What is the Ladder of Inference?
Years ago my boyfriend was over for dinner one night, and my mother served pie for dessert. He called the pie "interesting" and my mother was offended, my dad snickered, and I was mortified he would say anything other than a glowing compliment.
The word "interesting" is not a negative or positive word, it just means causing interest or fascination. However, in the context of describing the flavor of a homemade pie, my family immediately took his comment to mean that he didn't like the pie. We all gave the same meaning to his use of "interesting" as a moderately polite way of saying he didn't like the pie. Then we each made our own assumptions, drew conclusions, and reacted based on our beliefs - all in an instant.
Using a tool known as the Ladder of Inference, we can break down the thought process of my parents and myself. This tool will help us understand what led them to the reactions of the persons in question. The Ladder of Inference describes the thinking process we all go through at nearly every point of every day. Using knowledge of the Ladder of Inference is especially useful during discussions, meetings, social interactions, cooperative projects, but can be applied to many different parts of everyday life.
The Ladder of Inference was designed by Chris Argyris, a leader in organizational learning. The ladder concept is all about the thinking process, about reasoning. Be aware of where you are on the ladder - it is best to avoid climbing too high too quickly. This tool is also useful for conflict resolution and making team decisions: come to conclusions and perform actions based on sound judgments and facts.
We all make assumptions, right or wrong. Subjectivity sometimes gets in the way. Our subjectivity might be personal feelings, cultural or social background, or based on past experiences. Assumptions we make can obscure or twist the truth. There could be many reasons for whatever observations we have about x,y, or z, but in our heads, we decide on assumptions - usually without even thinking about it. That's where the Ladder of Inference comes in. Test the assumptions to make sure they are valid or shared by others.
Rungs on the Ladder of Inference
The Ladder of Inference is typically thought of as something you climb up. When looking at most diagrams, start at the bottom. This image helps us to understand that we all start on even footing, and then each of us goes up our own internal ladder. Each rung of the ladder is dependent on the rung before it. Working backwards we see:
|Actions based on beliefs
|Beliefs made on conclusions
|Conclusions drawn based on assumptions
|Assumptions made from interpreted reality
|Interpreted reality (meaning) based on selected information
|Selected information as a subset of objective facts
|Objective Facts, or Reality
Check out other interpretations of the Ladder of Inference.
The Ladder of Inference is a tool for collaboration to bring forth additional important facts and to test assumptions. It is not meant to be something that lets someone win or be superior to another person. It is especially important for teams (whether it is a single department in a company or a department of math teachers) because all members need to be on the same page. We all come with our own baggage, and we need to make sure the decisions we make together are based on the same set of facts and goals.
There may be any number of reasons contributing to what beliefs we have. It is important to consider the other side or to look at all the facts instead of narrowing the playing field automatically. The most important part of the ladder of inference is being aware it exists; that is, being aware that everyone has their own assumptions. There are definitely instances when assumptions are correct… we just have to be sure we are open to the possibility that our inferences and assumptions MAY not be correct.
- Recognize that we all have blind spots.
- Test the assumptions of yourself and others.
- Explain your thinking and work through steps with others if appropriate.
Consider using the Johari Window if communication between parties becomes difficult.
Storyboards are an excellent way to communicate ideas and to reduce confusion caused by the Ladder of Inference. Each step or scenario of an idea or plan can be parsed out visually into discrete cells, and this increases the amount of available facts. Everyone on a team can follow the storyboard together with the same set of facts. If it turns out that not everyone is on the same page, use the storyboard to track where misconceptions occur. It may be that something needs to be clarified or more information needs to be included in an additional cell. Breaking information down into small chunks and adding the visual component will radically change collaboration and communication.
Judy's Ladder of Inference
Judy presents an idea to a small group of her colleagues. In the first row of the storyboard example, all of the images are the same. That is the reality of the situation, just as if a camera had recorded these stick figures. The next row isolates individuals: George, Bill, and Lisa. By isolating the individuals, Judy is considering only selected facts/observations.
Judy and George
George is looking at his phone during Judy's presentation. Since George isn't looking at Judy while she talks, it appears that he isn't paying attention, and thus does not find what she has to say interesting or important.
The only fact that we can see is that George is looking at his phone - not that he doesn't think Judy's talk is interesting or important. Consider a few alternative reasons for George to be looking at his phone during a colleague's presentation.
George could be
- looking up information related to Judy's idea
- expecting an important personal call or message (wife is going into labor, father's surgery had no complications)
- setting up a time to meet with Judy to talk more about this idea
- texting/emailing another colleague to join the meeting or seek Judy out later
- trying to turn his phone off, only to be interrupted by system updates
Judy and Bill
Judy sees that Bill is sitting with his eyes closed and his arms crossed. With just that observation, Judy starts to think Bill has something against her and she needs to confront him later. That is quite a leap from Point A to Point B. Let's think of some other possibilities.
Bill could be
- listening intently, choosing to close his eyes to focus more on what Judy is saying
- feeling ill, but still wants to hear what she has to say
- visualizing how Judy's idea might work
- falling asleep
- trying to calm himself down after an altercation, disagreement, or bad deal
Judy and Lisa
Lisa scratches her head a bit during the presentation. The assumption is that Lisa is confused about something, and Judy then jumps to the idea that Lisa isn't very smart because she can't follow along. There are many reasons why a person may scratch their head.
Lisa could be
- working through possibilities of Judy's idea
- trying to relate Judy's idea with something she is working on
- thinking about potential pitfalls
- determining the resources needed to make Judy's idea viable
Now take a look at the same situation in a horizontal format using characters in modern clothing, rather than stick figures. In which direction do you prefer to read? When using a real-life situation, would it be helpful to select characters to represent each person involved? Would stick figures be more effective to preserve anonymity or keep the situation further removed from the everyday experiences?
When working on a project with other people - particularly people from different departments or people with different goals - keep the Ladder of Inference in mind. A marketer and an engineer both have different perspectives and may be focusing on a separate set of elected facts. Our actions are based on our own set of beliefs based on our life experiences. Being aware that everyone goes through a similar way of thinking, helps us figure out how to clear misunderstandings, to hit all the steps, and to make sure everyone is on the same page with the same information. To make things even easier, use storyboards to plan out ideas, products, processes, and more to stay on the selected topic of discussion regardless of background.
Read more about the Ladder of Inference in The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization by Peter Senge.
Ladder of Inference Templates
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