Dangers of Climbing the Ladder of Inference

I appreciate students and clients who, through their questions or disagreements, invite me to rethink and reconsider what I say and espouse. This happened recently after a two-day workshop on communication and meeting skills with the staff of a governmental agency. I had reviewed the Ladder of Inference to help people learn how to give effective feedback by separating observable behavior (what they see and hear, e.g., when you interrupt me) from inferences or judgments about it (e.g., you don’t care about what I was saying or you are rude).

The Ladder of Inference describes a common mental pathway of increasing abstraction that often leads to erroneous beliefs. It elucidates the human tendency to move with lightning speed from what we observe to conclusions and beliefs about what we observe. (For a brief description of the Ladder click here.)

Here is an example of what climbing the Ladder of Inference can sound like in our heads. I am teaching a course on leading change. There are about 20 people in the room all of whom seem engaged. They are making eye contact and taking notes. However, one young man is looking down at the table or staring at the wall behind me. My interior monologue goes something like this: “He’s obviously not interested in what I am saying which is too bad because the information I’m sharing will make him and his teammates more effective with the ambitious change effort they are initiating. Now that I think of it, when he introduced himself that morning, he seemed bored by the whole process. Clearly he thinks he’s above all this and knows it all already.” By the time I end my presentation, I’ve made a decision: I’m going to ignore him the rest of the workshop.

The dangers of climbing the ladder are:

  1. What we observe or notice is influenced by our past experience and current beliefs. This is called a “reflexive loop.” Another term for this is “confirmation bias” or looking for data that confirms what we already believe. In other words, we function according to self-generating beliefs.
  2. Our beliefs become “the truth” and we take action on them without testing them. However, because I am aware of the Ladder of Inference, I did not take actions on my beliefs. And, to my delight, the following day I discovered just how well he understood what I had said when he asked insightful questions about how to apply the information to his change project. I also learned that he had had a serious head injury the previous year and was taking care of himself by shifting his attention to various parts of the room.

After the two-day workshop with the agency, regarding the Ladder of Inference, one of the managers wrote in an email, “I don’t see how one could function in the world without adopting beliefs and drawing conclusions.” He’s right: we do function by drawing conclusions and adopting beliefs. However, if we want to be effective communicators and achieve desired results, we need to:

  • Reflect on and become aware of our own thinking and reasoning (“How did I come to this belief?”);
  • Test to make sure that we are basing our conclusions, beliefs and actions on observable data as much as possible, not just what we have selected to confirm our own beliefs (“On what data am I basing my conclusions? What have I missed?”);
  • Make our thinking and reasoning explicit to others (“Here’s how I came to these conclusions.”); and
  • Inquire into the thinking and reasoning of others (“Can you help me understand how you came to these conclusions?”)

Mary’s award-winning book “Talk Matters! Saving the World One Word at a Time” is available.  Click here to purchase it.

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