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Build up your tolerance for ambiguity, to help you feel better equipped to navigate gray areas and deal with uncertainty.




In This Episode

00:15 – Tolerating Uncertainty & Ambiguity

01:10 – Four Attitudes Toward Uncertainty

02:33 – Effects of Ambiguity Tolerance on Stress Management, Decision Making, & Growth Opportunities

03:34 – Building Up Your Tolerance for Uncertainty & Ambiguity

04:48 – Mindfulness Session


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Episode Transcript

Hey everyone, and welcome to WorkMinded. In the current COVID-19 situation, we’re dealing with a lot of changing circumstances and unclear information. In today’s session, we’ll work on building up your tolerance for ambiguity, to help you feel better equipped to navigate gray areas and deal with uncertainty.

In psychology, the ideas of tolerating ambiguity and tolerating uncertainty are similar and are sometimes even used interchangeably.1 We’ll address both in this episode, but we want to point out some key distinctions. First, each idea presents a different concept of time – uncertainty is more about the future, while ambiguity relates more to the present moment.2 And second, each idea also presents a different concept about how much information is known – uncertainty is specific to things that are totally unknown, while ambiguity is related to things that are unclear and open to interpretation.3

Tolerance of ambiguity ultimately stems from how a person interacts with ambiguous situations.4 Some research identifies four distinct profiles that characterize attitudes towards uncertainty.5 These profiles are based on whether the uncertainty stems from people or from situations, and whether the person considers the uncertainty in a negative or a positive light.6

  • At one end of the spectrum is an “Appreciative” profile, which accepts the fundamental existence of contradictions and inconsistencies in both the environment and in people’s behavior; individuals with this profile are more likely to view uncertainty as an opportunity rather than a threat.7
  • At the other end is a “Fearing” profile, which expects both situations and people’s behavior to be clear, predictable, and simple; people with this profile are more likely to feel threatened when uncertainty arises.8
  • In between are the “Coping” and “Ambivalent” profiles, which differ on whether they expect unpredictability in people or in the environment, but don’t view uncertainty as either particularly attractive or threatening either way.9

Consider your own current profile. Do you view uncertainty as an attractive opportunity or an unsettling threat? And does that response change depending on whether the uncertainty comes from inconsistencies in people or inconsistencies in the environment?

As it turns out, our responses to uncertainty and ambiguity can affect how we feel, how we act, and how we approach our work. When it comes to stress management, in our current climate you might feel like you don’t need any studies to tell you that ambiguity tolerance is related to stress. And research has totally shown direct links between someone’s ability to tolerate ambiguity and the stress perceived by that person.10 Behaviorally, uncertainty affects our psychology and our decision-making. This can lead to maladaptive psychological outcomes,11 or even tendencies to make impulsive decisions that don’t consider potential consequences and can be counterproductive in the long run.12 And when it comes to work, uncertainty tolerance plays an important role in transforming chance events into opportunities by helping individuals withstand uncertain situations in their work and in their careers.13 Ambiguity tolerance is a critical skill that may enable workers and job seekers to react quickly and adjust successfully in shifting situations.14

Certain cultures, professions, personalities, and experiences naturally lead to a higher or lower tolerance for ambiguity. But on at least some level, pretty much everyone already has at least some kind of skill developed when it comes to tolerating ambiguity. For example, you might already successfully navigate ambiguity on a day-to-day basis by calming yourself down when you’re running late and stuck in a traffic jam, without knowing when it will clear up. Focusing on building up your tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty means you can take your current tolerance level to the mental gym, working it out and beefing it up just like a muscle.

Today’s mindfulness session will help you to do exactly that. Building this tolerance is about your own personal journey and starting from where you are. Continuing to develop this practice will help you to manage your stress levels, adjust to challenges and uncertainties related to work, and steer away from impulsive decisions or behaviors that might not serve you in the long run.

We mentioned before that tolerance of uncertainty and tolerance of ambiguity are often used interchangeably. Our title specifically references ambiguity, because mindfulness is a present moment practice. The long-term is made up of many tiny present moments, so focus on each individual step. And now let’s get started with our mindfulness session.

When it comes to tolerating ambiguity, our expectations of people or situations play a key role in how well we can navigate gray areas. Today’s mindfulness session will focus on releasing some of these expectations. This can help to reduce feelings of threat from uncertainty, and to make space for new possibilities in situations where things are unknown or unclear.

To start, take some time to settle in. Sit up straight, shimmy out any wiggles, and get comfortable. Feel the areas where you connect to the ground and let them feel heavy. Let your eyes drift closed if that’s comfortable for you, or you can let your gaze just space out somewhere in front of you.

