For a long time I was an enemy of ambiguity. I saw it as the opposite of clarity. Being in ambiguous situations would make me feel dis-empowered, excluded, and unequal. I felt ambiguity the negligence of people who wanted to retain information for themselves, or who didn’t care what other people needed to make sense of things. I felt it was toxic and I disliked the discomfort it gave me, intensely.
I always wondered why the ability to tolerate ambiguity was referred to as a personal strength – having only ever run small businesses – surely the existence of ambiguity was an organizational weakness.
This view was reinforced as a professional organizational communicator. My learning in that capacity showed me that while there are lots of things that are unclear, there are always explanations that can allow people to understand why – so removing the ambiguity.
For example, let’s say that a company strategy is unclear. An explanation can be that while the company is seeking to grow it’s customer base, it is looking to do this through reduced pricing as well as through exploring potential partnership deals with other companies, which can’t be shared but will be, if and when the opportunity arises.
This way, you are explaining why information is not forthcoming and the circumstances under which it will be, in due course. Of course, your traditional Communications Director would be horrified to even consider such a message, but these days, companies are expected to look in the direction of potential partnerships if they seek to grow. So what if the analysts talk – it’s not exactly going to bring down the share price.
And with that message you show some kind of truth-giving, some kind of authenticity, and a respect for the people you are communicating with. The alternative: silence, would be actually counterproductive as people seek to find their own explanations in the absence of a formal one.
However, it was only through looking at ambiguity square in the face one day, that I began to appreciate that it has an upside.
- Sometimes ambiguity is inevitable – people don’t know it exists; people can’t take responsibility for providing an explanation; people don’t have the skills to address it; or there just are other priorities.
- Sometimes ambiguity is your friend – it leaves doors open; it can help people form their own interpretations and shape things; it gives people time to influence things.
“Take advantage of the ambiguity in the world. Look at something and think what else it might be” – ROBERT VON EOCH
At the same time, there is of course the ambiguity that comes from poor planning; the ambiguity that is used as an excuse by people who want to keep others in the dark; or the ambiguity that just happens because someone is thoughtless or plain lazy.
I’m going to refer to the ability to tolerate inevitable ambiguity as a strength from now on, accepting that not everything can, or will, land as quickly and clearly as I might like.