Our relationship with uncertainty and how it can facilitate active learning processes and personal inquiry: Good coaching still has a lot to learn about learning by Simon Darnton (Guest Blogger)

Chaos is probably an appropriate word to describe what has been unfolding since the Brexit vote of the 23rd June. The world, and especially the United Kingdom, has found itself dealing with considerably more uncertainty.

Both chaos and uncertainty are thus terms which are being bandied around a lot at the moment, not only in the media, but also with my clients in business and organisational contexts. I have noticed that there can be a tendency to use them interchangeably.

My Definitions

Chaos as I refer to it here is that of complete disorder and confusion.

Uncertainty is where:

 a) there is a lack of (or missing) information and/or knowledge;
 b) the consequences or outcomes of events, actions and/or decision are unpredictable.

In differentiating these meanings, I intend to focus on the uncertainty we face in a complex and dynamic world.

For the sake of false certainty

One could surmise following recent media coverage that uncertainty is a bad thing and that the logical resolution lies in (re)creating perceived certainty. This response is, of course, one of the natural reactions people have to uncertainty so it isn’t entirely surprising.

Uncertainty is generally considered to be an aversive state in psychology due to its association with uncomfortable and unpleasant emotions, most notably that of anxiety. As a result we tend seek ways of avoiding or reducing the associated discomfort.

To me the question lies in how we might do this, or not.

Uncertainty and how we function in relation to it is a real fascination for me, mostly because of the profiles of clients that I work with who live, work and compete in contexts that are steeped in both uncertainty and danger. In this world, uncertainty is a fact of life where rather than being avoided, it is embraced. It is part of the allure. This is what motivated me to write this piece; to provide some balance around uncertainty.

How we relate to uncertainty is in my experience critical to effective learning, development and growth, as well as performance improvement. In this post, I wanted to begin exploring how we might approach intentionally developing our relationship with it. Most importantly, I’ll be viewing it in a more positive light; one which not only enables learning and performance enhancement, but also how it can act as a powerful ally in psychological adventure and deep personal growth.

An Introduction to my approach and how it relates to uncertainty

Whilst I have significant organisational experience, my approach to coaching as it is today has been heavily influenced by years of dedicated coaching research into the psychology of elite motorcycle racers and athletes in other extreme sports, for example, downhill mountain biking. Alongside my business and organisation services, I run a specialist performance coaching practice where I work with world-class athletes in this context.

My interest in this area stems from my own experience riding and racing motorcycles. When I sought to understand psychological difficulties I was experiencing during competition, I found the available body of psychology woefully inadequate for me. It didn’t match my experiences so I found myself drawn to conduct my own phenomenological[1] inquiry with elite motorcycle racers.

One of the common themes that I found unfolded out of my research[2] and which continues to consistently feature in the racers’ descriptions of their experiences when competing at their best revolves around an acceptance of stepping into the unknown and of the uncertainty inherent in racing. This uncertainty is not just about the outcome of the race, for example, but extends all the way to riders entering corners at such speeds that they don’t know if they’re going to make it through the corner, or whether they’ll crash. Within this theme, it appeared to me that the most successful ones were those that dealt best with this uncertainty. Those that didn’t quite make it, or found themselves struggling to improve their performance would instead hold more onto a notion of certainty.

A simple example of holding onto a notion of certainty is something most of us do on a daily basis: repetition of movements, and especially learning new movements. The commonly held, yet false, belief is that we learn by repeating the same movement over and over again, whereas we are really learning because every repeated movement is different (and infinitely so). So we learn mastery through the experience of difference and variation[3].

The concept of uncertainty and how we relate to it therefore forms a central part of my approach in almost all the work that I do. It also helps to inform my approach to learning in the coaching relationship where I consistently find it important in breaking performance barriers with my clients.

Let me share an example from motorcycle racing:
I was approached by a motorcycle racer who had been knocking on the door to a podium finish for some time. He had discussed this glass ceiling at length with fellow racers and had already undergone training to develop his riding technique. Another racer I had previously worked with recommended that he talk to me because there weren’t any apparent technical or capability limitations to his performances.

The contract we agreed mutually was to enable him to break through and finish on the podium. Once this had been achieved, we would explore how to develop consistency in his performance. We agreed an initial block of 6 hour long sessions.

Within three sessions he achieved his first race win following which he fed back to me that his most important realisation during the process was accepting that he was always in unknown territory and that everything in racing was uncertain. This, he felt, opened the door to winning. He has since gone on to win multiple championships and continues to dominate his class.

This client was also a successful businessman and entrepreneur. At the end of our engagement he fed back that he had been approaching his business decisions in a similar way and had found more freedom and consistency as a result of being uncertain in the way he operated. He had found himself better able to explore and get a better feel for his operating environment which was becoming much more competitive.

How is this achieved? Flipping the psychological side

The most successful elite racers I studied all described a quality of reaching out of themselves as essential to their performance. This way of working developed from an important, notable theme which also emerged out of my research. For example, finding the grip or traction, finding good lines, and finding good rhythm. All these qualities came from a process of letting the circuit come to them, which depended on their connection with it. Combined with this, elite racers in my research tended to concur with each other that they did not believe they would ever know their environment. This is a frame of mind which keeps them exploring. 

It was notable in my research that this tendency to keep exploring related to how those performing at the pinnacle of their context literally saw the world differently, which enabled them to perform in remarkable ways within those contexts.

The themes relating to:

a) embracing uncertainty, and;
b) reaching outside themselves;

are inextricably linked and in order to explore them effectively in my work, it meant finding a different psychological approach.

