In June 2017 I had the pleasure to return to one of the many conferences for lawyers in the Twin Cities. Grateful for being invited as the closing keynote speaker at the Health Law Institute, I’ll share a few practical suggestions from my talk “Advising clients in uncertain times.”

There is no shortage or uncertainty, unpredictability, and complexity these days. Regardless of your field of expertise and your specific role, following tips may help you deal with uncertainty when advising your clients:

  1. Know your own relationship with and responses to uncertainty and unpredictability: How does it affect your own moods, behavior, patience etc.? How do you show your discomfort, in obvious and less obvious ways.
  2. Understand possible client feelings of confusion, dependence, anxiety, stress, frustration, and anger as ‘normal’, self-preserving responses to an ‘abnormal’ situation.
  3. Know that one of the brain’s main functions is prediction and that it dislikes uncertainty. Our brain registers uncertainty as some kind of pain and danger that needs to be avoided, either by denying or fighting it. This triggers a threat and alert response in the amygdalae in our limbic system. The more resources are used by the limbic system, the fewer are left for the prefrontal cortex to do it’s work, which includes logical thinking, analyzing, problem-solving and the like.
  4. Focus even more on being trustworthy and dependable. This minimizes unnecessary uncertainty and stress and it increases the client’s trust in you.
  5. Assure that the content of your written and spoken communication is absolutely structured, consistent, logical, and repeated.
  6. Own any mistakes you may make and amend them immediately to restore credibility. If you apologize while presenting the cure and displaying humble confidence, it does notmake you look weak unless you keep making (the same) mistakes.
  7. Anticipate individual variability in responses to uncertainty. Your client may stall necessary action, seek excessive reassurance, hear what they want to hear, and want to double check disproportionately where they wouldn’t in more certain times.
  8. Find predictable elements of the situation, help focus on what matters most and on what can be controlled.
  9. Help the client create different scenarios and contingencies.
  10. Provide certainty and clarity of process.
  11. Focus even more on “extreme trust”. For that I refer to Stephen Covey’s 13 trust building behaviors (book The Speed of Trust): Talk straight – Demonstrate respect -Create transparency – Right wrongs – Show loyalty – Deliver results – Get better – Confront reality – Clarify expectations – Practice accountability – Extend trust – Keep commitments – Listen first!


Lastly, when dealing with complicated matter, remember to apply:

  • Metacognition: Think about your own thinking. Is it sound, diverse, critical?
  • Reflection: Which cognitive biases and thinking errors may be at play here?
  • Consultation with contrarians: True teamwork depends on appreciating, seeking, and fully utilizing a wide variety of thinking styles and approaches.
  • Avoidance of tendencies such as emotional reasoning, allowing personal likes and dislikes to cloud your thinking, and over- or under-simplification.