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What does the ladder of inference even mean?

Lyndon Valicenti

The holiday season is upon us, and with it often comes quality family time. Between the sugar cookies and punch bowls, there will likely be more than enough guilt trips, awkward politics, and jumping to conclusions to go around. A quick refresher on the ole’ Ladder of Inference—and how to avoid sprinting up it—might be just the trick to gracefully navigate this season of joy. But what does the Ladder of Inference even mean?

Initially developed by the late organizational psychologist Chris Argyris, and elaborated on by numerous publications including Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline (1990), the Ladder of Inference describes a common mental pathway we all use to make sense of situations in order to act. However, when we jump up the ladder too quickly when end up with misguided beliefs and flat-out wrong conclusions.  

The steps of the Ladder are depicted in this diagram. 


Most of the rungs of the ladder take place in our minds; the only visible  steps are the observable data at the bottom and our decision to act at the top. Because most of the trip of the ladder is unseen and often unexamined, unpacking and questioning our own, let alone each other's, assumptions and conclusions can be a delicate task. 

The Fifth Discipline Fieldguide sheds light on how best to take your time up the ladder and help others do the same:

  1. Reflect. Become more aware of your own thinking and reasoning.
  2. Advocate. Make sure that others understand your thinking and reasoning.
  3. Inquire. Ask questions of others about what they are thinking, and test your assumptions.

Here a few sample questions, you might try out:

  • Did anyone else hear grandpa say that? What do you think he meant by that?
  • I hear your concerns. What exactly is making you feel that way?
  • Can you provide another example that supports your conclusion?
  • In what context did that happen?
  • Isn't there another way to interpret the situation?
  • When you said this (their inference), did you mean (your inference)?

Hang in there, everybody! And Happy Holidays!