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The Benefits of Getting Comfortable with Uncertainty



Gary Noesner is a former FBI hostage negotiator. For part of the 51-day standoff outside the Branch Davidian religious compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993, he was the strategic coordinator for negotiations with the compound’s leader, David Koresh. This siege ended in infamous tragedy: The FBI launched a tear-gas attack on the compound, which burned to the ground, killing 76 people inside. But before Noesner was rotated out of his position as the siege’s head negotiator, he and his team secured the release of 35 people.

Jamie Holmes, a Future Tense Fellow at New America, spoke to Noesner for his new book Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing. “My experience suggests,” Noesner told Holmes, “that in the overwhelming majority of these cases, people are confused and ambivalent. Part of them wants to die, part of them wants to live. Part of them wants to surrender, part of them doesn’t want to surrender.” And good negotiators, Noesner says, are “people who can dwell fairly effectively in the areas of gray, in the uncertainties and ambiguities of life.”

For most people, that’s pretty difficult. It’s natural for humans to be uncomfortable with uncertainty—if you don’t know what that dark shadow in the bushes is, there’s a good chance that it’s a threat. But beyond the caveman metaphors, there are benefits to being able to cope with ambiguity and ambivalence. Noesner thinks Koresh was of two minds about surrendering, and Holmes suggests that if the FBI had been more cognizant of that, it might not have rushed to attack the compound. He also suggests that in less strained situations, in our everyday lives, we might avoid a lot of anxiety and jumping to wrong conclusions by accepting that sometimes people do feel two ways at once. Things can be similar without being exactly the same. Some things we can never know.

I spoke with Holmes about the many ways that uncertainty shapes people’s behavior, and what gets lost when people seek clarity above all else. Below is a lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.

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