Embracing Ambiguity

Aleppo. Syria, 2020.

Ambiguity is something all of us have to deal with, to different degrees. We may find ourselves in ambiguous situations at work or in our personal lives. If we’re unlucky, both. Ambiguity has the potential to impact our lives in a negative way, making us anxious and contributing to stress.

When operating in a higher-risk environment, you can be faced with oppressive amounts of ambiguity. Every aspect of your operating environment may seem different. Your inability to immediately understand the physical and social mechanics of your environment can exacerbate feelings of uncertainty and tension. Add risks into the mix, and you have a cocktail that will almost certainly drive heightened levels of anxiety and stress. Increased anxiety and stress will impact your performance, placing you at risk. It’s a vicious cycle that can expose you to real risks. If you’re operating in a higher-risk location, you can’t afford to have lapses in alertness or judgement.

There are a few factors that can drive feelings of ambiguity. Here’s a few of the factors I’ve come across during my own assignments:

  • Lack of familiarity with the physical operating environment (ranging from not understanding what I’m observing to not knowing where I am).
  • Lack of familiarity with local cultural and social dynamics.
  • Not being sure of the intentions of others.
  • Not knowing what’s going to happen next in a tense social interaction.

Added to this list may be ambiguity about your roles and responsibilities, or about the nature of your assignment. But these more routine factors can be overshadowed by the feeling that you don’t understand your operating environment, and the possibility that there may be things in that environment that may be intent on harming you. If you’re still trying to adapt to the fact that people drive on the other side of the road, how are you going to be able to identify a spotter that sits outside your hotel and reports when you arrive and depart?

Many of us — me included — like to think we’re okay with ambiguity. However, from experience, ambiguity can work a bit like a rising tide. Before long, you’re in over your head.

Looking at the list of factors above, it should be clear that quite a few of these factors can be addressed through deliberate activities designed to chip away at ambiguity. If you’re able to break down the concept of ambiguity into its different component parts, you can then address each part in a deliberate and systematic way to reduce ambiguity.

Of course, you’ll never be able to eliminate ambiguity. There’s no getting around the fact that you will need to become accustomed to working in situations where there are unknowns and unpredictable outcomes. But there’s no question that you’ll be more effective if you’re able to reduce the level of ambiguity (and anxiety and stress) to more tolerable levels.

The following sections provide actionable recommendations for systematically reducing ambiguity during your assignments in higher-risk locations. These recommendations come from my own experience operating in some pretty ambiguous circumstances.

1. Make the unfamiliar familiar

A good start point to begin decreasing the feeling of ambiguity is to build your level of familiarity with those aspects of your operating environment that are different from what you may be used to. To be able to do this, you’ll need to be sufficiently self aware to recognise those differences.

Remember: Your environment is not actually different. It’s just different to you.

A useful technique to help you better understand your operating environment is to isolate the known and understood aspects of your environment. By doing that, you’ll probably find that many aspects of your environment aren’t that different from what you’re used to. From there, you can focus on the aspects that are more ambiguous. The way I’ve learned to approach ambiguous aspects of my environment is to categorise them as good, neutral, and bad. Good ambiguous things may be slightly unclear, but they’re not going to kill me. Bad ambiguous things may have the potential to cause me harm. Neutral ambiguous things could cut either way. Taking this approach also helps me to prioritise my how I go about learning about my operating environment. Understanding the bad ambiguous things should obviously be a priority.

Of course, you’re not going to make your operating environment any less ambiguous from the air-conditioned comfort of your hotel room. Provided it’s safe to do so, get outside and build your familiarity with the sights, sounds and smells. Walk the streets and explore the nooks and crannies.

In addition to understanding your physical environment, take time to understand the social environment. Spend time people watching. Chat with locals. Ask lots of questions. Make use of local fixers and guides where available. Often things that appear ambiguous can be pretty straightforward once you do some basic investigation and ask the right questions.

All of these activities should be planned. You’ll want to be as efficient as possible with your time, while also carefully managing your risk exposure. The faster you can understand your operating environment, the faster you’ll be able to reduce both ambiguity and anxiety.

2. Limit your exposure to ambiguous situations

Aside from the physical aspects of your operating environment, you may also face ambiguous situations. How you respond in an ambiguous situation can have a significant impact on your safety. If, for example, you allow an interaction to escalate because you’ve misread social cues, you could quickly find yourself in a life-threatening situation.

Particularly at the start of your assignment — when you’re unfamiliar with your operating environment and the social dynamics — you can deliberately choose to limit your exposure to ambiguous situations. If street-level corruption is a problem, for example, limit your movement at night or in certain parts of town. You may also want to be conservative in your activities to give the authorities no reason to stop or confront you.

Local fixers and guides can help create a buffer between you and ambiguous situations, by interacting and negotiating on your behalf. Even if you don’t typically use fixers and guides, you’ll find that they can help accelerate your understanding of your environment. Money will spent.

As you build your experience, you can progressively increase your exposure to more ambiguous situations. Visit those parts of town you’ve been avoiding. Of course, don’t deliberately expose yourself to situations with unknown and potentially adverse outcomes.

Christmas in Damascas. Syria, 2020.

3. Make and break rules

Develop a set of rules (or guiding principles), and use these rules to direct your activities and interactions. Effectively, you’re providing your own set of guard rails to help avoid getting into trouble. Your rules or principles provide a framework for action, reducing ambiguity.

