Have you ever found yourself taken back as someone has completely got the wrong end of the stick about something you said or did? Did they put a meaning on it that you never intended? Or maybe you have found yourself angered or upset because of someone’s comment or action and come to the decision they must be acting against you for some reason?
In that case, you or have been climbing a ladder, the ladder of inference.
Back in 1970, Chris Argyris first proposed the ladder of inference 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 come to a conclusion.
The Ladder of Inference
Starting at the bottom of the ladder, we have reality and facts, the ‘data’ if you like. From there, we:
- Experience these selectively based on our beliefs and prior experience.
- Interpret what they mean.
- Apply our existing assumptions, sometimes without considering them.
- Draw conclusions based on the interpreted facts and our assumptions.
- Develop beliefs based on these conclusions.
- Take actions that seem “right” because they are based on what we 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.
How the Ladder Works in Practice
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’ is not necessarily ‘good’. Instead, it means that the feedback drives the process onwards instead of stopping it, and therefore confirms what you already believe.
Here’s a simple example of a few moves up the ladder:
- Sarah arranges to meet Dave for dinner at 8.30pm
- Dave is late and does not explain why. In fact, he doesn’t seem to have noticed that he’s late at all.
- Sarah decides that Dave simply couldn’t be bothered to turn up on time and that Dave values his own time more highly than Sarah’s.
- Sarah concludes that it’s not worth bothering to meet up in the future because Dave obviously doesn’t want to see her.
- When Dave suggests meeting the next week, Sarah makes an excuse to avoid it.
At the end of this, all Sarah sees is that Dave does not want to meet up again. He may have no idea why. There could be any number of reasons why Dave was late and hasn’t explained: traffic, perhaps, or it could be as simple as his watch being slow so that he has no idea that she is late. Meanwhile, Sarah 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. They may go right back to childhood, and a chance comment, even one overheard and only half-understood.
In the example above, Sarah might say to Dave:
“Is everything OK?”
“Did you have trouble with the traffic this morning?”
“Was 7.30 too early for you? We could have made it later.”
“Was it inconvenient to meet up this evening? You can always let me know if so, and we can rearrange.”
“Goodness, you’re very late!”
Any of these could open up a conversation about why Dave was late, or uncover the fact that she had no idea she was late. Alternatively, when Sarah says that she doesn’t want to meet up next week, Dave might say to Sarah:
“Are you OK? You’ve been very quiet this evening.”
It is, however, difficult to test your final assumptions directly without sounding either stupid or rude and inviting a particular answer. For example, it would have been hard for Sarah to ask Dave whether Dave valued their meetings. She could hardly have relied on the answer, since Dave was bound to say that he did, out of politeness, even if he did not. It is therefore important to think about how you ask the questions to test the data and your assumptions.
Avoid Climbing the Ladder of Inference
What can you do to avoid climbing the ladder of inference, or help others to avoid it?
First of all, you have to accept that you are always going to draw meaning and inferences from what others say and do, based on your past experiences. It’s how people work.
If we did not use past experience to help us interpret the world, we would be absolutely lost. Nobody would be able to ‘learn from experience’ at all.
The issue, then, is to draw on experience, but in a way that does not make assumptions about others’ behaviour, or which allows us to check back on those assumptions.
Your past experiences are like your own map if you like. But remember the map is not the territory.
The message is determined by the receiver
It’s important to understand that your message is determined by the receiver and the message someone is sending you is determined by you.
Below are three ways you can change to improve the way you communicate and avoid you or others climbing the ladder of inference:
- Reflect – You can become more self-aware of your own thinking and reasoning
- Advocate – You can make sure that others understand your thinking and reasoning
- Inquire – You can ask questions of others about what they are thinking, and test your assumptions
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 and not assumptions. Some of the time, at least, you will find that others do not see them as ‘right’ at all.
Tip 1 Use the Ladder of Inference at any of stage of your thinking process. If you’re asking any of the following questions, the model may prove a useful aid:
- Is this the “right” conclusion?
- Why am I making these assumptions?
- Why do I think this is the “right” thing to do?
- Is this really based on all the facts?
- Why do I/they believe that?
Use the following steps to challenge thinking using the Ladder of Inference:
1.Stop! It’s time to consider your reasoning.
2. Identify where on the ladder you are. Are you:
- Selecting your data or reality?
- Interpreting what it means?
- Making or testing assumptions?
- Forming or testing conclusions?
- Deciding what to do and why?
3. From your current “rung,” analyse your reasoning by working back down the ladder. This will help you trace the facts and reality that you are actually working with.At each stage, ask yourself WHAT you are thinking and WHY. As you analyse each step, you may need to adjust your reasoning. For example, you may need to change some assumption or extend the field of data you have selected.
The following questions help you work backwards (coming down the ladder, starting at the top):
- Why have I chosen this course of action? Are there other actions I should have considered?
- What belief lead to that action? Was it well-founded?
- Why did I draw that conclusion? Is the conclusion sound?
- What am I assuming, and why? Are my assumptions valid?
- What data have I chosen to use and why? Have I selected data rigorously?
- What are the real facts that I should be using? Are there other facts I should consider?
Tip 2 When you are working through your reasoning, look out for rungs that you tend to jump. Do you tend to make assumptions too easily? Do you tend to select only part of the data? Note you tendencies so that you can learn to do that stage of reasoning with extra care in the future.
4. With a new sense of reasoning (and perhaps a wider field of data and more considered assumptions), you can now work forwards again – step-by-step – up the rungs of the ladder.
Tip 3 – Try explaining your reasoning to a colleague or friend. This will help you check that your argument is sound.
If you are challenging someone else’s conclusions, it is especially important to be able to explain your reasoning so that you can explain it to that person in a way that helps you reach a shared conclusion and avoid conflict.
One last thing
When testing the data or your assumptions with others, you don’t need to mention the ladder of inference at all. Using it is not about making a diagnosis, but about helping to make your own and others’ thinking
Using it is not about making a diagnosis, but about helping to make your own and others’ thinking processes more obvious, therefore improving communication. If you both know the model, then it can provide a helpful language but, even then, it’s never going to help to say “Are you climbing the ladder of inference a little bit there?”, which even the most insensitive among us will admit could be a touch irritating!
So hopefully now you have a few tools to identify what ladder you are climbing.
Until next time… make it happen.
p.s. Have you downloaded my free ebook Staying Positive: 10 Simple Tips to Staying Positive? Click here to download it now!