Applying a more practical and relevant psychological approach

I do not view learning and development, or subsequent performance enhancement for that matter, as processes which arise out of the development or refinement of a client’s mental processes (which is generally the dominant approach in psychology today particularly that derived from cognitive approaches).

Instead I engage with clients in a mutual and co-operative journey to explore their perspectives and relationship with the world. This is done by employing a process of seeking further information and developing deeper knowledge about the characteristics of the environment within which my clients operate. (Another important related quality which I won't go into detail about here is that at the both the executive/entrepreneur and elite athlete levels, my clients are already sophisticated and aware thinkers within their context, so this is rarely the issue in my experience).

This aspect of my approach is grounded in the branch of Ecological Psychology derived from the work of J.J. Gibson and others[4]. I have used the principles (and a generous sprinkle of the underlying philosophical foundations) of Ecological Psychology to inform my work. One of the key aspects of my work and how employ Ecological Psychology is in working with what Gibson introduced as 'affordances.' The complete meaning of affordance is still under debate but I view them as qualities of the environment and how these qualities afford context based actions in relation to the perceiver[5].

For example, take an elite skier and put her at the top of a world cup ski run and the nature of that environment will afford her a certain relationship with it followed by appropriate and highly skilled actions. Put me at the top of the same slope and the outcome will be entirely different, probably quite disastrous. I would not have much idea how to tackle that particular environment as a skier.

This view of psychology, learning and development, applies just as well to any context because it applies to understanding the underlying principles of how we function as active participants in our world and specific contexts.

 In my work, I employ this psychological approach as continuous and active cycles of exploring the characteristics of our environment in relation to ourselves as if they are and always will be new, novel, and unknown and this I think requires a special appreciation of things.

We don't know and we never will...

The paradox of uncertainty here is that my clients - business and extreme sports ones - tend to report that when they begin to embrace uncertainty but do it from a perspective of continuously developing and refining their relationship with the world/environment, they can more readily accept it.

For example:

  • There seems to be a qualitative shift in how they act which encompasses an acceptance of the unknown realities of a complex world.
  • They also feel more connected to themselves as a whole and as a result, less uncertain in themselves.
  • The process changes their relationship with fear and anxiety about the outcome of their actions which also yields a much better, purer and natural engagement with it.

My clients tell me that our work helps them to get out of their heads more. In finding themselves out there more – connecting more directly with their environment - they become more inquisitive, more searching of the qualities of both what is going on around them and how they are doing themselves, with their feelings, emotions, thinking, and the relationships between these characteristics of their experiences.

The outcome measures

Due to the nature of my client engagements, both my clients and I assign most value in the outcome of my clients' experiences and the changes in their experiences that emerge from the process.

In business contexts, it is harder to provide consistent and specific concrete measures to back up self-reporting (because of the inherent complexity, ambiguity and difficulties in determining reliable causality in such contexts). In the elite sports context however, things are measured to the nth degree and there tends to be a greater emphasis on environmental controls where formal competition is involved (e.g. a race course associated with highly specific rules and regulations). Therefore, results from this approach have been measured by my clients through lap times and race and championship results.

Conclusions and where next

As you may have noticed, this is an area of passion and fascination for me and it’s a journey I feel I’m only beginning.  Writing this article has been a really valuable process of re-engaging with some of the underlying principles of my work and attempting to explicate these in what I hope is a meaningful and helpful way for others.

As the next step, my mind is wondering towards something which is more akin to exploring and describing some of the phenomenological qualities of my clients experiences of developing their relationships with uncertainty.

Footnotes and References:

[1] A phenomenological study is one where the researcher seeks to understand the conscious experience of participants and how they construct their meaning of the experience without trying to provide causal explanation or attempting toobjectify the experience. 
[2] http://www.simondarnton.com/inside-the-minds-of-motorcycle-racers
[3] Bernstein, N. A. (1996), Latash, M. L. (Ed), Turvey, M. T. (Ed), Dexterity and its Development (Resources for Ecological Psychology). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc. 
[4] See for example: Gibson, J. J. (1979). The ecological approach to visual perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Heft, H. (2001). Ecological psychology in context: James Gibson, Roger Barker, and the legacy of William James’s radical empiricism. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.  Reed, E. S. (1996). Encountering the world. New York: Oxford University Press. 
[5] See, Chimero, A. (2003) An Outline of a Theory of Affordances, Ecological Psychology 15(2) 181-195.

Bernstein, N. A. (1996), Latash, M. L. (Ed), Turvey, M. T. (Ed), Dexterity and its Development (Resources for Ecological Psychology). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Chimero, A. (2003) An Outline of a Theory of Affordances, Ecological Psychology 15(2) 181-195
Darnton, S (2001-2016) Inside the Minds of Motorcycle Racers, self-published http://www.simondarnton.com/inside-the-minds-of-motorcycle-racers.
Gibson, J. J. (1979). The ecological approach to visual perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Heft, H. (2001). Ecological psychology in context: James Gibson, Roger Barker, and the legacy of William James’s radical empiricism. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Reed, E. S. (1996). Encountering the world. New York: Oxford University Press.

To connect with Simon:

Simon Darnton provides clients with high quality thinking space which he combines with facilitation, consultation and dialogue to enable new learning, development and growth. This process provides the means for clients to effectively explore important questions, solve problems, remove limitations and improve their performance.

He holds a Master’s Degree in Psychological Coaching from the Metanoia Institute. He has a consultancy background where he has delivered work for organisations including Microsoft and Deloitte. He works with executives and entrepreneurs in business, elite and world-class athletes in extreme sports. He is an Associate Member of APECS.

+44 (0)7970 022 627