ERIC Identifier: ED347486
Publication Date: 1992-12-00
Author: Gelatt, H. B.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Counseling and Personnel Services Ann Arbor MI.
Positive Uncertainty: A Paradoxical Philosophy of Counseling
Whose Time Has Come. ERIC Digest.
Counselors are change agents; counseling is the helping profession. Is it
time for counseling to change? Can counseling change and still be helpful? This
digest says yes and tells how.
Once upon a time the past was known, the future was predictable, and the
present was changing slowly. That was then, this is now. Today, the past isn't
what we thought it to be, the future is no longer predictable, and the present
is changing rapidly. Once upon a time counselors helped clients use a rational
process for making decisions, choosing what to be when they "grow up," and
preparing for and adjusting to change.
Today, decision making, growing up, and change aren't what they used to be.
Decision making is recognized as more than a rational process. What to be when
grown up is less important than growing. And change itself has changed so much
that our old beliefs, attitudes, and even knowledge are now out of date. To
become up to date with what is now, we need to change our philosophy, our theory
underlying our thoughts, our point of view. Positive Uncertainty's time has
Positive Uncertainty is a philosophy, a point of view, a 2 x 4 approach to
making decisions about the future when you don't know what it will be. It is a
paradoxical, ambiguous process for managing change using both your rational and
intuitive mind. And it is a process for changing your mind as you go along--a
process for learning while growing up.
In the past, paradox (something contrary to common sense yet perhaps true)
was uncommon, and ambiguity (something capable of being understood in two or
more possible ways) was unwelcome. Today, paradox is everywhere--as common sense
is being revised. And ambiguity is now acceptable--as absolutes are being
distrusted. Can counseling develop an approach that is paradoxical and ambiguous
and still be helpful? Should it? This digest says yes and tells how--using
Positive Uncertainty as its basic philosophy.
WHY IS POSITIVE UNCERTAINTY NEEDED?
Today change is not
only more rapid, more complex, more turbulent, and more unpredictable, it has
moved into uncharted waters. "White water rapids" is the metaphor used now to
describe change. "The more things change, the more they stay the same," is a
hopelessly outdated idea.
Change today is called "breakpoint change" (Land and Jarman, 1992).
Breakpoint change brings giant leaps and crucial shifts in the rules that govern
success. What has been learned is that these changes are natural (as in
nature)--even though they cause massive gaps between what has always been and
what can happen next. What is needed, these authors say, is to take what has
been learned about change over the years and apply that understanding to our
Counseling should take what has been learned about change and help people
apply that understanding to their daily lives--help people change their way of
thinking and alter their future visions. By challenging conventional wisdom and
by using natural, intuitive, and new kinds of thinking, counselors can help
clients find new and surprising answers to seemingly complex and apparently
Business organizations today face the dilemma of finding a balance between
managing current and short-term work and managing the profound changes required
to ensure a positive future (Beckhard & Pritchard, 1992). Counselors, today,
face the same dilemma, finding a balance between helping clients skillfully cope
with immediate, short-range problems and creatively managing the profound
changes in thinking often required to visualize and cause a positive personal
Changing our minds will be the most important change in the future, and the
hardest. Counselors should lead the way. Positive Uncertainty, a flexible,
ambidextrous approach to managing change, encourages the use of both the
rational and intuitive mind, and incorporates techniques for both making up
one's mind and changing it.
WHAT IS POSITIVE UNCERTAINTY?
The following is a brief
summary from Gelatt, 1991:
the past, present, and future as uncertain.
positive about the uncertainty.
Positive Uncertainty uses these attitudes and factors to provide flexibility
and balance. It does so by combining the traditional, linear, rational,
left-brain approach with the creative, nonlinear, intuitive, right-brain
approach into an ambiguous, paradoxical set of principles for planning and
Traditional decision-making strategies say that when deciding:
focused by setting clear goals
aware by collecting relevant facts
objective by predicting probable outcomes
practical by choosing actions rationally
Positive Uncertainty suggests four creative, but paradoxical, variations on
these traditional, rational procedures as modern, balanced principles:
focused and flexible
aware and wary
objective and optimistic
practical and magical
These variations are derived from the four factors and the two attitudes.
They will become the four basic paradoxical principles of Positive Uncertainty.
POSITIVE UNCERTAINTY'S PARADOXICAL, AMBIGUOUS
1.Be focused and flexible about what you want.
what you want but don't be sure
goals as hypotheses
achieving goals with discovering them
2.Be aware and wary about what you know.
that knowledge is power and ignorance is bliss
memory as an enemy
using information with imagination
3.Be objective and optimistic about what you believe.
that reality is in the "eye" and the "I" of the beholder
beliefs as prophecy
reality testing with wishful thinking
4.Be practical and magical about what you do.
to plan and plan to learn
intuition as real
responding to change and causing change
HOW CAN COUNSELING USE POSITIVE UNCERTAINTY?
Uncertainty, as a new philosophy for counseling, will require a paradigm shift
for counselors. A paradigm shift is an "Aha" experience when someone sees the
composite picture in another way (Covey, 1990). The old paradigm was one of
"separation"; the new paradigm is one of "seamlessness." It is "The Paradigm of
the Whole" (Ferguson, 1991). This paradigm of the whole emphasizes
interconnectedness, and therefore, requires systems thinking. Systems thinking
is what Senge (1990) calls "The Fifth Discipline."
So what's so new about this for counseling? Counselors have always known
about connectedness: mind and body, facts and feelings, believing and seeing,
etc. This new proposed philosophy, involving Positive Uncertainty, the paradigm
of the whole, and systems thinking, would refocus counseling's approach to
If we want to make relative minor changes in our lives, we can perhaps
appropriately focus on our attitudes and behaviors. But if we want to make
significant, quantum change, we need to work on our basic paradigms (Covey,
If counseling worked on counseling's basic
paradigm, and if counselors worked on clients' basic paradigms, some "breakpoint
changes" might emerge (see Gelatt, 1992). Most of the readings used for this
digest, listed in the reference section, are from the noncounseling literature.
Looking outside of our field may lead to new insights, even new visions. It is
possible that a new vision of counseling can lead to new counseling strategies
and that Positive Uncertainty can be a stimulus for such exploration.
Beckhard, R., & Pritchard, W. (1992).
Changing the essence. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Covey, S. (1989). The 7 habits of highly effective people. New York: Simon
Ferguson, M. (1991). Paradigm shift from separation to seamlessness. New
Sense Bulletin, 17, 4.
Gelatt, H. B. (1989). Positive uncertainty: A new decision making framework
for counseling. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 36, 252-256.
Gelatt, H. B. (1991). Creative decision making using positive uncertainty.
Los Altos, CA: Crisp Publishing.
Gelatt, H. B. (1992). A new vision for counseling. Counseling and Human
Handy, C. (1989). The age of unreason. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
Land, G., & Jarman, B. (1992). Breakpoint and beyond. New York: Harper
Senge, P. (1990). The fifth discipline. New York: Doubleday.