Why do certain conversations sometimes feel like you are on top of one ladder shouting over the void to the other person and all they are doing is the same thing back?
The answer is that you are both at the top of your ladder of inference and you need to step down. You may be familiar with the saying, “get down of your high horse” or “you need to step down a peg or two” or even, “you’ve just made 2+2 = 5”. All of these are people telling you that you need to step down your personal ladder of inference.
So what is this ladder of inference?
The Ladder of Inference was first put forward by organisational psychologist Chris Argyris and used by Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation. It describes the thinking process we all go through to get from a fact to a decision or action and for many of us, most of the time, we do it on auto-pilot.
Starting at the bottom of the ladder, we have a pool of observable reality and facts. These are the same for everyone. From there, we:
- Narrow our focus and select data we want based on beliefs and prior experience
- Interpret what that means to us
- 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
In today’s world we are constantly asked to make quick decisions, think on our feet and act fast. Too often we confuse “my truth” with “THE truth” and it’s this that can cause tension, stress and disconnection between people.
5 tips to avoid errors of inference and make better connections:
- Slow down and be aware that everyone has a ladder of inference.
- Make your thinking process visible to others by explaining your assumptions, interpretations and your conclusions.
- Get used to saying, “here’s how I see it, how do you see it?” Invite others to test your assumptions and conclusions.
- Help others clarify their meaning and intent with respectful enquiry. Ask “why is that important?” In doing so you are helping others make their thought process visible.
- Don’t agree to disagree too soon. Ask that one extra question and search for alternatives.
It’s very easy for us to run up the ladder and get things wrong, even when we have the best of intentions.
Great connections can soon become stuck if we fail to check and validate our assumptions before we act. For instance:
- Before every meeting do you assume everyone knows why you are meeting?
- Do you assume that everyone has what they need to fully participate in the meeting?
- Before a difficult conversation do you take the time to assess the problem, work out how you really feel, identify your concerns and avoid jumping to conclusions?
- Do you begin negotiations from the way you see the world, your point of view and position or do you take the time to identify and build on shared interests?
- On another level, do you take a directive style with some of the people around you when a more supportive approach is more appropriate?
- What other assumptions might you be making when you interact with the people around you? How accurate are they?
Follow the steps outlined above to prevent you taking a trip up the ladder of inference. On top of the skills and tools we explored in our session together it can really make a difference.
Please note: This post was specifically written for people attending our nine-week resilience programme where we showed you how to make contagious connections with the people around you.