Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Ladder of Inference

The following was first presented to me by my good friend and mentor, Jim Boylan, PathFinders Consulting Alliance. Jim knows a great deal more about this than I do. So, if you are interested in the deeper implications of how the Ladder of Inference affects relationships, please contact Jim at jbpathfinders(at)roadrunner(dot)com, or click on the PathFinders Consulting Alliance tab at the top of the blog.

How do you define Truth? What do you believe about human capability and motivation? What do you believe about human nature?

You probably don't spend a lot of time thinking about these questions. But, these definitions, beliefs, and assumptions about others are always acting, filtering, and coloring your response to what is going on around you.

Here's an example. You are driving down the road at a sedate 40 miles per hour in fairly heavy traffic. A small, beat up sedan comes up from behind you, zigzagging in and out of traffic, traveling far too fast for conditions. He cuts in front of you, almost taking off your front bumper. Hanging his head out the driver's side window, he shouts something at you, and speeds away, continuing to quickly weave through traffic.

Your first thoughts are probably "What an Idiot!" or something more forceful. Because of our culture most of us assume that it is inappropriate to flaunt traffic laws, or to endanger other drivers. You know from the kind of car the person was driving, and the way he was behaving, that this is clearly some deadbeat nut who shouldn't have a driver's license. In fact, you may feel this so strongly that you offer the fellow a parting disparaging salute as he drives away.

You have observed a situation, applied your filters and assumptions about proper highway etiquette and behavior, and have come to a conclusion about the character and motivation of that person, and you have acted on your conclusions.

You have just climbed the "Ladder of Inference". (To see if you climbed the correct ladder, read the last paragraph of this post.)

Here's how the Ladder of Inference works:
  • I observe objectively - Observation by itself is not a biased activity. When I observe I see what happens, hear what was said, or experience a situation - no more and no less.
  • I select data from what I observe - Here is where the filtering begins. I create assumptions about which parts of the event I have observed are important. This assumption about importance is based on how the things that have been observed affect me, or fit into my cultural experience. A person from one culture may not understand the significance of events that occur within another culture. Culture can be large (a country, religious group, political party, or shared language), or small (individual, family, or workgroup).
  • I add meaning to what I have selected - At this point, I imply meaning using the norms of my culture, or experience.
  • I make assumptions based on the meaning I have added - This process begins to fill in gaps in knowledge. Where I don't know something about the event, I naturally assume that the motivations, behaviors, wants, desires, likes and dislikes should match my own. These assumptions take the guesswork out of understanding the situation.
  • I draw conclusions which prompt feelings - Now that I understand the situation, and have filled in the gaps with assumptions, I can draw conclusions about why the person is behaving that way. And, of course, I immediately begin to have feelings about these conclusions.
  • I adopt beliefs about the world - Based on my conclusions, I can now see that there are things within the world that are out of alignment (or in the case of a positive conclusion, in alignment). I am having either negative or positive feelings about the situation. And, at this point, I believe some form of action, whether it is a physical act, spoken words, or other behavior on my part, is necessary.
  • I take action based on my beliefs and feelings - I now fully understand the entire situation and take the necessary action: I give the departing driver a negative hand gesture. Or, in the case of a work situation, perhaps I say something that I believe to be appropriate based on my conclusions about the current situation. This is often an emotional, rather than a rational response.
This move up the Ladder of Inference takes milliseconds. It happens all day long. It happens when we interact with people, and when we read the news. It also affects how others see us as they climb their own Ladders of Inference.

There are a few things you can do to help cut down the number of times you run up the ladder:
  • Make your thinking process visible to others by explaining your assumptions, interpretations, and conclusions. This is easier to do in the office where there are other people around to help you think through things than it is while you are alone, driving down the road. But, even when you are alone, you can take a moment to examine your journey up the ladder before deciding what action you will take.
  • Invite others to test your assumptions and conclusions. When you have the opportunity to work with others, have them help you think things through.
  • Use respectful inquiry to help others make their thought processes visible. Use open and nonjudgmental questions, rather than questions that exhibit a bias.
  • Explore impasses, and don't agree to disagree too soon. This helps you avoid hidden or unspoken assumptions and conclusions that hide the journey up the Ladder of Inference.
Next time you find yourself having an emotional reaction to something, take the time to notice what triggered this feeling. Observe the events that have occurred. Examine the data you selected. Think about the filters you use to interpret information. Identify your assumptions and conclusions. Understand the root of your feelings. And then select the action you will take.

By the way, in case you are curious, the fellow driving the beat up sedan was on the way to the hospital with his wife who was seven months pregnant. Her labor started unexpectedly while riding in the car. The hospital was only 2 blocks away. The life of both the mother and the baby were at risk. What he shouted out of his window was "I'm sorry, please excuse me."

What did you think he said?

Here is a slide, provided by Jim Boylan, PathFinders Consulting Alliance, that can be used when talking through the Ladder of Inference with a group.