In a recent conversation with friends and colleagues in the United States and Europe, Marilee Adams, author of an insightful best-seller—“Change Your Questions, Change Your Life”—said, “The antidote to uncertainty is inquiry.” Since then, I have been reflecting on the truth of this observation.
“Antidote” usually refers to a medicine to counteract a particular poison. Although uncertainty is not a poison, the discomfort we feel with uncertainty can become one. So, although I like the pithiness of Marilee’s statement, I want to expand it to say, “The antidote to our discomfort with uncertainty—and uncertainty itself—is inquiry.”
We live with uncertainty all the time. Life is, by its very nature, always changing—forever uncertain. The truth of this is more explicit than ever these days. Uncertainty is not a bad thing on its own. It’s our reaction to it that can be poisonous.
How might inquiry serve as an antidote to uncertainty and what you are likely feeling about it: anxiety, fear, excitement, dread, anger, or sadness? Inquiry helps you explore what is actually going on inside and around you. It probably sounds counterintuitive, but asking what Adams calls “learner” questions is a more effective way to manage the discomfort of uncertainty than pushing it away or pretending it’s not happening. Learner questions you might want to ask include:
- What is happening?
- Why is it happening?
- How do I feel about what’s happening?
- How else could I think about this?
- What, if anything, do I want to do about it?
- What are my choices?
- What can I learn from this situation?
Such questions are ultimately more helpful to you than replaying whatever disaster scenarios you have in your head ad nauseum or the distractions you might be indulging in. Either or both of these will likely exacerbate or prolong the pain of uncertainty. Physiologically, questions engage the executive functions in the Central Executive Network and calm the more primitive parts of the brain that are likely whipping up your feelings.
Paradoxically, questions can lead us into more uncertainty—more into the unknown. And yet, if you consciously choose to delve into the unknown, it can eventually decrease your discomfort as you explore what’s going on inside you; in the social field around you; and in the larger field in which the previous two are nested. Ironically, this exploration can help you embrace the unknown and feel more settled in an uncertain world.
What’s going on inside you?
Because the brain evolved to keep us alive, it craves certainty and predictability. Thus, if you are currently experiencing a constant low- or high-level buzz of anxiety in the background or foreground these days, it makes sense. So much is unknown about everything: work, school, health, even the security of our elections this fall.
Watch the tendency to distract yourself with chaos or rigidity. Chaos might take the form of channel surfing or getting lost in social media. These activities, while distracting, can also feed the anxiety you’re trying to avoid. Rigidity might look like harsh judgments about everything and everyone. When I found myself wanting to scream at other hikers for not wearing masks on a trail recently, I knew I needed to investigate what was going on inside. Although I was fearful of the other hikers, my extreme reaction sprung from sadness. I had just said goodbye to a friend moving to Oregon.
When you are tempted to distract yourself with chaotic activities or become rigidly judgmental, I invite you to pause, take a breath, and ask yourself “What is going on inside right now? What am I feeling, thinking, or sensing in my body?” This is an important first step in being able to ask questions about what is going on around you.
What’s going on in the social field?
Although most of human interaction occurs online these days, we still affect and are affected by a social field. The social field is made up of a series of forces including the thoughts, emotions, and body sensations of those with whom you are interacting and the group norms that have evolved over time. Group norms include what is okay and not okay to talk about. Even if you are not talking face to face, you know when you have walked into someone else’s internal field. You can sense their energy and feelings. Their enthusiasm can evoke yours or trigger upset inside you because you don’t understand or share their perkiness.
Given that most of us, if not all of us, feel a bit on edge these days, I encourage you to inquire into and manage your internal state to the best of your ability. This will help you to contribute to a social field that at the very least does not exacerbate people’s anxieties and at most lessens their fear. For example, I allocate at least two minutes before any call to check in on how I am in that moment, ground myself in my body, and connect with my breathing.
In addition to preparing yourself, you can explicitly shape a social field by asking good questions of others. Such questions might include ones like, “How are you feeling: body, mind, heart, and spirit?” Or, “What’s working well and perhaps not working well in how we are working together these days remotely?” “What are we learning about ourselves, our work, our organization, our community, or our purpose?” All of these questions might create new group norms, help people connect in more personal ways, and lessen a pervasive sense of uncertainty.
What’s going on in the larger field that encompasses the internal state and the social field?
Thanks to the availability of news 24/7, we might know too much about the national and global field encompassing our lives right now. These fields seem to be ricocheting between chaos and rigidity. For now, let’s just focus on a medium-sized social field that includes the context or background of your interaction, the culture of the organization or community in which you operate, and the history of where you are.
For example, the pandemic-related shifts to distance learning in our community college and state university is wielding a significant blow to local businesses already struggling to survive. Fortunately, the culture in this rural region is very caring. For example, we have 915 registered nonprofit organizations in Humboldt County—approximately one nonprofit for every 147 residents. However, there is also a long history of political polarization in which they do their work. These forces are all affecting how they are responding to the current crises in visible and invisible ways. Are they investigating these forces as they rethink what their work is and how to carry it out? I know some are.
For purposes of exploration, I described three “fields”—internal, social, and a larger encompassing field—as if they are separate entities. In reality, they are all interconnected, all simultaneously arising and reciprocally influential. It is likely impossible to explore all of them and understand how they are affecting us. However, we could do a better job of noticing that such fields exist and become curious about how they are affecting us and how we work with others. We can also craft questions that help us create more generative fields inside us, around us, and in the larger fields influencing both of these. For example, what might happen if we collectively inquire into how we got here, how we feel about it, and what we want to do about it? What if we could take advantage of this time of immense uncertainty to ask bigger, better, more learning-full questions like, “What’s the future we most passionately want to create together?”
Such questions help us open up more with curiosity and relieve us from the fear of the unknown.
Take care, be safe, ask good questions,
P.S. Thank you, Phil Bakelaar for the artwork!