The Ladder of Inference


Back in my Corporate Communications days, I attended many of those “motivational types of training.” One such session was a week long and was actually jammed packed with some really, really, good stuff. We did some team building with people representing quite a few local high-profile companies who came from all over the metro Detroit area. I even got my very first taste of doing a low and high ropes course, and I discovered quite a bit about my stamina, abilities, and determination while traversing the high ropes course. Of course we spent plenty of time talking and learning in a non-physical sense too. It was there in that training session where I learned about a model called the Ladder of Inference, as defined by organizational psychologist Chris Argyris. 

Our minds work lightning fast, well most of the time that is. And when presented with a situation, we can move through the analysis process so very quickly, and simply not take time to think things through. As a result we easily jump to the wrong conclusion and perhaps even create real conflict between ourselves and others. So this is a tool which can help you to understand and challenge those steps we take in thinking things through and perhaps stop us from reaching the wrong conclusions. Let’s say that you have a situation which involves other people, and you can be sure that they also are thinking through the process, and chances are you both will not have the same conclusions. That can cause hurt feelings and conflicts. 

Now back to the model, how does this concept of the Ladder of Inference work? Well, visualize a ladder with 7 rungs (or steps if you prefer). As if you were climbing to the top of a wall, you start at the bottom and work your way up. You start with the actual reality and facts, you then move to a selected reality (based on what you perceive), then on rung three you move to an interpreted reality, from there you move to rung four into assumptions, which leads you to rung five which is conclusions, up one more step to rung six is beliefs, and finally to rung seven: actions. 

So to give you a better idea how this works, let’s use a Biblical situation that I recently read about in 2 Samuel 10 (you may want to give it a quick read) – here Nahash the king of the Ammonites dies, now this leader and Israel’s King David are on friendly terms. David wishes to extend sympathies to his son, Hanun who is now the king of the Ammonites, and David wishes to keep the goodwill going between the two nations. Let’s run the situation with David and Hanun through the Ladder of Inference model:

Rung 1 – Reality and Facts. Nahash has died, and Hanun his son becomes king of the Ammonites. David wishes to express his kindness and condolences to Hanun and continue the loyalty and goodwill already established between the countries. 

Rung 2 – Selected Reality. David sends representatives to convey condolences to Hanun. 

Rung 3 – Interpreted Reality. The princes of the Ammonites are suspicious about David sending these representatives.

Rung 4 – Assumptions. They assume that David has an ulterior motive in sending representatives to provide comfort to Hanun. 

Rung 5 – Conclusions. The princes present their assumptions and Hanun concludes that the princes are right, and therefore David is up to something sneaky. 

Rung 6 – Beliefs. Hanun buys into the conspiracy theory, and believes that David is sending representatives to spy on them so that David can conquer the Ammonites. 

Rung 7 – Actions. Hanun has David’s representatives humiliated and sends them away; leading directly to David doing exactly what Hanun feared the most, defeat of the Ammonites. 

The idea of presenting a model to show you how we think through situations, just may help you to be able to stop and identify the steps that you use to think things through, and help you to hopefully realize that you may be looking at things from an incorrect perspective. In the business world we often had to make decisions very quickly, but sometimes we acted like Hanun, and didn’t take the time to look at what the reality of the situation was. And each of us does the very same thing in our personal lives – we make snap judgments and jump to conclusions when we really need to make our actions and decisions based upon reality and the Word of God. We run situations through our mind so quickly that we don’t even recognize that we’ve progressed from rung one all the way up to rung seven in a split second!

While I would like to say that the Ladder of Inference is forever burned into my brain so that it’s at the forefront of all of my thinking and decision making, I would be saying something that’s utterly false. But, I do realize that in those situations I should really try to identify the truth before I jump to conclusions. I can use the Ladder of Influence model along with the Word of God, prayer, and the guidance from the Holy Spirit to discern what the right thing to do. In that way I can better represent my Heavenly Father


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