Intercultural CompetenceReflecting acceptance of ambiguity and changeSkill to deal with ambiguity and changeWorks with the notion of change and overcomes resistance within the group of learners

Dealing with ambiguity and developing resilience

Ambiguity is as ambiguous a topic to address as it is to deal with as a trainer. This article aims to break it down and offer steps for dealing with ambiguity constructively.

Why did I choose this tool? I have chosen this tool because it focuses on practically handling ambiguity rather than merely the concept of ambiguity and as such can be a useful guide for navigating ambiguous situations as a trainer.

How does this apply to being a trainer?

As trainers, we are continually faced with ambiguity and uncertainty, and we are also faced with a lot of questions that generally don’t have clear yes or no answers. For example, what is the best method to address the topic? How will the participants respond? How do we handle differences in opinion or in values that come out during our training? How do we handle differences of approach between trainers? How do we know whether our training is successful? How do we deal with the fact that participants may have very different motivations for being there? Many other similar questions don’t necessarily have clear answers, but that we must answer in a way that is helpful for us and for the training. Therefore, being able to make good decisions in the midst of such uncertainty is one of the most important skills that a trainer can develop.

Main content:

Dealing with ambiguity and developing resilience

“In a world of change, learners shall inherit the earth. While the learned shall find themselves perfectly equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” – Eric Hoffman

Change is a continual part of our everyday lives in today’s world, so it’s no wonder that dealing constructively with ambiguity has come to have such importance in so many different spheres. It’s no longer possible to expect absolute certainty and still be able to survive, or thrive, in today’s world.

Being able to deal with ambiguity has become a must. And yet it doesn’t need to be a scary, difficult process. It just takes awareness and practice, as the development of any other skill.

What constitutes ambiguity?

Since none of the definitions I found of ambiguity seemed comprehensive enough, I decided to write down a few situations where we would normally experience ambiguity. In most cases, we can also define it as uncertainty.

  • A problem that doesn’t have a clear answer, or a clear pathway towards one
  • Prolonged uncertainty, without a defined time when the uncertain will become certain
  • Being unclear about someone’s motives, intentions or desires
  • Not knowing exactly where you stand within a relationship, group or organization
  • Needing to make decisions in a setting where people have different agendas or motives, and not having clarity about which one takes precedence
  • Being unsure of ourselves or having an unclear measurement for whether we are successful or not in a particular endeavor

Incidental ambiguity vs. intentional ambiguity

There is plenty of ambiguity within our everyday lives and work that is incidental: in other words, we can easily find ourselves in an ambiguous situation was not planned or intended by anyone, it merely is this way based on factors (or a combination of factors) that just happened. An example of this is when a new team is put together, there can be a certain ambiguous period where team members try to find their footing, understand each other, and make progress in their goals.

Intentional ambiguity is when there is someone intentionally keeping you in an ambiguous situation, usually in order to have more control over you. An example of this is when you have a boss that doesn’t give you all the information that you need to do your job, and then blames you for not getting it done right. Or a case when you are in a relationship and you ask about where you are at in the relationship and where it’s going, and you always get some vague and non-committal answer, and no certainty about when you will receive the answer.

This article will address how to deal with incidental ambiguity, the kind that is caused by circumstances not intentionally created by someone. If you realize that you are actually experiencing intentional ambiguity, and when you attempt to clarify things you still don’t get any result, then it is possible that the person you are dealing with is manipulative and that rather than dealing with the ambiguity itself it is better to look for ways to deal with the relationship that is causing it.

What competencies do you need to ‘deal constructively with ambiguity’?

The competences – a combination of skills, attitudes and knowledge –that you need in order to deal constructively with ambiguity are:

  • Being able to tolerate and manage change effectively
  • Being able to shift gears and change course quickly/easily when warranted
  • Being able to make good decisions and act on them even without having all the information
  • Being able to tolerate situations where things are up in the air and not clearly defined, and still function
  • Being able to move between tasks and activities without necessarily having to finish each one first
  • Being able to tolerate and even be comfortable with taking calculated risks when it is beneficial to do so

The most important question, however, is:


These are the two main abilities that will enable you to enact the above-mentioned competencies:

(1) the ability to be confident in yourself and your own judgement rather than needing to rely on outside answers or opinions, since they will not always be present and when they are they will not necessarily serve you or your purpose

(2) being very alert and aware of what is going on, to capture all information that you do have access to so that you understand as much as you can about what is going on and with that can make the best possible decisions

Being confident in yourself:

This would include:

– knowing yourself and what your capabilities are
– being able to rely more on yourself then on tools, models, precedents or authorities
– being confident in your own judgement
– being able to view uncertainty as a challenge instead of as a threat

–  being able to use your imagination and your intuition
– being present and staying in the moment, to fully understand what is happening

It’s important to be able to access every aspect of yourself, including:

Your relevant knowledge, your relevant experience, your relevant skills, your judgement, and your intuition.

Being present and staying in the moment

Being present and staying in the moment is an extremely simple concept actually: it’s just hard to practice it, especially when we’re used to letting our minds control us and are lost a million thoughts that have nothing to do with what we’re actually experiencing at that moment.

