A Coaching Power Tool Created by Gabrielle Gilliland
(Grief & Growth Coach, USA)
The Gift of Uncertainty
If you were offered a crystal ball that could accurately predict the rest of your life – every consequence of every choice you could make – would you use it? If you removed every bit of uncertainty from your future, how would it feel to move forward?
The word “uncertainty” has a bad reputation. It implies instability and a lack of control. A guarantee is the antithesis of uncertainty, and guarantees are desirable. They are selling points for products. You will get your money back if you’re not completely satisfied with your new television.
Guarantees offer peace of mind.
The ubiquity of guarantees in consumer culture might serve as a sobering reminder that life offers us very little in the way of certainty. Imagine that you and your colleague are scheduled to give a huge presentation to the president of your company. Your colleague is the more confident speaker, so he will deliver the presentation while you manage the slideshow. You spent weeks working late to prepare the content. Your plan seems airtight. The night before the presentation, your colleague falls ill, and is unable to come in to work the next day. You’re on your own! No amount of planning could guarantee your colleague’s health. It’s beyond your control.
At first glance, this can seem like a glass-half-empty scenario. However, just as uncertainty can leave the door open for an undesirable turn of events, the same uncertainty allows life to surprise us in the most pleasant and beautiful ways. You muster up the courage to deliver the presentation by yourself, and the company president is so impressed with you that he offers you a promotion.
All changes in life, voluntary and involuntary, come with some measure of uncertainty, and uncertainty requires us to adapt when things don’t go according to our plans. How readily we adapt depends on how we see ourselves as we face the unknown. If our self-image is one of vulnerability, we are more likely to feel like a victim of our circumstances; unable to distinguish the factors that are within our control from those that are not. As we move away from this disempowering perspective and toward a state of openness, we are able to tap into our inner resourcefulness, responding to uncertainty by finding solutions, and learning from the experience as we go.
What role do we play in a world without guarantees? If we perceive ourselves as vulnerable in the face of uncertainty, we are allowing our circumstances – including the factors we cannot control – to dictate how we feel. The energy that we could use to fuel our resourcefulness is funneled into worry about the outcome of the situation. We are “bracing ourselves” for the turbulence of change, rather than allowing ourselves to be open to the lessons and opportunities for growth that might result. Because we feel powerless, we are more likely to be overwhelmed by an unexpected turn of events, and we depend on our circumstances, rather than ourselves, for comfort.
When our self-image shifts toward one of openness, we start to accept and make peace with the uncertain nature of life, because we are confident in our ability to adapt if things don’t go the way we hope. We see ourselves as protagonists rather than victims as we apply our resourcefulness to tackling the factors that are in our control. We don’t waste precious energy fretting about things that are out of our hands. Our openness fosters a sense of curiosity, which enables us to see possible solutions that we may not have previously considered.
Alice’s Story – Two Perspectives in Action
Alice is a young woman who is facing the possibility of a major life change. Here, we have two versions of her story. Version #1 illustrates the perspective of vulnerability, and Version #2 illustrates openness.
Alice had been at the same accounting job for over 3 years when it was announced that her department would be downsizing, and that there was a very good chance that she was going to be laid off within a month. Alice’s immediate reaction was panic – she depended on her salary to pay her rent and all of her bills. Also, after 3 years at the same job, the prospect of starting over at a new job felt overwhelming. Alice believed that she would only feel better if her job was spared, and she spent many hours worrying about the executives’ decision regarding the cuts in her department. As a result, Alice was emotionally exhausted. She stopped exercising, and was unable to sleep well because of the constant worry. A few weeks later, Alice was informed that she was being laid off. Already worn out, Alice now faced the grim prospect of looking for a new job.
In Version #1, Alice expended a great deal of energy worrying about the executives’ decision, which was beyond her control. It compromised her resourcefulness, because she was too exhausted and preoccupied to maintain her self-care or begin planning for the possibility of having to change jobs.
Alice had been at the same accounting job for over 3 years when it was announced that her department would be downsizing, and that there was a very good chance that she was going to be laid off within a month. Since Alice depended on her salary to pay her rent and all of her bills, she knew that she needed to start thinking about a backup plan in case her job was cut. Alice began working on a detailed budget for all of her expenses. She found that she could get by on $300 less per month by reducing some of her non-essential spending, like going out to dinner and getting a manicure every 2 weeks. She also decided to add some more money to her savings account by selling some old household items that she had put into storage. A few weeks later, Alice was informed that she was being laid off. She was disappointed, but since she had reduced her monthly spending, she had worked out that she could live off of her existing savings for at least 2 months while she looked for a new job. Alice’s newfound free time reminded her of all of the things she had missed doing while she was so busy as an accountant. She remembered the job she held as a retail clerk before her accounting job. The salary was lower than her accountant salary, but the job was far less exhausting, and offered more flexible hours. She called her former employer, and he agreed to hire her again. With more energy and spare time, Alice began to paint again – a lifelong passion – and after 6 months, she had enough artwork to participate in a small group exhibition, where she sold 3 paintings.
In Version #2, Alice approached the possibility of losing her job with purpose. She channeled her energy toward preparing a budget that would allow her to transition smoothly if the executives decided to let her go. Her resourcefulness and curiosity opened her mind to possibilities outside of accounting, and she was able to rekindle an old passion for painting.
Change is at the core of coaching. Many clients seek coaches because they have an idea for a change they want to make in their lives, and are ready to dive in and start creating action. Some clients turn to coaching for support as they navigate the unfamiliar territory of an involuntary change.
As coaches, we can use this power tool as we listen for clues about how our clients perceive themselves in the face of uncertainty. Powerful questions can start creating awareness around a client’s self-image:
- How do you define your role in this situation?
- How would you like to show up during and after this transition?
A client who perceives him or herself as vulnerable might talk about feeling “helpless” or “stuck” unless something – even a factor outside of his or her control – is resolved. As coaches, we can support our clients in making the shift toward the more empowering perspective of openness by drawing a client’s attention to his or her resourcefulness:
- What are three things that you can do to make this transition smoother?
- If you were wearing your courageous hat right now, what would you do?
- What are your greatest strengths? How can they be applied to the situation you’re currently facing?
Another way to approach this type of coaching scenario is to use the analogy of a book or movie plot. Clients who perceive themselves as victims of their circumstances might benefit from being asked to view the situation with themselves in the leading role:
- You mention that these things keep happening to you. What if you were to happen to this situation instead? What would that look like?
- If you were the lead character in this book, what would be the moral of the story?
It should be noted that the term “vulnerable” means different things in coaching. In the context of this power tool, vulnerability is a disempowering perspective because it compromises a client’s resourcefulness and ability to adapt to sudden change. In the coaching relationship, we want to create a safe space where the client trusts us enough to be vulnerable during the coaching process. This type of vulnerability is positive – the client can explore her deepest beliefs and fears without worrying about judgment or a break in confidentiality. Interestingly, this type of vulnerability is a pathway to openness, as it lays the foundation for transformations to occur.
- Can you recall a time when you faced a great deal of uncertainty due to an unexpected turn in events?
- How did you respond to that uncertainty?
- What action steps did you take to help navigate your new circumstances?
- When you look back on that experience, how would you describe your role?
- What lessons did you learn from that experience?
- Moving forward, what impact did those lessons have on you?