A tool that I have found very powerful in helping unlock some of my client’s thinking, especially when they feel stuck in a negative mindset, is called the Ladder of Inference. It is a model created by Chris Argyris out of Harvard Business School and it maps out our thought process from inception to action.
Here’s how it works:
- Each one of us starts with data, all the information that could possibly exist.
- From there, each brain filters out of necessity to function. There’s just too much information to digest. Our individual filters may be based on family, culture, values, etc.
- Then, we add meaning: I like this/don’t, this is good/bad, he’s right/wrong, this is safe/unsafe, etc.
- Next, we add assumptions about why that meaning is as such. We leap from data to inference about the intent behind someone’s actions, for example.
- We quickly form conclusions about things always/never being that way.
- We then develop fixed beliefs about people, events, places, ourselves, life, etc. that this is how things are.
- Finally, we act based on those beliefs, which are at the top of the ladder, not from the actual data, which is at the bottom.
Most of the time, our travel “up the ladder” happens in the blink of an eye, unconsciously, and out of self-protection. [envoke_twitter_link]In order to have thriving personal and work relationships, we must be aware of – then take responsibility for – our path up the ladder of inference![/envoke_twitter_link]
Here’s an example:
- Data: In first week of work, I was on conference call with a new teammate. She went straight into the business topic at hand.
- Meaning: She doesn’t like me. She would have asked about how I’m doing, feeling, etc., if she did. Oh no!
- Assumptions: I must be doing something wrong. She must be unfriendly.
- Conclusions: I should avoid this colleague whenever possible. Never tackle a project with her because that clearly won’t work. We just won’t get along.
- Beliefs: She is not a nice person in general. How could anyone like her?
- Actions: I create distance, avoid sharing personal information, am closed off. I probably came across as a jerk!
- TRUTH: She was stressed about missing a client deadline and wanted to do a really good job representing our team. It had nothing to do with me at all! And to think, I made all that up (went up the ladder) in the blink of an eye.
If you’d like to try this out for a minute, think of a recent time when you felt anxious, upset or ticked off. Write out your path:
- What happened objectively, with no judgement?
- What did you make that mean?
- What assumptions did you attach to that meaning (or intention did you assign)?
- What beliefs were confirmed or created?
- Then, how did you act as a result of that?
Please share something you’ve learned about your thought patterns in the comments. I love learning from you, too!