How to Force Uncertainty to Respond (and Improve Communication)

Updated: Oct 18



Communicating strategic decisions is a long game. And the long game consists of complexity (many interrelated parts) and uncertainty (not known beyond doubt or not clearly defined). This article provides several key observations about uncertainty and five tips on how to drive out uncertainty with FINESSE.


Knowledge (and the degree of its validation)

Uncertainty refers to epistemic situations involving imperfect or unknown information. It applies to predictions of future events, to physical measurements that are already made, or to the unknown. Uncertainty arises in partially observable or stochastic environments, as well as due to ignorance, indolence, or both (Norvig and Thrun).


Technical professionals drive toward collecting more data – more knowledge – but is that really what decision makers care about?


Three Key Points from Gary Klein

I recently took three points from an article by Gary Klein in Psychology Today (How Decision-Makers Can Handle Uncertainty: Analytical methods don't fare well amid confusion and ambiguity. September 7, 2022):


1. Uncertainty is the norm for decision-makers.


2. Uncertainty can stem from missing information, ambiguity, unreliable data, or contextual complexity.


3. For making decisions, analytical methods that work so well with clearly defined data elements become less useful in the face of uncertainty.


“The young officers, trained to plan by making calculations using clear and abundant information, are paralyzed in the face of uncertainty. They are gripped by "rationalist fever dreams"—the mindset that all difficult problems can be decomposed and analyzed so that responses can be calculated." - D.E. Klein, Woods, G. Klein, & Perry, 2018

Taking Action to Reduce Uncertainty

Effective communicators and facilitators take several actions to reduce uncertainty:


Ask Powerful Questions: Avoid hypotheticals. Focus on questions that relate the issue at hand to experience, like “the last time I saw this, …” or “in the aftermath of this [similar event], we wished we had known [this] before it happened?"


Establish the Problem Frame: Write down what is in the frame and what is outside of it. Print the problem frame and make it tangible for all. Remember, “a problem well defined is a problem half-solved.”


Reduce Noise: Decision makers and advisors with limited experience will want too much data and information. Recognize that information is communicated in three forms (number, narrative, and stories) and keep the three forms in balance.


Utilize Empathetic Listening: It takes practice and training to clear your mind, watch your expressions and words, and truly listen.


Recognize Synergy: Drive into the group dynamics by providing some pre-session information. Plant some information (which requires finesse to plant and still control it); however, observing the reactions exposes perceptions of uncertainty and risk.


Moving to Action

Take actions that are designed to cause the situation to clarify — force uncertainty to reveal itself. Communicate with FINESSE!