We all have our own internal biases and conditioning, which impact how we view the world, and the beliefs we hold to be true. While meeting with a colleague, I was recently reminded of one of my favorite constructs – The Ladder of Inference, created by Chris Argyris.
The bottom rung of the ladder is observable data, such as actions and words we can see and hear. It’s what an event would look like if someone were recording it. These are the things everyone would see and experience if they were watching a video of the event.
We move up a rung by choosing what we see and narrowing what we observe in the moment, which then changes the meaning and how we interpret the situation. This leads to us making assumptions. See how quickly you can climb up the ladder?
From there we draw conclusions and adopt beliefs about the world. All of this leads us to taking actions based on our beliefs. We create a reflexive loop without even realizing it, as our beliefs influence what data we happen to see the next time we are in a situation.
For example, someone cuts you off when you’re driving. You make it personal, believing that the driver did it on purpose. You assume the driver is a rude and inconsiderate person who is in too big of a hurry, and you flip him off.
The problem with making assumptions is that you’re not always going to be right. Maybe the driver actually cut you off to avoid being hit by another car. He did it instinctively to protect himself, rather than to purposefully cut in front of you. Yet in the moment, you didn’t see beyond what happened to you, or what the other person was seeing.
Often, we have reactions to people and events based on our beliefs, and yet if we could go back and rewind the video we might find that we are missing pieces of the recording that may help us to see things from another perspective. If we can become aware of our triggers and the beliefs we have accrued over time, it can be easier to give people the benefit of the doubt, or deal with situations without assigning our meaning to it.
Personally, I found myself in this situation with someone I kept seeing in Warren’s yoga class. My observation was that she was slighting me, and that Warren was acting differently when she was around. I believed this so deeply that I wanted to skip class and go for a walk instead. Fortunately, I decided to take the class anyway. As I was practicing, I realized the situation reminded me of a few episodes in my past, when my view of what was happening was too narrow. My assumptions were incorrect, and I unintentionally misjudged a person. I had run up the ladder of inference, just like I was doing right then when I was willing to miss my own yoga practice based on unfounded beliefs. Luckily, I caught myself before running too far up the ladder and falling into the reflexive loop.
If you find yourself in a similar situation where you’re making assumptions about people or situations, here’s what you can do to climb safely down the ladder:
- Be aware of your thinking
- Be more explicit about your thinking so other people can understand your behavior
- Be curious and ask people what is behind their behavior
- Inquire to see if everyone is viewing the data the same way
Today, see if you can pay attention to when you are running from observation to action based on beliefs or data. Take a moment to try to see things from another perspective.