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Navigating Decisions: Using the Ladder of Inference to Make Better Choices

The Ladder of Inference is a helpful tool that explains how we move from data toward action. This process often happens quickly, almost as if it is second nature. Candidly speaking, though, sometimes it can lead us down the wrong path. Our brains like to work efficiently, and they tend to default toward the most familiar path (even if that path is unhelpful), and this process is no exception. This tool is a helpful visual tool for breaking this pattern and building awareness of alternative options. It also helps ensure an unbiased approach and prevents us from jumping to conclusions too quickly.

What is the ladder?

Picture a ladder with seven rungs sitting in a puddle of water. That puddle is called the “pool of available data.” This information is available to us when we make an inference or decision.

  • The bottom rung is “observations.” In this step, we look at our available data and make an observation (for example, “Jamie is normally a cheery person. Jamie also didn’t say hi to me in the hallway today. I also forgot to respond to Jamie’s email yesterday.”).

  • The second rung is “selected data.” In this step, we choose what data we think is relevant (for example, “The only data that feels relevant here is the fact that Jamie didn’t say hi because that is out of character, and this happened right after I forgot to respond to Jamie’s email”).

  • The third rung is “meanings.” In this step, we make meaning from the data (for example, “This must mean Jamie is upset”).

  • The fourth rung is “assumptions.” In this step, we decide what we think is “fact” (for example, “Jamie must be upset with me because I didn’t respond to the email, and that is why they didn’t say hi to me today”).

  • The fifth rung is “conclusions”. In this step, we are tying a bow and finalizing the situation (for example, “Jamie takes my mistakes too personally and lashes out at me”).

  • The sixth rung is “beliefs”. In this step we are laying the groundwork for how we will act going forward (for example, “Jamie is an unprofessional and childlike coworker”).

  • The seventh rung is “actions”. In this final step, we are moving forward from the situation, whether justified or off base (for example, “I’m going to talk with Jamie’s boss about this behavior, and I’m going to tell my team to tread lightly when communicating with Jamie”).

What if, however, we started over and changed a few steps? That could result in:

  • Observation: Jamie is normally a cheery person. However, Jamie didn’t say hi to me in the hallway today, and I also forgot to respond to Jamie’s email yesterday.

  • Selected data: The only data that feels relevant here is the fact that Jamie didn’t say hi because that is out of character

  • Meaning: What if Jamie isn’t upset, but rather, what if Jamie was unable to physically talk at that moment?

  • Assumption: Jamie must have been on the phone, and I just couldn’t see their earbuds

  • Conclusion: This wasn’t personal toward me. It was just unfortunate timing

  • Belief: Jamie is still a very kind person

  • Action: I will continue saying hi to Jamie, and I value our relationship

As you can see, each rung on the ladder has a multitude of paths, and each path leads to a significantly different outcome. Have you heard of this tool before? Do you have a situation where you could re-write your inference? Share in the comments!

Credit: Ladder of Inference was created by business theorist Chris Argyris in 1970


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