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Is Your Ladder of Inference Leaning Against the Wrong Wall?

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General Leadership

“What world is he living in? I don’t understand why he thinks that.”


When was the last time you said or heard that phrase? This week? Today even? This phrase—or some version of it—is heard often among your peers, your employees, and yes, your boss.

How often have you come into a meeting with a colleague (or client) with seemingly the same information about some sticky situation, but they had drawn totally different conclusions than you? What do you do now? You don’t necessarily want to be in a position to have to tell them they are wrong, educate them, or give some kind of play-by-play so they understand what is actually happening.


One of the main difficulties in human relations, and leadership in particular, is people interpret the same set of facts very differently.


We Have a Failure to Communicate

We all have experienced conversations with a client or colleague and wondered, “how on earth do they conclude that from these facts”? In those moments, it’s crucial to practice mindfulness and take a step back to see if you can get on the same page. Here at Stagen, we call this “backing down the ladder.”  

But these are only the moments we actually catch. It’s overwhelming to think how many times we’ve made statements we haven’t fully thought through, and another person makes an assumption about our motives, capabilities, or draws conclusions we would prefer they hadn’t. Ah. Organizational life. Abundant with assumptions, misunderstandings, and even drama.


The problem is that many, perhaps even most, people don’t communicate their assumptions and interpretations as such. They tend to state their thinking as if that is reality. Worse, many people, actually believe that their thinking about reality is actually reality.


Boy, does that ever create problems.

Well, if that’s the bad news, the good news is that there is a simple framework you can learn and keep in mind while communicating. It will help you avoid 80% of the misunderstandings, assumptions, and wrong interpretations that constantly trip us up day after day, week after week in both our work and personal lives.

“Making meaning” is fundamental to the practice of leadership. If you want your ideas to positively influence others, then you need to understand and be understood. Clearly, meaning is subjective to interpretation.


What a given set of facts “mean” is going to be different from person to person. This dynamic often feels random, or worse, like a car crash at the busy intersection of Assumption Street and Interpretations Boulevard.


People tend to take their perceptions of reality as if it were objective. Your peers, reports and even your boss often treat their interpretations as facts without even considering that other people have equally valid—and perhaps even more accurate—interpretations about the very same facts. (Don’t worry, we won’t tell anyone, but we believe that even you do this sometimes!)

At Stagen, we use a simple metaphor to help leaders work more skillfully with this process of interpretation. The “Ladder of Inference” was conceived by Harvard’s Chris Argyris and later popularized by MIT’s Peter Senge and proponents of the field of organizational learning.

You do not need to be a scholar who studies hermeneutics and semiotics to be an effective leader. However, if you want to succeed in your role as leader, you do need to both understand others and communicate in a way that you are understood (at least most of the time). If you use this simple tool to make sure that both you and the person you are speaking with have your ladders “leaning against the same wall”, then you can eliminate a lot of headaches and create a much more positive impact in the work you do.


The Ladder of Inference

The “Ladder of Inference” (see illustration) provides areally useful framework that helps us see, at a glance, how the process unfolds—often in a split second—that leads to our conclusions (inferences).


1. We Observe an Event

We witness an observable event. In doing so, we experience sights, sounds, and feelings.


2. We Select Partial Data

We look for, notice, and select certain data to emphasize while (often unconsciously) ignoring other data.


3. We Filter That Data Through Our Worldview

We filter the selected data through our worldview. Our worldview includes our values and general beliefs (about people and the world), as well as specific beliefs about the type of situation currently being perceived. It is our worldview that initially transforms objective data (facts) into subjective meaning (interpretation).


4. We Make Assumptions

We rarely (if ever) have all relevant information and perspectives at our disposal in a given situation. There are details and nuances that are invisible to us, including: facts we lack about what happened (is happening), the intention/motivation of people involved, and the consequences (often yet to be seen) of specific actions.

Because people aren’t omniscient, and time rarely permits obtaining and verifying every piece of relevant information, we draw conclusions through a subjective assessment of which facts are most relevant from generalizations (general principles or broad patterns of behavior).


5. We Draw Conclusions

Based on our climb up the ladder, we form an inference, a conclusion. These conclusions, in turn, inform the actions we take. Our conclusions influence our beliefs about the person or situation as well as influencing which data we will look for, notice, and emphasize the next time we are faced with a similar situation.

In this way the Ladder of Inference is self-reinforcing. Put another way, we interpret situations through our worldview which reinforces our subjective perception of the worldview.

With each step up the ladder, there is an opportunity for different people’s stories to diverge. Interpersonal communication (and relationships) become difficult when people stay on the highest rung of the ladder (conclusions) without stepping down to where most of the real action is: the way we interpret the data to arrive at different conclusions.


The golden key to unlocking interpersonal communication, relationships, motivation, and influence is to focus not on the conclusions, but on the way that people interpret (and misinterpret) information.


The Responsibility to Communicate Consciously

If you want to be seen and experienced as a “conscious leader,” then you have the opportunity (perhaps the responsibility) to adopt practices that can help you refine the collective (yours and other’s) process of interpretation.

Can you recognize where other people are on the ladder? Have the facts that they are focusing on been made explicit? What assumptions are they making about the people and the circumstances involved?

And the same goes for you. Can you climb the ladder consciously rather than unconsciously? Are you making the facts you are aware of explicit? What assumptions are you making about the people and the circumstances involved? Are you framing those as assumptions, or stating those assumptions as facts? (A good way to put the other person on the defensive.)

By climbing the ladder consciously, first, your own interpretations tend to be more accurate. Second, the previously obscured process by which others interpret situations/ information / communication becomes far more transparent. In this way, you are better at understanding and at being understood.