Introduction

Have you ever found yourself wondering at how someone else interpreted something you said or did, and added a meaning to it that you had never intended, or even considered? Or perhaps you have found yourself enraged by someone’s comment or action, and concluded that they must be acting against you for some reason? In other words, you took it personally?  Well… You have been climbing the ‘Ladder of Inference’…

Chris Argyris, way back in 1970, created this model as a way of describing how you move from a piece of data (a comment made to you, or something that you have observed to happen), through a series of mental processes to a conclusion.

You start by selecting from the data, translate it into your own terms, explain it to yourself, and then draw conclusions. Your beliefs tend to reinforce the data that you select, and how you interpret it, which means that it becomes a positive feedback loop. In this sense, ‘positive’ means that the feedback drives the process onwards instead of stopping it, and therefore confirms what you already believe. It’s dangerous, because it all happens extremely quickly in your head, and you are probably unaware that you are only selecting some of the data. Nobody else sees your thought processes, or knows what stages you have gone through to reach your conclusions. All that they see is the action you take as a result. We really are ‘meaning making machines’!!!

How the Ladder Works in Practice

Here’s a simple example of a few moves up the ladder:

  1. Jennifer arranges a meeting with Allison at 10.30am.
  2. Allison is late and doesn’t explain why, in fact she doesn’t even notice that she’s late.
  3. Jennifer decides that Allison simply couldn’t be bothered to turn up on time, and that Allison values her own time more highly than Jennifer’s.
  4. Jennifer concludes that it’s not worth bothering to meet up in future, because Allison obviously doesn’t want to see her.
  5. When Allison suggests meeting the next week, Jennifer makes an excuse to avoid it.

At the end of this, all Allison sees is that Jennifer does not want to meet up again. She may have no idea why. There could be any number of reasons why Allison was late, and hasn’t explained: a doctor’s appointment, perhaps, or it could be as simple as her watch being slow, so that she has no idea that she is late. Meanwhile, Jennifer has decided the friendship is not worth pursuing.

A lot of the time, you won’t even be aware of the beliefs and assumptions underlying your data selection and the inferences that you draw. It may be deep in their unconscious and go back to their childhood and infer something based on what they thought was a truth.

Avoid Climbing the Ladder of Inference

What can you do to avoid climbing the ladder of inference, or help others to avoid it? First, you have to accept that you are always going to draw meaning and inferences from what others say and do, based on your past experience. It’s how people work; we add meaning to EVERYTHING and it is based on our filters and world views. If we did not use past experience to help us interpret the world, we would be lost. Nobody would be able to ‘learn from experience’ at all.

The key, then, is to draw on experience, but in a way that does not make assumptions about others’ behavior, or which allows us to check back on those assumptions. Below are some ways you can start to improve the way you communicate and avoid climbing the ladder of inference:

  1. Become more aware of your own thinking and reasoning through reflection.
  2. Make sure others understand your thinking and reasoning through clarification and advocacy.
  3. Ask questions of others about what they are thinking and feeling and test your assumptions through inquiry and curiosity. We will write about this in another article in the series!
  4. Dig deeply for those beliefs you take for granted and examine them to see if they are based on facts, utilizing research methods.

When considering your own thought processes, beware particularly of pieces of information that you take for granted. They are likely to be deeply rooted in your belief system, and it’s worth stopping to examine them to make sure that they really are facts. Some of the time, at least, you will find that others do not see them as ‘right’ at all. You can also ask questions to test the data.

Summary

When testing the data or your assumptions, you don’t need to mention the ladder of inference at all. Knowing it is just about helping to make your own and others’ thinking processes more obvious in an effort to establish better communication. If you both know the model, then it can provide a common language to discuss issues from! It is also a great framework to lean into when writing down feedback to give to someone, so that it can be objective and constructive.

Reach out to us at Transformative Visions if you want to find out more!

Stay tuned for more blog articles in this series about coaching as a manager!