How to Thrive in Ambiguity: The Simple 6-Step Process - International Coaching Federation
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How to Thrive in Ambiguity: The Simple 6-Step Process

Posted by Lisa Christen | May 6, 2020 | Comments (1)

The human brain wasn’t designed to deal with an overload of rapid change, uncertainty and ambiguity. Unfortunately, whether we’re equipped to deal with it or not, these conditions are an unavoidable reality in the modern world. Our clients are searching for ways to create consistent certainty where certainty does not—or cannot—exist. After all, the very definition of ambiguity means that the understanding of a situation is unclear, possibly unknowable, and is open to multiple interpretations.

This overload can be confusing, exhausting and anxiety inducing. Clients often seek out a coach for help navigating ambiguous situations. Should I take the job with Company X or Company Y? Which product should we fund to grow sales next year? Clients know that coaches can’t give them answers. What we can give them is a simple six-step process that guides them to clarity.

The Three Stages

Rather than introducing a new tool for coaches to memorize, this framework simply puts together your known coaching tools into a clear step-by-step process. The process has three distinct stages:

  • The Mindset Steps: First, we open mindsets to be ready to take on confusing, partial and unknowable information. Mindset is about getting people emotionally prepared to take on the challenge they’re facing.
  • The Clarity Steps: Next, we help the client gain clarity on the heart of the challenge and what information is already known. Clarity is about zooming out and understanding the bigger picture of the situation.
  • The Action Steps: These guide the client to refocus on the problem at hand and what actions move us forward to make progress. Action is about zooming in to gain a practical understanding of the situation and next steps.

The 6-Step Process to Thriving in Ambiguity


1) Am I ready to face this ambiguous situation?

Clients need to have an awareness of their current mindset and whether that mindset is helping or hindering their approach to the ambiguous situation. Using coaching techniques, such as labeling emotions, can help clients to articulate their current mental state. Hint: Any fear-based mental state will be less helpful than an open and curious mindset. This awareness highlights the gaps between where the client’s mindset currently is and where they aspire to be.

2) Who do I choose to BE?

This step invites the client to actively choose who they are BEING and take action to close the gap identified in Step 1. Using tools, such as relating to personal values, life purpose, character or larger goals, can help the client connect with how they choose to show up to this ambiguous situation.


3)  What am I trying to do here and why?

Before the client jumps to details, zooming out to get clarity about the greater purpose of the situation is key. Our clients might initially answer this question with reasons such as wanting to stay competitive or because senior management said to, which are not zoomed out on greater purposes. Helping them to articulate the bigger impact they want to make will give them a clearer path on what it is they truly want to achieve.

4) What is the real problem?

A mentor shared the following wisdom with me early in my coaching career: It’s OK to spend 50 minutes of a one-hour session just understanding the problem. I questioned if that was creating enough value for the client if I “only” had 10 minutes to coach. But my mentor knew that figuring out the real problem is the value. No full solution can ever come without a full understanding of the problem.


5) Which data will I use?

Data scientists will tell you that their problem isn’t having too little data—it’s having too much data. We can help the client evaluate all of their data by asking open-ended questions such as, “How might this be relevant?” Any information that doesn’t feel particularly relevant can be removed from the consideration set, and the client can finally begin to come out from information overload and see a much clearer picture of the valuable information they already have available to them.

6) What are my next steps?

Clients don’t need a fully planned route in order to start their journeys. Instead, helping them to focus on taking one small next step is the key. That forward momentum encourages progress and clarity, and having a manageable step makes a situation feel less overwhelming or impossible.

By using this simple six-step process, we can support clients in letting go of their need to find one “right” answer (impossible) and re-focus on feeling confident about how to move forward towards the right answer (possible).  Our clients can learn not only to cope despite ambiguity, but to flourish when faced with it.


© Lisa Christen 2020

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Lisa Christen

Lisa Christen is the CEO of Christen Coaching & Consulting LLC, a leadership development firm specialized in creating 21st century leaders, teams and cultures. Lisa works with leaders from global organizations—such as Google, Mars, Dell, Swiss Re, Siemens and Brita—to help them bring humanness back to the digital workplace. Lisa has been featured in news outlets like CNN Money and and speaks at international conferences (including ICF Converge 2019). She holds an MBA, a PMP® Project Management Professional certification, and is an ICF-certified coach.

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Comments (1)

  1. Hi Lisa, thank you for a great article. I find it really helpful to have a set of steps that help me, and my clients, step out of the autopilot that often leads us astray when things get complex, uncertain and unknown.

    One thing I would add is that I believe the human brain was designed to deal with rapid change, uncertainty and ambiguity. That’s why we can do it well when we adopt a different approach. I believe that we are conditioned from a young age to privilege simplicity, stability and clarity.

    Hopefully the current level of uncertainty is giving people an opportunity to learn to be okay, or even thrive in the unknown. Unfortunately, I don’t think enough is being done to make this shift universal. A good start is to work with leaders and teams who are working to have large scale positive impact.

    All the best,

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