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climb the ladder of inferenceThanks to the fiendishly clever machinations of a major PC firm, I spent all of October and most of November trapped in the revolving door of using borrowed computers. 

Mine had been shipped far away for repairs, perpetually promised as just being two or three more days away from completion.

Those two months were trying times, no doubt! 

Emails piled up (still digging out!).  Deadlines were renegotiated. The vast majority of people affirmed my positive belief that help and flexibility are there when problems arise. 

A teeny tiny few were out and out stinkers. 

However, the small handful that most amazed me were those who leapt right to the top of the ladder of influence.

Chris Argyris, business theorist and Harvard University professor, developed the model.  Peter Senge popularized it in his book, The Fifth Discipline.  The ladder of inference is a model for how we think.  It begins with data we observe and ends with actions we take based on how we interpreted the initial data.

The ladder of inference

The base of the ladder of inference is the actual data or experience — just the facts. The first rung up is the data on which we choose to focus. (This is the phenomenon that results when the four people who saw an accident offer four different stories of what happened.) Step number three is when we affix meaning to what we’ve experienced or observed.  The next step is creating assumptions. We then draw conclusions, followed by developing new beliefs or affirming old ones. Last comes our actions — what we do based on our new beliefs.

The ladder in action

Two days have passed and Susie hasn’t returned your phone call.  You figure that she’s ignoring you and assume that she isn’t interested in what you have to say. You conclude that there’s no point in doing business with her, believing that people who want to work with you will be prompt.  You act by crossing Susie off your free-lancer list.

Trapped by what’s blindingly obvious — yet incorrect

The ladder of inference is quite easy climb! We take data, and apply our personal filters (beliefs, values, past experiences, etc.) to make sense of what’s happening.  What we have to remember is that this is a one-person climb.  While the conclusion we jumped to seems blindingly obvious to us, there was just one set of data points — our own.

To assure that you’re reaching the right conclusions:

  • Test the observable dataCould there be something wrong with my phone or Susie’s?  Did I call the right number? Could Susie be out of the office and have forgotten to change her voicemail message?
  • Ask for more dataA follow-up phone call or email to Susie:  I see you haven’t returned my call and wanted to check in to see if everything is OK. Ask others if they know where Susie might be.
  • Test your assumptions. Why would Susie not want to do business with me after that great introductory meeting we had? Could I be over-reacting?

What experiences have you had with the ladder of inference?

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