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Ladder of Inference: How We Tell Our Stories

by Herb Stevenson

A useful tool in helping clients examine their thinking processes is the "ladder of inference" method, originally developed by Chris Argyris. In executive coaching, the ladder of inference is probably the most commonly used, and most  effective, technique to help executives evaluate and improve their cognitive and communicative styles. In basic terms the ladder of inference involves the following seven steps.

  1. 1) I observe "data."
  2. 2) I then select data from what I have observed.
  3. 3) I add meaning to the data from a personal and cultural perspective.
  4. 4) I make assumptions based on the meaning that I have added.
  5. 5) I draw conclusions based on our assumptions.
  6. 6) I adopt beliefs based on my conclusions.
  7. 7) Finally, I take actions based on my conclusions.

Telling Our Story

When we add the emotional content to the model by borrowing from the work of Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler in their best selling books Crucial Conversations and Crucial Confrontations, the model becomes a clear explanation of our cognitive, emotive, and communicative processes, especially during our more explosive and possibly embarrassing moments.

This model suggests that in every situation we have four overriding processes that hep us decide what has happened and what action to take. As shown below, this model adds a feeling step to the process.

See and Hear >>> Tell a Story >>> Feel >>> Act

The concept of the ladder of inference integrated with "how we tell our stories" can help our clients identify the steps in their reasoning that may lead to unintended consequences. The ladder of inference focuses on how people come to take the actions they take. When the structure of our thinking and feeling processes from Patterson et. al. are overlain as a meta-structure that incorporates the ladder of inference, the model becomes expanded and adds the feeling or emotional dimension to the model.

The combined model would look like the following:

See and Hear

  1. I observe "data."
  2. I then select data from what I have observed.

Tell a Story

  1. I add meaning to the data from a personal and cultural perspective.
  2. I make assumptions based on the meaning that I have added.
  3. I draw conclusions based on my assumptions.
  4. I adopt beliefs based on my conclusions.

Feelings Respond�Automatically or Consciously

  1. I create emotional reactions that are congruent with the Story I have told myself.

Take Action

  1. Finally, I take actions based on my conclusions and emotional reactions.

The importance of combining these two models is supported by the Emotional Intelligence work of Daniel Goleman. Goleman noted that when we have automatic emotional responses to stimuli instead of strong self awareness and self management (impulse control), we risk having an amygdala (emotional) hijack, which basically means that the brain ignites a strong, preconceived response to a situation, a "precognitive emotion" that may or may not be appropriate or applicable. These precognitive emotions are unconscious responses to situations that often create embarrassment, difficult relations,  and misunderstanding. Hence, by including the feeling or emotional aspect of our self into the ladder of inference model, we have a process that can more fully explain the internal thinking and feeling processes that lead to less than productive and/or satisfying engagement with friends, family, peers, direct reports up and down, and complete strangers. Through self awareness, we can begin to develop social skills that lead to new ways of self management and relationship management.

The attached form can be used to support clients to unravel and discover their personal inferential process. The left column describes the Meta-process of see/here, tell a story, feel, and act. The second column describes the ladder of inference process with the added dimension of emotional reaction. The third column is for applying the model by describing what happened/how you originally perceive(d) an actual situation. The fourth column is to create an alternative explanation to what could be or to describe the real/actual situation that was checked out with the other person.

By walking through this handout and then using the form, you can coach your client into indepth self awareness and personal insights. As a tool for yourself as a coach, it can help you to track your own triggered reactions and unravel them for learning.

Meta-Process Ladder of Inference Original Experience or Explanation Actual/
Alternative Explanation
See and Hear      
  I observe "data"    
  I select some data from what I observe (and ignore other data).    
I Tell A Story      
 

I add meaning to the data from a personal and cultural perspective.

   
  I make assumptions based on the meaning that I have created.    
 

I draw conclusions based on my assumptions and act as if they are facts.

   
  I adopt beliefs based on my conclusions and act as if they are facts.    
My Feelings Arise      
  I create emotional reactions that are congruent with the Story I have Told Myself    
Take Action      
  I take action based on my story—conclusions and emotional reactions.    

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