First, I will start with a true story…
“A man was flying from Seattle to San Francisco. The plane had a layover in Sacramento.
The flight attendant explained that there would be a delay, and if the passengers wanted to get off the aircraft, the plane would re-board in one hour.
Everybody got off the plane except one gentleman who was blind.
Another man had noticed him as he walked by and could tell the gentleman was blind because his Seeing Eye dog lay quietly underneath the seats in front of him throughout the
He could also tell he had flown this very flight before because the pilot approached him, and calling him by name, said, “Keith, we’re in Sacramento for an hour, would you like to get off and stretch your legs?
The blind man replied, “No thanks, but maybe my dog would like to stretch his legs.”
Picture this: All the people in the gate area came to a complete standstill when they looked up and saw the pilot walk off the plane with a Seeing Eye dog!
The pilot was even wearing sunglasses.
They not only tried to change planes, but they were trying to change airlines!
The moral to the story is, things aren’t always as they appear…”
We have all probably experienced not feeling heard or feeling misunderstood. We have all possibly made assumptions that ended up being false or been told that we are quick to judge at times. Why do we as humans and as leaders sometimes jump to conclusions?
The Ladder of Inference:
The ladder of inference describes the thinking process humans follow to progress from data to a decision or action. We move up the ladder of inference in seconds when a new piece of information enters our experience.
4 Ways Knowledge of The Ladder Can Help Leaders Day to Day:
1 . Use the Ladder of Inference at any stage of your thinking to interrupt the mental process by asking the following questions:
- Is this the “right” conclusion?
- Why am I making these assumptions?
- Why do I think this is the “right” thing to do?
- Is this really based on all the facts?
- Why does he/she believe that?
2. Identify your current “rung” and analyze your reasoning by working back down the ladder and ask these questions:
- Why have I chosen this course of action? Are there other actions I should have considered?
- What belief led to that action? Was it well founded?
- Why did I draw that conclusion and is it sound?
- What am I assuming and why? Are my assumptions valid?
- What data have I chosen to use and why? Have I selected data rigorously?
- What are the real facts that I should be using? Is there other data that I should consider?
3. Look for rungs that you tend to jump. Do you tend to make assumptions too easily? Do you tend to select only part of the data? Note your tendencies so that you can learn to do that stage of reasoning with extra care in the future.
4. Explain your reasoning to a colleague or friend to confirm that your argument is sound. If you are challenging someone else’s conclusions, it is especially important to explain your reasoning to reach a shared conclusion and avoid conflict.
Using the Ladder of Inference to Find Common Ground:
It is inevitable that there will be times when we struggle to find a way through a particular conflict with a colleague, boss or direct report. Interrupting our pattern of inference can help challenge our assumptions that may be creating the impasse. Try asking these questions of yourself and the person with whom you are having a challenge:
- What do we know for a fact?
- What do we sense is true but are not yet sure?
- What is unknowable?
- What do we agree on? Disagree on?
- Are we starting from different assumptions here?
- What would have to happen before you would consider an alternative?
- I want to understand the assumptions that are underlying our disagreement. Could you help me with that?
- It feels that we are at an impasse, and we will end without a better understanding. Have you got any ideas that will help clarify our thinking?
One of my favorite books is called The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, by Don Miguel Ruiz. One of the four agreements is Don’t Make Assumptions. Ruiz says, “Find the courage to ask questions and express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.”
Recommitting to leading from an intentional place of understanding is the key to not acting on unsupported assumptions. What I think is the most powerful part of both the pilot story I shared to open this article, and the tools for leaders using The Ladder of Inference, is that the most misleading of all our assumptions are the ones we don’t even know we are making…