Here’s three simple rules to start with that would apply to many higher-risk environments:

  • Avoid getting into interactions with local authorities.
  • Avoid impoverished areas.
  • Avoid wandering around after 10pm at night.

(Note that these rules are designed for the start of your assignment, when you’re still trying to understand your operating environment.)

Whatever rules you decide to set, it’s perfectly fine to decide those break rules, provided you’re fully aware that you’re breaking them and understand the reasons why. You can also adjust these rules as you learn more about your operating environment, either relaxing them or tightening them up a notch. You may add new rules. Looking at my three examples above, it’s actually good to build relationships with local authorities in some contexts. But, it’s better to wait until you know the lay of the land (and the dynamics of local factional allegiances, which can be complex).

5. Be clear on your task

Task ambiguity can be a serious problem in almost all work-related contexts. It’s important that you’re clear on the requirements of your assignment. In addition to knowing what you’re required to do, also be clear on the things you can’t do.

Most higher-risk environments are typified by high levels of corruption at all levels of government. Getting things done may demand you pay bribes, make donations or provide gifts. Is this okay? Well, it depends. Even if you’re morally okay with paying a bribe, doing so typically exposes you to a range of other risks. Understanding these risks is an essential part of the decision-making process. Paying a bribe may also not be necessary; you’ll often find there are other levers you can pull to get what you want.

6. Be clear on your motivations

I’ve always believed that one of the keys to avoiding ambiguity and anxiety is to know why you’re there, doing what you’re doing. Understanding your own motivations is therefore an essential requirement when operating in higher-risk environments.

If you don’t know why you are there, doing what you’re doing, you’re probably in the wrong place.

Shopping for Valentine’s Day in Damascus. Syria, 2020.

7. Be prepared to make decisions with limited information

Be prepared to make decisions without having access to all the information you would normally consider essential to making a fully-informed decision.

Instead of allowing yourself to be paralysed by a lack of information, hone in on those pieces of information that are essential to make an effective decision.

Another option is to break the decision down into smaller and more achievable steps. Taking this approach, you can make less committing decisions with reduced downside risks.

Being able to intuit the consequences of a particular piece of information not being available or being wrong will also help guide your decision-making processes. Not all information will be critical to all decisions. The art is to know the relative importance of each piece of information, and understand the potential consequences of moving forward without a specific piece of knowledge.

Be conscious of the ‘known unknowns’ that define your operating environment, and take active steps to make the unknown known.

8. Plan for different contingencies

Operating in an ambiguous environment will be slightly easier if you’re well prepared.

More importantly, you need to know you’re well prepared. You need that level of inner confidence that comes when you’ve invested the time to assess risks and implement measures to minimise those risks.

Planning for contingencies is a key aspect of preparedness. If you know you’ve considered different eventualities and have plans in place for each, you’ll feel more in control of your activities.

Knowing you have a trusted local support network available to you also helps.

9. Be calm in the moment

When a situation does occur,

take a breath




Don’t be in a rush to act.

A poorly considered action is more likely to make a situation worse than not taking an action at all. Maintain a neutral demeanour. If you’re able to delay making a decision in the moment, do so.

10. Keep things simple

While the world outside may seem chaotic, it’s good to keep things as simple as possible. Pack the minimum, do one thing at a time, avoid necessary distractions. Maintaining a simple life while on assignment gives you a psychologically stable platform from which to operate.

11. Reflect on what you’ve learned

When you’re operating in a new location, you’ll be continually learning. Take time to reflect on what you’ve learned to see how far you’ve come. You may find that a lot of the initial ambiguity has gone away as you’ve learned more about your operating environment.

Purchasing protest paraphernalia. Lebanon, 2019.

12. Embrace ambiguity

While you can and should actively seek to reduce the amount of ambiguity in your operating environment, you’re not going to be able to eliminate ambiguity. You’ll therefore need to accept the fact that some level of ambiguity is inevitable.

In fact, I would suggest a level of ambiguity is desirable.

Perhaps ambiguity brings with it a degree of serendipity?

I’m an advocate of maintaining a positive relationship with ambiguity. Bring it in and give it a hug.

Operating in an ambiguous environment provides latitude to get things done. Sure, it can be confusing and stressful at times, but that doesn’t mean the overall experience needs to be negative. Certainly, ambiguity shouldn’t be a constraint on your work. Rather, it should open up options to be explored.

Here’s another way to look at it: Perhaps it’s actually the ambiguity that makes many assignments exciting and exhilarating. Of course, as some of you might know from first-hand experience, there’s a very fine line between exciting and exhilarating and fucking terrifying.

Where is point 4? Does it matter? Are you missing out on important knowledge? Is it a source of anxiety, or can you just ignore the fact that there isn’t a number 4? Perhaps number 4 is unlucky in some cultures, so it just didn’t get included. Or maybe I just didn’t check my work (entirely plausible).

Grant Rayner is the founder of Spartan9. His work primarily involves supporting clients navigate complex and higher-risk environments.

For additional information and insights, read The Guide to Travelling in Higher-Risk Environments and browse through our other publications. When you’re ready to go a level deeper, consider our training workshops. If you’d like to follow our work, the best way is via our monthly newsletter — subscribe here. Also infrequently on Instagram and Twitter.

If there are other aspects of travelling to complex and higher-risk environments you’d like to explore or learn more about, please let me know.




Founder, Spartan9.

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Grant Rayner

Grant Rayner

Founder, Spartan9.

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