The Ladder of Inference is the idea that we look at the world through our own personal lens, we self-select the ‘data’ we choose to see and interpret it through that same framework, in what Chris Argyris calls a “ ‘ladder of inference,’- a common mental pathway of increasing abstraction, often leading to misguided beliefs.”
Argyris and later Senge used the models to help bring awareness to underlying assumptions that can govern conversations and block productive connections in real-life situations, and to help organizations and individuals within them to become more aware of their own thinking and reflection processes, as a step to making them more visible to others.
If you take out sleeping (8 hours), eating (3 hours), ‘personal’ care (1 hour), commuting (2 hours), sending emails (1 hour), thinking about what you are going to say while the other person is still talking (2 hours), daydreaming (1 hour), plus whatever you spend on focused individual work, caring for children, parents, etc. (5 hours)—much of our very existence is spent inside our own heads.
Sure, it can be hard to peek out for a reality check. Intercultural Communications (or good communications in general) asks you to
- Turn off the left-hand column and try to focus on what was actually said (of course that means we have to recognize it’s there, first!)
- Voice out the feelings or questions that the conversation prompts
- Ask questions as you go up the ladder of inference to check your interpretation against the other person’s intent.
The good news is, “according to some cognitive theorists, changes in short term everyday mental models, accumulating over time, will gradually be reflected in changes in long-term deep-seated beliefs.”
Drawing Credit: Senge, Peter. The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., p. 243.