22 Sep Seven Questions to Transform Uncertainty into Action
When I was a teen, I worried a lot. I worried about exams and grades. I worried about friends opinions of me. And I agonized about how I would tell my dad I did not want to go to the college he had his heart set on me attending. I’d pile one worry on top of another then project those worries into the future until I felt overwhelmed and confused about what to do.
I tried to keep my worries to myself but my mom could always tell something was up. She would give me a warm hug, ask what was going on, and I’d open up my heart to her. She came up with a name for my worrying – “lumping.”
Thanks to Mom and the learning lab of life, I learned two skills that moved me out of the paralysis of lumping and uncertainty.
Develop Awareness: What does uncertainty feel like to you?
The knot in my stomach. The endless loop of thoughts and questions spinning / racing in my brain. Distractedness. Breath constricted in the top portion of my lungs. This is how lumping shows up in my body. The familiar pattern sabotages my ability to think clearly and discern action. If I pause, I am able to recognize the saboteur and greet it: “Ah, there you are again – you’ve got me lumping again.” That act alone helps the anxiety dissipate.
Take the First Next Step: Create Fuel for Action
Years ago, I was mentally churning over how a board of senior leaders would respond to a proposal I had developed. At the suggestion and urging of a wise a co-worker, I decided to float the proposal informally by a few trusted senior colleagues, to get their take on how the board might respond. They were happy to help, and gave me feedback and suggestions for how to frame my pitch. I felt my uncertainty unlock and dissolve. I had fuel now, rather than friction, to propel me forward.
In my coaching work, I encounter a lot of clients who are lumping. It’s particularly common with people who are strong analytical thinkers. We want to research every option, question, and angle on an issue, in order to chart the best course of action. In the process of analyzing, we often uncover more complexity or ambiguity, which complicates the quandary. I help my clients recognize the analysis paralysis, name it (thanks Mom!), and then move to action.
Seven questions can help us explore the uncertainty and shake things loose:
- What is keeping me stuck?
- What emotions am I feeling about this situation and how are they helping or hindering me?
- What information do I have now that could help me move forward?
- What information do I need?
- How might I go about getting that information?
- What is the next first step I could take toward seeking clarity?
- What will it take for me to take that step by say, next Thursday?
These questions kickstart a mental movie where we see ourselves going out and doing something. They also can uncover Big Stumbling Blocks that keep us locked up. In my case, I’ve had to confront two long-held beliefs that have kept me in the quagmire of Lumping Land.
Belief Number 1 – I have to figure this out by myself. (Because I was taught to value independence, to not rely on others.)
Belief Number 2 – I don’t want to bother other people. (Because they are busy/important and I don’t know them well enough.)
When I “bothered” my senior colleagues and asked for feedback on my proposal, everything broke loose. There was another positive by-product of asking for their input: they came to regard me as a thoughtful influencer, open to input and critique.
I have found this observation by Karl Weick, the organizational theorist, holds true: “People find their way forward not because they have a good strategy or map, but because they begin to act and discover what could be done next.”
Our directed action shrinks uncertainty. We realize we have the power to find answers, define options, weigh them, and take good decisions. We discover we can iterate as we go. We don’t need to figure it all out in advance.
We are living in a time of unprecedented uncertainty, and many of us are experiencing the worry that comes with it. Acknowledge it, name it, and know that you are in good company. Then do something.