Dealing with uncertainity

I have a confession to make…I sometimes scare clients. And what’s worse, so does everyone who works with clients. But there is a way forward and all it takes is some mild introspection.

I realised I scared clients in a meeting recently where I had been trying to inform one of our clients that they might not get everything that we had spoken about and that there would be a point at which they would have to make difficult decisions. They turned to me and said with genuine feeling — “You’re scaring me.”

This threw me, my approach, although rational and meant with the best intentions had startled them. And then I realised…Instead of using logic, I should have been targeting the layer underneath this — the very human reaction to uncertainty. By helping them deal with this, I would have helped them unlock the more rational side of their brain and made them more receptive to my facts.

The unknown

No-ones likes uncertainty, we’re wired not to. Why would we venture into a dark cave without knowing what is in there? Without packing a torch, some water and a rain jacket? To plan could save our lives.

This desire to stay alive is the subconscious undercurrent running through us all at decision points and it makes our brain seek comfort, to return to a natural balance, to achieve closure. We like knowing what the plan is, that a decision has been made. It frees us up from the worry of what might be, what might happen.

The less information we have about a situation, the more irrational and erratic we become as our brains fight to return to normal. This desire for closure increases if there is a perceived threat or pressure. If in the cave you encounter a wild mountain lion, the threat has increased, you might not think clearly, you might run towards it or freeze not knowing what to do.

Building a product isn’t a dark cave, but our brains don’t know any different — they are uncertain of the outcome, feel the pressure to succeed and are anxious about the threat of failure. We have to help our clients navigate the project, be the light through the darkness, comforting them, reminding them that we’ve done this before. Although their project is unique, we have experience in this area and we know the pitfalls and dangers to look out for.

So, how can we help people deal with uncertainty? Just think… HIRED

H FOR HUG: We can help them embrace the different possibilities — they may never get out of the cave, but maybe that’s okay, maybe they will create a new civilisation down there. Embracing the fact it may not turn out like they hoped will help their brains relax. Acceptance will help the fear dissipate and make them ready to listen to reason.

I FOR IDENTIFY: Identifying predictable elements of the situation will help their minds hook onto something comfortable and familiar. Look for similarities between your project and those that they run internally. Try to match up our process with theirs where possible.

Similarly, identifying what we don’t know yet will provide reassurance. Listing the unknowns can take away their power over us.

R FOR REASSURE: They have a successful business, they have dealt with uncertainty before, they can definitely do it again. Remind them of this and the benefits it will bring. Get them to identify examples of uncertainty they’ve dealt with in their business.

E FOR EMOTE: Address what they’re feeling, discuss the emotions, tease out what they might feel in the future. Inspecting the emotions in the light without having to feel them will make them less scary when they happen for real

D FOR DETERMINE Their need for closure. People with different personalities have different needs for decisions to be made quickly. Knowing this will allow us provide more support where needed.

So I need your help! What techniques have you used to get a client to open up? To share with us how they feel about uncertainty? If you’re particularly interested in this, let me know!