Being present and being in the moment means that we are listening, we are seeing, and we are experiencing that moment. We are not:

– focusing on some goal or objective that we need to achieve
– focusing on what we think should be happening
– worrying about whether or not we are doing the right thing
– trying to plan our next steps, our next words, our next actions
– worrying about something that has happened in the past (even if it is triggered by the current situation)
– worrying about what other people are thinking of you, wondering if you are doing well in their eyes

Being present and staying in the moment takes practice. Every time you become aware that your mind is taking you elsewhere, anywhere other then the present moment, practice bringing it back to the present. It doesn’t matter how many times you have to do this, the more you do it the easier it will become.

If you find yourself unable to be present at the moment because of something that is a pressing concern to you, it helps to physically excuse yourself from the situation so that you can go and be physically present with whatever your mind is occupied with.

This way you can be more consistent with being present instead of trying to pretend you are there when actually you are not. If you’re there, be there. If you’re somewhere else, be somewhere else. Practice always ensuring that your mind, your body and your emotions are together in every experience.

Leadership, ambiguity and resilience

When you are in a position of leadership, it’s doubly important that you are able to deal constructively with ambiguity. One of the roles of leadership is to provide a sense of certainty during uncertain times, even if that certainty is only about the goals and where you’re headed as a team.

Resilience is the ability to “bounce back” no matter what the circumstances are. The competencies needed for this are:

  1. Being able to deal with pressure and stress effectively, not letting it take you or your emotions off course
  2. Being able to bounce back from disappointments or setbacks and get back to focusing on where you’re going
  3. The ability to remain positive and optimistic even when (in fact especially when) the situation is new, complex or uncertain

Even if you feel uncertain, and it’s ok to be honest about it, it’s also important to show strength and to be sure-footed so that your team knows that they can rely on you and they feel they are in safe hands.

“If you can keep your head when all about are losing theirs and blaming it on you…” Rudyard Kipling’s “If”

Reflection questions:

How am I normally reacting when I face an ambiguous situation? (ex: staying calm, getting stressed, making decisions too quickly, lashing out, getting more information…)

What are the most difficult kinds of ambiguous situations for me? (ex: I can easily handle differences of opinion between trainers but I have a very hard time when someone’s intentions are not clear to me…)

What have I already learned when it comes to dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty? (ex: I have learned how to manage my anxiety, I have learned how to ask the right questions…)

What do I still have to learn/get better at? (ex: I need to learn how to trust myself and my judgement rather than relying on external opinions, I need to learn to be comfortable with not having all the information I think I need…)

How can I learn this (ex: I can slow down when faced with an ambiguous situation instead of letting myself feel pressured to make a fast decision, I can get better at getting in touch with my own feelings on the matter instead of ignoring them…)


How to apply it in everyday life:

Since handling the feeling of uncertainty and ambiguity is very different for each person, coming up with your own formula for how to handle ambiguity rather than using a preformatted way can be very useful to you.

Take a few moments now to create your own formula for dealing with ambiguity. You can use this example to get you started, but make sure to personalize the steps and even the words so that the formula is yours and is appealing, easy and practical for you to implement when you are in an ambiguous situation.

Step 1:

  • Go outside and take 10 deep breaths
  • Write down everything that I objectively know about the situation
  • Write down the aspects of the situation that are unknown to me
  • Write down how I feel about the situation
  • Write down the questions that I need the answers to in order to take the next step
  • Take 10 minutes to meditate and look within myself for those answers
  • Ask myself, can I get more information about this topic? Can I ask someone who has more information or another perspective? If so then I will take action to get that information if I believe it can help me to make a better decision, while still making sure that the final decision is coming from me and not from the outside
  • Make a decision and determine that unless I receive new information that is enough to change my course I will stick with this decision and be confident that it is the best one for me
  • Accept that not doing anything is also a valid decision and one of my options

If the final decision needs to be made by a team or by a couple, then each person involved can go through their own process to get clarity for themselves and decide what they feel is best, and then come together to merge these thoughts and make the final decision together. It’s important to take time alone first so that each person can be certain that they went through the decision-making process themselves rather than potentially just going along with the other’s opinion. When every member of the team is truly focused on making the best decision rather than on being right or having their way, and takes the time to clarify what they think, what they feel, and why, chances are high that the team will be able to get on the same page and successfully navigate the ambiguous situation.

Leilani van Rheenen

has been active in youth work, training and coaching since 2008. Her specialty is emotional intelligence, emotional fitness, since it is the primary ingredient in competences such as inter-cultural competence, learning to learn, cooperating successfully in teams, etc. Leilani’s contribution will combine the information and methods she has created with the vast array of tried and tested materials available. Leilani has developed herself as a trainer from the Salto training for trainers, but also from renowned coaches and authors, and adapted methods learned from these sources to meet the needs of youth workers.

Click here to read more about Leilani van Rheenen

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2009 – 2018 Melanie Allen, USA - Life Coach Leeds

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