It all depends.

The classic evaluation response. In fact, it is the punch line for one of the few evaluation jokes I can remember (some-timers disease being what it is; if you want to know the joke, ask in your comment).

The response reminds me of something I heard (once again) while I was in Denver. One of the presenters at a session on competencies, certification, credentialing (an indirectly, about accreditation) talked about a criteria for evaluators that is not taught in preparatory programs–the tolerance for ambiguity.  Tolerance for Ambiguity (What do you see in this image?)

What is this tolerance? What is ambiguity?

According to Webster’s Seventh, tolerance is the noun form of the verb “to tolerate” and means “…the relative capacity to endure or adapt physiologically to an unfavorable environmental factor…” also defined as “…sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own; the act of allowing something; allowable deviation from a standard…”.

Using the same source, ambiguity (also a noun) means “…the quality or state of being ambiguous in meaning…” OK. Going on to ambiguous (the root of the word), it  is an adjective meaning “…doubtful or uncertain especially from obscurity or indistinctness…capable of being understood in two or more possible senses…”. Personally, I find the “capable of being understood in two or more possible senses…” relevant to evaluation and to evaluators.

Yet, I have to ask, What does all that mean? It all depends.

Many evaluations are perfectly clear to the program designer(s) and not to the program participants (familiarity can be blinding). The process must be explained many times, in different phrasing; in different words before everyone involved understands, if then. And even then, do all participant understand the program the same way? Probably not because of cognitive biases that every person has and brings with them when they participate in anything. Every person has personal and situational biases which affect the understanding any individual has for what is currently occurring, even the program designer(s). If the program designer(s) then has someone else (say an external evaluator) conduct the evaluation, another layer of ambiguity may be added–often is.

Some folks will see ambiguity as uncertainty (in fact Webster’s Seventh uses uncertainty as a synonym). I don’t; for me not knowing (uncertainty) is different from being unclear (ambiguity);Tolerance for ambiguity & confusion-new1. Certainly, an argument can be made that they are the same. (I’ll leave that for another time.) I see it as incumbent on the evaluator to be clear.  Tolerance for ambiguity is hard to teach because of the discomfort people experience when met with lack of clarity. Yet, to be a competent evaluator, tolerance for ambiguity is a competency that is needed.

my two cents.



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4 thoughts on “Tolerance for ambiguity.

  1. Great post! Although we do try to teach tolerance for ambiguity at UW-Stout. We discuss it frequently and why it is so critical to working in evaluation. That being said, I’m not 100% sure it can be learned if one isn’t predispositioned towards it.

  2. Although I agree that tolerance is very important, tolerance for ambiguity is different from tolerance…

  3. I would love to know what is involved with teaching tolerance of ambiguity. I agree that learning to tolerate ambiguity happens only if one is predisposed towards that ambiguity. After all, it depends.

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