and anxiety and a feeling of stuckness. Break free from this pattern by engaging in activities that shift your focus to other dimensions. This can include exercise (body-focused), music (emotion-focused), writing (creativity-focused), or meaningful conversations about feelings (not opinions). Think poetry, not debate! Meditation, a practice that redirects your attention to the present, is a powerful tool for this purpose.
#4 Discernment of Control: Practice distinguishing between what you can and cannot control. Train yourself to remain calm even when you lack control. The serenity prayer is a valuable tool. By expecting less control, you create more space to receive new insights and ideas. A client noticed that this shift reduced stress and made the journey through the unknown more enjoyable. By letting go of the need to please her boss and focusing on her need for autonomy and respect, she gained a sense of freedom.
Navigating times of uncertainty is undoubtedly challenging, and it's essential to acknowledge the difficulties we face. However, these periods of uncertainty also have the potential to result in much needed transformation, both individually and collectively.
What are your insights on navigating uncertainty?
Have a great week,
p.s. Do you know someone who needs to read this? Please, consider forwarding it.