The human mind is capable of amazing things. We are able to take bits of information and create rapid interpretations and conclusions. Sometimes this ability is a strength when, for instance, we may need to make decisions on the fly in a high pressure situation. Our minds are capable of making conceptual abstractions out of observable data and in that move to quicker decision making. Often times, though, this capability can serve as more of a liability. For instance, when we find ourselves in a conversation with someone else and in the course of that dialogue end up making rapid assumptions about why that person is saying what they are and then drawing conclusions about what kind of person they are, then we are making unhelpful leaps of abstraction.
Imagine you are in a meeting and the facilitator asks the group a question about the best way to proceed with a particular issue. After waiting for other responses, you calmly and succinctly offer your point of view. Then Richard who is sitting across from you offers a critique of your point of view. Of course Richard is critiquing you instead of offering his own opinion. That’s all Richard ever does. You ask yourself, “Does he think he’s better than everyone else?” Probably. He’s in a management position, and everyone in management thinks they’re smarter than other people just because of their title.
We’ll stop here for now. A helpful metaphor from Rick Ross is that of a ladder. What is happening here is the process of taking a few quick steps up a “ladder” of inference.
As you can see in the above image, we start at the bottom of the ladder through the observations we make of a particular situation. Our minds then move up the ladder in slow or quick succession. We select data from what we observe (in this case, that Richard decided to critique our idea after we shared it), and then we add meaning to that data. A particular meaning here might be that critiquing someone’s point of view is not an appropriate response. In particular, that if someone is conducting such behavior, they might think they are better than other people. Then we make assumptions on that meaning, which in this case would be that people who behave like this must think they are better than others. Here is where our minds can kick into overdrive because the space between assumption and conclusion is lightning fast. We then conclude that Richard must think he’s better than other people, and in particular me.
The sheer fact that our minds can accomplish this in the span of a few seconds is astonishing. In truth, this is a strength of human cognitive behavior that could and should be harnessed. In many scenarios, though, this leads us down the path of misinterpretation and broken relationships. If we were continue our way up the ladder, it would not be out of the realm of possibility to take the next leap of abstraction and make adopt beliefs about the world based on the conclusion just made. We might notice that Richard is in management. If I am in a place where I am particularly skeptical of management, I might jump to the belief that this is a behavior of those in management. It is not a far leap then to take action based on the belief that management thinks they are better than other people, and whatever I say next in this situation could get me fired.
I think it is safe to say that it does not take long for most people to identify this process in some kind of recent interaction. When written out, this process can seem absurd, but in reality, this is how the mind works. And that’s the key to understand how to prevent dramatic leaps of abstraction – understanding that this is how the mind works. Outside of the first rung of the ladder – observable data – everything else is happening only in our own minds. What makes it worse is that we are more susceptible to running up the ladder if we have a history of doing this for one particular person or situation. On the flip side, there is a counter reaction where the other individual is reacting to your inferences and moving up their own ladder.
The key then is learning how to recognize it when it is happening. Here are a few steps adopted from Peter Senge and Rick Ross in managing yourself as you run up and down the ladder.
- Knowing that this process exists in the first place is essential for recognition. Part of the process of managing assumptions is the recognition that they even exist.
- You might not realize your moving up the ladder until you’re already at step 3 or 4. That is normal. Once you are at this point, though, ask yourself, “What am I basing this meaning or assumption on?” Usually, we are in the throws of some kind of psychosomatic reaction such as sweaty palms, clenched teeth, or tense shoulders. That kind of bio feedback is helpful in recognizing that you are somewhere on the ladder.
- Then Peter Senge poses an important and provocative question that you ask yourself, “Am I willing to consider that this generalization may be inaccurate or misleading?” At it’s core, this is an ego question. The willingness to acknowledge that we might not be reading a situation correctly is connected our sense of pride. However, this is essential moving back down the ladder.
- Do the hard work of separating your observations from your generalizations. Using the above scenario, helpful questions to yourself might be:
- What might have been the reason why Richard felt the need to provide a critique?
- Regardless if Richard acts like this on a normal basis, was there substance to his critique in the first place? Was it valid?
- Why am I feeling this way about his critique? Is it more about the fact that he’s critiquing me than it is about him?
- What I have found is that at this point, it is just as easy to move back up the ladder because other personal and cultural assumptions about what is right and wrong in the world and workplace can interject. Though these should not be ignored, it is just as easy to move back up the ladder. Do your best to continue separating observation from generalization.
Understanding the way we move up and down the ladder of inference is just one component of understanding how to navigate our cognitive behaviors in conversations. There are other tools and skills that link to this ladder that I will add over time. For now, I hope that this provides a summary for you to use in your own life.
Ross, R. (1994). The ladder of inference. In P. M. Senge, A. Kleiner, C. Roberts, B. J. Smith, & R. Ross (Eds.), The fifth discipline fieldbook (pp. 242-246). New York: Doubleday
Senge, P. (1990). The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday