The symptoms of ambiguity anxiety present in manifold forms. Some sufferers struggle to think straight or make sense of their experiences. In others, it manifests in emotional responses or physical ailments, like aches, pains, headaches, tiredness and exhaustion.

The triggers of ambiguity anxiety can be compartmentalised into something we call FACE.

F stands for Fear – projected concerns of what might happen in the future.

A represents Attachment, Aversion, Anger – what is perceived or known.

C signifies our need for Control – we crave stability and clarity.

E denotes Entitlement – a social sense of what is right.

Sometimes ambiguity anxiety shows up clearly as, “Oh, I am feeling anxious”. Yet often, it appears in different ways. The symptoms are diverse, as are humans’ instinctive strategies for dealing with it.

As early as 1950, Karen Horney found that people typically adopt three strategies to mitigate risk and achieve psychological and/or physical safety when suffering anxiety.

The first strategy is Move Towards – build protection to minimise the threat of judgment and criticism. The second strategy is Move Against – to control, dominate and intimidate. The third strategy is Move Away – to avoid others and the situation. 

In an attempt to keep ourselves safe we can often unknowingly deploy these strategies in trying to create stability and avoid danger. Yet, as Hogan & Hogan found in 2001, such strategies can appear as the shadowy dark side of people’s personalities. They are often the basis of dilapidating office politics and resentment within organisations.

This trio of strategies is likely to exacerbate our existing problems and trigger new ones. What can we do instead?

A first, important strategy is light-heartedness. As a way of bringing lighter perspectives to my own ambiguity anxieties, I have labelled the experiences as being in ‘wonky donkey’ territory. When I experience myself or others having a wonky donkey moment, it helps me bring a sense of perspective to the situation.

A second, useful, tool is to create a supportive context. Sometimes, the resolution of an issue or problem is unnecessary. All that is required is to be understood and acknowledged.

There are several ways to create supportive contexts.

The first is through listening. Purposefully listening is about focusing our attention on being fully present in the moment, hearing and understanding what is being said.

The second way is through suspending judgment. Just because we may consider something unchallenging, doesn’t mean that this is the case for others. It is impossible to fully support, hear and honour the experiences of others if we are diverting our attention inwards and making judgments.

A third way is to reserve interpretation – sometimes our perceptions fail to match reality. Many people struggle to show and acknowledge their vulnerabilities to themselves, let alone others. Vulnerabilities can often present as anger that can be triggered by unconscious by-products of inner pain or anxiousness.

There are also qualities that we can utilise to establish empathy and support. Equanimity – calmness and composure – is a powerful trait. Compassion – sympathetic concern – is a valuable characteristic. Kindness – tenderness and consideration – helps immeasurably.

All of this guidance helps leaders help others. Yet much of our approach will be blunted if we fail to apply the learnings inwardly. 

A key philosophy formed from my own experience is that we are unable to support others until we support ourselves. This is particularly true if we are criticising, judging, bullying, shaming or pushing ourselves.

By paying attention and listening to our internal dialogue, we can direct some empathetic qualities inside. It is crucial that we prevent our own anxiety becoming the enemy of good leadership.

Catherine Hayes is an organisation transition and transformation specialist. Her book Transition Leadership, Navigating the Complexities of Organisational Change is published in June 2020.

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