Ladders of Inference

by Derek Winter


A conversation last week about the relationship between perception and reality reminded me of “Ladders of Inference”, an idea I first came across through Peter Senge’s “Fifth Discipline”. This concept was first put forward by Chris Argyris in 1970 as a way of describing the thinking process that we go through, (usually without realising it), to get from a fact to a decision or action.

Let me illustrate with an example from the “Fifth Discipline Fieldbook”:

"I am standing before the executive team, making a presentation. They all seem engaged and alert, except for Larry, at the end of the table, who seems bored out of his mind. He turns his dark, morose eyes away from me and puts his hand to his mouth. He doesn't ask any questions until I'm almost done, when he breaks in: "I think we should ask for a full report." In this culture, that typically means, "Let's move on." Everyone starts to shuffle their papers and put their notes away. Larry obviously thinks that I'm incompetent -- which is a shame, because these ideas are exactly what his department needs. Now that I think of it, he's never liked my ideas. Clearly, Larry is a power-hungry jerk. By the time I've returned to my seat, I've made a decision: I'm not going to include anything in my report that Larry can use. He wouldn't read it, or, worse still, he'd just use it against me. It's too bad I have an enemy who's so prominent in the company."

At the beginning we have reality and facts (Larry’s comment, observable data that could be captured on video). 

From there, the presenter selectively focusses on some details (Larry’s glance and yawn, filtered based on his existing beliefs and experience) and adds his own interpretation and meaning to the behaviour (Larry wants the presentation to end). That quickly escalates to an assumption (Larry’s bored) and a conclusion (Larry thinks the present is in-competent and in fact must be opposed to him). Based on the beliefs now formed, the presenters actions are determined (the report will affected to ensure Larry doesn’t have any ammunition).


The steps or stages can be seen in this picture (Reality & Facts, Selected Reality, Interpreted Reality, Assumptions, Conclusions, Beliefs, Actions).

This is a staged example, but I am sure we all relate to the sequence of events that takes place in our heads and happens so quickly that we’re usually not aware of it. It’s also worth noting that all that is seen by those around us is the original ‘observable’ facts and the actions we take. The sequence of thinking in between is hidden to them.

The conclusions that I draw then lead to reinforcing the ‘selected reality’ that I see. This is called a ‘Reflexive Loop’ and increase my tendency to notice self-affirming ‘facts’ in the future. I am unconsciously deceiving myself (the topic of another fascinating book, “Leadership and the art of Self-Deception”). There is often a parallel loop for others, as they observe our behaviour and climb their own ladder, so between us we can be reinforcing the behaviour in others that we reacted against in the first place, entrenching that which we don’t like or appreciate.

There are many places that you can read about these processes in more detail and depth, but the question is what can we do about it? How can we use the ladder to understand what’s going on around us and communicate more effectively?

There are 3 ways put forward by Senge, Reflection, Advocacy and Inquiry. My simplified summary of this is to suggest that we need to ask good questions (Reflection & Inquiry) of ourselves first and foremost and of others, and be transparent (Advocacy).

Reflective questions: - Becoming more aware of your own thinking and reasoning;

Inquisitive questions: - Becoming more aware of others' thinking and reasoning;

Advocacy - Making your thinking and reasoning more visible to others;

How to ask good questions is a whole blogpost in itself, but using the ladder as a guide, we can think of Advocacy as making our thinking processes visible and publicly testing our assumptions & conclusions (or walking up the ladder slowly) - 

"Here's what I think and here's how I got there."    
"I assumed that. . ."    
"I came to this conclusion because. . ."    
"To get a clear picture of what I'm talking about, imagine the you're a customer who will be affected. . .”
"What do you think about what I just said?" or "Do you see any flaws in my reasoning?" or "What can you add?"
"Here's one aspect which you might help me think through. . ."    
"Do you see it differently?"

We can think of Inquiry as asking others to make their thinking processes visible and comparing their assumptions to ours (or walking them slowly down the ladder) -

"What leads you to conclude that?" "What data do you have for that?" "What causes you to say that?"
"Can you help me understand your thinking here?"    
"What is the significance of that?" "How does this relate to your other concerns?" "Where does your reasoning go next?"
"I'm asking you about your assumptions here because. . ."
"How would your proposal affect. . .?" "Is this similar to. . .?" "Can you describe a typical example. . .?”
"Am I correct that you're saying. . .?"

This is a tool that is very powerful for individuals in any role both professionally and personally. Understood and practiced within a team will also strengthen the team and improve communication and decision making.