Certainty Versus Confidence

Leaders of social change can benefit from making the distinction.

Jana Eggers, senior vice president for Products and Marketing at Blackbaud, recently shared with me this terrific quote by Madeline Albright: “Be confident, not certain.”

It’s become my mantra. Confidence without certainty was a trait exhibited by my neighbors in Hoboken, New York City, and the New Jersey Shore during—and now in the aftermath of—Superstorm Sandy. It’s an ethos that I am sharing with my two nieces, ages 7 and 10, as they personalize girl power and unveil their personalities to this complex world.

It has also come to the forefront in my communication coaching. Earlier this month, I coached four researchers as they prepared to speak at the Population Council’s 60th Anniversary Dinner. Each of these executives has advanced in his or her career by conducting careful, complicated, and peer-reviewed scientific research. They have succeeded by presenting highly vetted data, certain of its factualness and findings.

My goal was to assist them in being inspiring and effective speakers. To tap into, surface, and share their confidence with their audience. Certainty of facts and figures alone was not going to engage the audience. Certainty coupled with confidence, however, rocked the house.

Confidence is inspiring. We tend to be less certain of our passion for the solutions we are offering, or of our respect for our colleagues and clients, as we are confident in those emotions.

Confidence invites a listener into conversation, whereas certainty shuts down conversation. Certainty excludes mutuality. Confidence allows for curiosity, and opens us to learning and growth. If you present certainty without confidence, one small nick in the facts of your presentation renders everything questionable. Confidence allows for fallibility and flexibility, and therefore helps you to develop trust with your audience. Think of the sometimes off-putting perfectionism and certainty of Martha Stewart, versus the humility and benevolent confidence of Oprah Winfrey.

I also recently coached a financial officer at a foundation who is eager to be seen as a resource to his programmatic colleagues. He planned on asking his coworkers for examples of times when they were confused by the organization’s financial reporting requirements, and then presenting his expertise on how to address their needs. That approach framed him solely as a purveyor of problems and confusion, and his certainty in having all the answers would surely backfire.

In this case, an appreciative inquiry approach will be both more useful and more respectful. I suggested that he ask his colleagues, instead, about financial reporting situations that were very clear to them. He will most likely learn a lot from asking about what is working. For example, the program officers may tell him about how they are currently accessing the information they need. By asking for and appreciating stories of what is working, he will demonstrate that he has the confidence to learn from others.

Confidence allows you to listen. As Jana explains, “When you’re certain something’s right, you get blinders on.” Certainty tunes others out. It is didactic. Madeline Albright said, "Certainty comes from believing we have learned all there is to know. Confidence comes from the effort to learn all we can."

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  • BY Debi Davis

    ON January 12, 2013 09:19 AM

    I keep a list of pairs of words that I have entitled “The Fine Lines of Life.” I’m adding Confidence / Certainty to my list.  I think many of the points you make could also be applied to another pairing—Confidence / Conviction—even though Conviction and Certainty are not exactly the same.

    Thanks for this thought-provoking article.

  • BY Thaler Pekar

    ON January 13, 2013 04:35 PM

    Debi, thank you so much for your comment. We’re certainly thinking alike. I’d love to read some of your other pairs, if you’re up for sharing!

  • BY Felix P. Nater, CAC

    ON January 14, 2013 08:51 AM

    Debi, I accidentally stumbled on your certainty vs confidence model about 6 years ago doing my workplace violence presentations. I was misinformed into thinking that having a lot of supporting stats in my presentations would woo my audiences and I was wrong. Experimenting, I decided that I could get better results and woo the audience by making it more fun by offering less stats and more experiences. You’re right, Debi the audience wants to hear speaker ownership and validation.

  • Stace Williams's avatar

    BY Stace Williams

    ON January 15, 2013 06:33 AM

    What a useful distinction! It reminds me of a favorite quote from a colleague: “Seldom in doubt, frequently wrong!” As an engineer, I tend toward certainty when I believe I have knowledge and data. In my work as a coach and facilitator, certainty is a liability.  I will serve others better by confidently inquiring and drawing out the wisdom of others, and this is my development goal right now.

  • BY Thaler Pekar

    ON January 16, 2013 01:49 PM

    I love “Seldom in doubt, frequently wrong”! Thank you for sharing that wisdom, Stace.

  • BY LeAnn Locher

    ON January 17, 2013 08:26 AM

    How can we be certain of anything? That in itself is faulty thinking and almost always raises big red flags for me. As a cultivator of curiosity, I’m always seeking more information, clues, storylines or examples. I love this article Thaler!

  • BY Thaler Pekar

    ON January 17, 2013 11:01 AM

    Thank you so much, LeAnn!

  • BY Tom Stevens

    ON January 17, 2013 12:43 PM

    Nice article, Thaler, and a very important point! Thank you.

  • BY Thaler Pekar

    ON January 17, 2013 04:01 PM

    Thank you so much, Tom!

  • BY patti giggans

    ON January 18, 2013 06:26 PM

    Really like this quote-I collect inspiring and thought provoking qotes.  This one rings so true.  From a zen perspective it is being in confident in ‘not knowing’ which allows space for all the ingredients to arise!  Thanks so much.

  • BY Thaler Pekar

    ON January 22, 2013 12:56 PM

    Thank you, Patti!

  • I enjoyed reading this Thaler - very insightful…

  • BY Thaler Pekar

    ON January 25, 2013 10:20 AM

    Thank you, Marla!

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