Seeing the Ladder

As one year draws to a close, and we consider how to continue to “up our game” in the coming year, my wish for you — and for all of us who would hope to lead — is the ability to see the ladders that are tripping us up. Ladders that remain invisible until we intentionally go looking for them. Ladders of Inference. (Ladders of what?)

Ladders of Inference impact our thinking, reasoning and decision making, and what we “know” to be true. However, the process happens so automatically in our minds that most people remain totally unaware that they are climbing the ladder. Here’s how it works.

            Rung 1: We experience a situation where there is a range of observable data.

            Rung 2: We select which data we are going to notice/focus on in the situation.

            Rung 3: We add meaning to the data based on our personal or cultural experience.

            Rung 4: We make assumptions based on the meaning we added to the data.

            Rung 5: We draw conclusions based on those assumptions.

            Rung 6: We adopt beliefs about the world.

            Rung 7: We act based on those beliefs.

For example, if I am meeting a colleague for a meeting and he is late, with no apology, no explanation . . .  even if the rest of our conversation was very productive . . . I may choose to focus on the fact that he was late (data I selected) which is disrespectful (my meaning) which must mean that he does not value me or my ideas (assumptions). Come to think about it, he has always acted like he is smarter than me (adopted beliefs). Well, this is the last time I adjust my schedule to help him out (act on beliefs) . . . All before the coffee gets cold.

And here’s the tricky part . . . most people are absolutely confident their beliefs are THE truth. They believe the truth is obvious, because it is based on real data . . . the data they selected. This is why two people can be at the same meeting/event/interaction and come away with a totally different perception of what happened . . . and be absolutely sure that their interpretation is what “really” took place. It their mind, it is obvious! In all likelihood, the two individuals selected different data to focus on, they made different assumptions, added different meaning, and an objective bystander would be convinced the two could not have been at the same place based on their takeaways. Sound familiar?

So how do you start to dismantle the ladder? 

  1. Start with open ended questions — Can you help me understand your reasoning? What other possible explanation is there for what happened?
  2. Have people with a diversity of experiences around the table. Men, women, people of color or of different ages may all see or experience an action differently.
  3. Openly state your assumptions. Speaking them out loud can either reinforce or dilute their impact on your decision-making.

Making decisions based on past experience, and yes, some assumptions, isn’t all bad . . . as long as you’re not tripping on a ladder you didn’t even know was there.

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