The ladder of Inference

2021-02-16 2 min read

The ladder of Inference Part 1

Have you ever been accused of 'putting two and two together and made a 5'? When was the last time you realised that you jumped to the wrong conclusion?

We're always under pressure in today's fast-moving world, to act now, rather than spend time reasoning things through and thinking about the facts. Not only can this lead us to wrong conclusions, but it also causes conflict with others, who may have drawn very different conclusions on the same matter.

To maintain the respect and trust in any relationship (personal, intimate or professional), it's crucial that our decisions and actions are founded on reality (and not upon a misinterpretation of the facts). In the same way, when you accept or challenge someone else's conclusions, you must be confident that their reasoning, and yours, are firmly grounded on facts. The 'Ladder of Inference' helps you to do this. Sometimes known as the 'Process of Abstraction', this tool helps you to understand the thinking steps that often lead an individual to jump to the wrong conclusions. It, therefore, helps you focus on hard reality and facts.

The Ladder of Inference details the thinking process that individuals go through (often without realising it), to get from the facts to a decision or action. These thinking stages can be referred to as rungs on a ladder and are shown in the image below. Starting at the top of the ladder, we have 'what we intend to say' or plan to say before we've even opened our mouths.

From there, there is 'what we actually say' which nine times out of ten is not an accurate representation of what we mean to say (because we're imperfect communicators). Then there is 'what the other person hears', which again might be far removed from what we've actually said and depends on the degree of which the other person is listening or paying attention.

And lastly, at the bottom of the ladder, there is 'what the other person thinks we mean.' At this stage, the other person may jump to conclusions or makes assumptions about what they think we mean by what we've said. An example of an assumption could be if an individual takes negative feedback from a colleague to heart and assumes that their colleague thinks they are awful at their job.

This can create a vicious cycle. A person's beliefs can have a huge effect on what they choose to take from what we say and can lead them to completely ignoring the facts of what was said. Soon they are jumping to conclusions – by missing the facts and skipping steps in this reasoning process.

The Ladder of Inference helps people to draw better conclusions. We can also use it to help challenge or validate other people's conclusions. This reasoning process helps us to remain objective and, when working or challenging other people, reach a shared conclusion without any conflict.

More on how to master this technique in part2.

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