Check in with yourself. Sometimes mindfulness can be uncomfortable – either mentally or physically – so if at any point things feel too intense, just take a step back and go get any space or any help you need. 

Now take a deep breath in, and a deep breath out. Take a minute to just be, without thinking about the future, or the past, or any responsibilities and obligations. Just sit and breathe in a way that’s comfortable.

Expectations are all about the differences between the stories we tell ourselves about what’s happening, and what’s actually happening. We have a human tendency to analyze events or create stories around them. Sometimes this gives us an illusion of security, and we spend a lot of energy clinging to that. But clinging to these stories can actually diminish our ability to navigate gray areas, because having such specific expectations actually limits the possibilities we can see when something is unknown or unclear. We’re misdirecting our energy toward what if, instead of leveraging it for what is.

To help offset this tendency, we can think of ourselves as observers instead of storytellers. Think about a time when a person or a situation disappointed you. What were your expectations, and the story you told yourself about what happened? What actually happened? Try just to identify the facts, without judgment, instead of trying to explain them.

Now get ready for a nice, deep exhale on your next out breath. Slowly breathe out the expectations you held and the story you told yourself. Let them go. Literally picture them leaving your body and just floating off into the sky. You can even tell them goodbye as you see them floating away. You might not get rid of everything all at once, and that’s okay. The goal is to start to soften the grip these expectations have over you. Finish your exhale as far as it will go, squeezing out these expectations as fully as you can.

Now get ready for a nice, deep inhale. Breathe into the space you just created when you let go of the expectations that didn’t serve you. In this new space, you release people or situations from the limitations of acting only how you expect them to. And this can create all kinds of new possibilities to help you manage when things are unclear or unknown. Inhale as far as you can, filling up this new space with fresh energy and potential.

Practice this a few more times. Breathe out the expectations you’ve created….and breathe in the possibilities that can now occupy that space.

Breathe out what if….and breathe in what is.

Now slowly start to come back to being present. Feel the areas where you connect to the ground, open your eyes – or if you had them open already, focus your gaze – and make some small movements like wiggling your toes to help wake up your body.

Your call to action from this session is to start noticing when you set expectations for yourself based on specific stories or outcomes. Instead of spending your energy maintaining these expectations, try releasing them to make room for choosing where to direct your energy next. This can help you be much more effective at navigating uncertain or unclear circumstances. 

Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next time.




Research Notes

1, 2, 3 Bardeen, J.R., Fergus, T.A., & Orcutt, H.K. (2017). Examining the specific dimensions of distress tolerance that prospectively predict perceived stress. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, 46(3), 211-223. DOI: 10.1080/16506073.2016.1233454

4 Katsaros, K. K., & Nicolaidis, C. S. (2012). Personal traits, emotions, and attitudes in the workplace: Their effect on managers' tolerance of ambiguity. The Psychologist-Manager Journal, 15(1), 37–55.

5, 6, 7, 8, 9 Chumakova, Maria & Kornilov, Sergey. (2013). Individual Differences in Attitudes towards Uncertainty: Evidence for Multiple Latent Profiles. Psychology in Russia: State of the Art, 6(4), 94-108. DOI: 10.11621/pir.2013.0408.

10 Iannello, P., Mottini, A., Tirelli, S., Riva, S., & Antonietti, A. (2017). Ambiguity and uncertainty tolerance, need for cognition, and their association with stress. A study among Italian practicing physicians, Medical Education Online, 22(1). DOI: 10.1080/10872981.2016.1270009

11 Bardeen, J.R., Fergus, T.A., & Orcutt, H.K. (2017). Examining the specific dimensions of distress tolerance that prospectively predict perceived stress, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, 46(3), 211-223. DOI: 10.1080/16506073.2016.1233454

12 Pawluk, E.J., & Koerner, N. (2016). The relationship between negative urgency and generalized anxiety disorder symptoms: the role of intolerance of negative emotions and intolerance of uncertainty. Anxiety, Stress & Coping, 29(6), 606-615. DOI: 10.1080/10615806.2015.1134786

13 Kim, B., Rhee, E., Ha, G., Yang, J., & Lee, S.M. (2016). Tolerance of Uncertainty: Links to Happenstance, Career Decision Self-Efficacy, and Career Satisfaction. The Career Development Quarterly. 64(2), 140-152.

14 Katsaros, K. K., & Nicolaidis, C. S. (2012). Personal traits, emotions, and attitudes in the workplace: Their effect on managers' tolerance of ambiguity. The Psychologist-Manager Journal, 15(1), 37–55.