Improve your communication skills with the Ladder of Inference
It is estimated that there are 7.5 billion people on the planet. That is 7.5 billion people who all bring with them their own individual past experiences and beliefs.
When it comes to a classroom or workplace that number is significantly less, but it only takes as little as two people for a miscommunication to occur.
Two people can share the exact same experience but due to their own individual Ladder of Inference, they could both draw two very different conclusions. This can lead to miscommunication, misunderstandings and conflict.
So, what is the Ladder of Inference?
The Ladder of Inference is the thinking process we go through, whether consciously or subconsciously, to go from a fact to a decision or an action. This is done by moving through the different stages of thinking which are illustrated below as rungs on a ladder.
The 7 stages of thinking are:
Stage 1: Facts and reality (unbiased as a camera would capture the experience).
Stage 2: We experience these facts and reality selectively based on our beliefs and past experiences.
Stage 3: We interpret what they mean based on our selected reality.
Stage 4: We apply our existing assumptions (often without realising we are doing so).
Stage 5: We draw conclusions based on the interpreted facts and assumptions we have made.
Stage 6: We develop beliefs based on these conclusions.
Stage 7: We take action based on our beliefs
Your beliefs tend to reinforce the data that you select, and how you interpret it, which becomes a positive feedback loop (in this case, ‘positive’ does not necessarily mean ‘good’).
This then creates a vicious cycle of building more assumptions on top of assumptions, which further obscures the original facts and reality of the situation.
Take Ben and his boss, Christina, for example. Ben and Christina had a meeting at 1 pm, to which Christina was 15 minutes late. Christina did not apologise for being late or even seem to notice that she was late. Ben had sent Christina a proposal for a project at 10 am that morning. Christina did not mention his proposal during their meeting. Christina asked Ben about other tasks he was responsible for and finished the meeting by asking Ben about his well-being and if there was anything she needed to know.
Here is an example of Ben’s thinking process during the meeting. Note the different steps he takes up the Ladder of Inference:
- When Christina is late but does not apologise, Ben decides that Christina does not care that she just wasted his time.
- Ben decides this is because Christina does not value him as an employee.
- When Christina does not bring up Ben’s proposal, Ben assumes that Christina thought it was terrible and therefore not worth even mentioning.
- When Christina asks Ben about the other tasks he is responsible for, he assumes that is Christina’s way of telling him to stay in his lame.
- When Christina then asks Ben about his well-being and if there is anything she needs to know, Ben decides Christina thinks he is going through something outside of work and is therefore not focused on his job.
- When Ben returns to his desk, he sends Christina an email telling her to ignore his previous proposal and he will send her a new one by Monday.
What started out as Christina being 15 minutes late (fact) then led to Ben deciding that Christina doesn’t value him as an employee (assumption) because his proposal must have been terrible (conclusion) which then led to Ben deciding that Christina doesn’t think Ben is good at his job (belief) which then resulted in Ben emailing Christina and starting his proposal again (action).
In this hypothetical scenario, the fact was that Christina was running 15 minutes late to all her appointments. Christina had not checked her emails since 8 am and did not know Ben had even sent the proposal.
So, how can we avoid climbing the Ladder of Inference and jumping to conclusions that may not be correct?
In life, you have to draw meaning and inferences from what others say and do based on your past experiences. It’s how we learn and communicate. The only solution to a problem such as Ben’s is to test your assumptions and communicate clearly by following these 4 steps:
- Reflection: become more aware of your own thinking and reasoning.
- Advocacy: make your thinking and reasoning more visible to others.
- Inquiry: inquire into others’ thinking and reasoning.
- Transparency: make your thinking process visible.
Ben made many assumptions about Christina’s thinking during their meeting but tested none of them. The solution to Ben’s misinterpretation of events could have been as simple as Ben asking Christina if she had received his proposal. Ben had assumed that Christina had already read his proposal, however, he did not know this to be a fact. Had Ben inquired into Christina’s thinking, he could have stopped the vicious cycle of assumptions that led to starting his proposal again.
We are all guilty of placing our own inferences and assumptions on different situations. More often than not it’s second nature and we have no idea we are doing it. In some cases, it’s key to our survival. If you were to confront a tiger in the wild, because of your past experiences and beliefs, it’s probably safe to assume that the tiger wants to eat you. However, even in this scenario, that assumption could be wrong.
How often have you wrongly assumed something based on how you selected and interpreted the facts and reality of a situation? It could be as minute as assuming Bobby is going to bring a salad to the BBQ, deciding that Karen from finance hates your overalls or thinking that Meghan is lactose intolerant because she drinks almond milk.
In conclusion, avoid climbing the ladder of inference as much as possible. Stop and examine whether something is a fact or an assumption, and always test your assumptions as someone else’s actions may not be for the reasons you think.
(I think Karen really does hate your overalls though.)