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How to respond to ambiguity with clarity

Liz Guthridge Posted by Liz Guthridge, Managing Director, Connect Consulting Group.

Liz Guthridge is a coach, consultant and facilitator who helps leaders turn their blue-sky ideas into greener-pasture actions. She uses applied neuroscience, behavior design and mindful communications. 


“Communication. Understanding. Clarity.” – Character from Dave Egger’s novel The Circle explaining that communication should never be in doubt with all the technology available to us.

What a pipe dream!

Ambiguity hinders our ability to achieve clarity. Ambiguity in all its types – such as vagueness, uncertainty, and multiple interpretations – is engulfing us, whether we’re conversing directly with others or messaging on our devices.

Consider this recent exchange my brother had at an airport parking garage.

The attendant asked my brother David who he was traveling with and my brother responded, “I’m alone.”  

The attendant again asked who my brother was traveling with and this time my brother answered that he was by himself.

The attendant then asked a third time who my brother was traveling with. By this point, David said he was getting so frustrated that he asked whether the attendant saw anyone with my brother since my brother said he was traveling alone.

On his fourth try, the attendant changed his query. He then asked my brother, “What airline are you flying?”

“Oh!” my brother answered with relief. “I now understand what you want to know. I’m flying American Airlines, which is a ‘what’ not a ‘who.’ That’s why your line of questioning confused me.”

My brother and I have decided that this parking attendant is one of the rarest English-speaking people in America these days. Have you noticed that most speakers and writers use the word “that” rather than “who” when referring to fellow humans? (In fact, The New York Times columnist Frank Bruni just mused on this in What Happened to Who?) Yet this parking lot attendant used “who” to refer to an airline.

To manage on a daily basis as well as lead effectively in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world, you need to be as clear as possible.  

From a practical perspective, how can you strive to achieve clarity so you can avoid wasting time and energy during your work day with all of the ambiguity?

Here are five tips to deal with ambiguity:

  1. Define the pronouns being used. Take a moment to specify who the “who” is to make sure everyone is straight about who’s who and what the implications are, especially if you’re supposed to be following up with someone.
  1. Watch out for euphemisms. When either you or the individual you’re talking with are beating around the bush – that is, using indirect language rather than being direct, make sure you agree on the meaning. For example, if a former co-worker is in “career transition” does that mean the individual is looking for a new job in the same field or industry or preparing to do something totally different?
  1. Double check punctuation. Even if you remember your grammar lessons from grammar school, punctuation can still trip you up. For example, many of us who have preferred AP style for commas in a series (example: red, white and blue) are now reconsidering whether we should adopt the Oxford comma (example: red, white, and blue) based on the recent employment law case. (If you missed this news event, you can check out the New York Times story Lack of Oxford Comma Could Cost Maine Company Millions in Overtime Dispute.)
  1. Query potential wordos. It’s easy to say or write the wrong word, such as substituting “brands” for “generics” or vice versa. If you’re on the receiving end and the context for the word seems odd or off, question it rather than accept it. Even the most careful individuals can misspeak and miswrite, and come up with wordos – real words that are inappropriate for the situation.
  1. Be aware of the “known unknowns” – which is another name for uncertainty in our VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world. (“Known unknowns” is also a quote by the former Department of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about the Iraq war. Some consider the quote gobbledygook; others view it as descriptive of the environment we live and work in, as explained here. When you’re dealing with uncertainty, you can’t be definitive; however, you can be clear that the situation is unknown and probably ambiguous too.)

On a strategic level, you’ll have a valuable tool this fall when Karen Martin’s latest book comes out. In Clarity First: How Wise Leaders and Organizations Achieve Outstanding Performance, which is now available for pre-order, Karen explains why clarity matters. She also describes  how leaders can aim for greater clarity on both a personal and organizational level. Then by embracing transparency, truth, and tenacity, they can optimize performance at every level and reduce the drag from ambiguity.

Yes, you need to have tenacity and perseverance to resist ambiguity and achieve clarity.

Are you willing to persist for clarity’s sake?