How to get off the ladder of misunderstanding

Instead, climb the career ladder of success
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Perhaps you thought when you read the title of this article: “Why would I want to get off the ladder? My goal is to climb the ladder in my career, not get off of it.”

The ladder that we will be exploring in this article is a ladder that you want to stay off of as much as possible in order to climb the career ladder of your choice.

This ladder contains seven steps that can end up creating massive misunderstandings when it comes to communication with yourself and others.

One of my favorite take-aways from my Master’s program in Adult Education/Human Resources Development was The Ladder of Inference, created by Harvard Professor Chris Argyris.

This ladder contains seven steps from what we see to what we do about it.

An inference is a conclusion reached based on evidence and reasoning. Too often when our emotions get caught between the observable data and our conclusions about that data, several unwelcome guests take up free rent between our two ears: filters, assumptions, conclusions and false beliefs.

These unwelcome tenants often create the reactive response of: mindreading, fortune telling, catastrophizing, all-or-nothing thinking, overgeneralization and/or selective attention.

Neuroscience refers to these reactive responses as bottom up thinking and produce only three choice points of response to a situation: fight, flight or freeze.

I invite you to read through this paragraph intentionally again. Where do you recognize yourself? What unwelcome tenant frequents your mind? Do you have a go-to? Clarity of focus leads to accuracy of response.

Can you imagine waking up tomorrow morning and miraculously during the night you were given the ability to separate observable data from the following steps that Professor Chris Argyris put into a ladder format?

Observable data is the first step on the Ladder of Inference, followed by:

  • Filters: your knowledge, experience and values that influence how you listen think and communicate (Source: Sherpa Executive Coaching).
  • Assign Meaning: based on the content you filtered out, you are left with the meaning you make from what is left.
  • Assumptions: thoughts you come up with not based on the facts. You create the story.
  • Conclusions: blurring the lines between fact and story based on your filters and assumptions. Some behaviors that often accompany conclusions may be: stone walling, blaming, complaining, justifying, defensiveness, ugly talk.
  • Beliefs: based upon how you run up your ladder via your filters, assumptions and the conclusions you make based on that intel you create beliefs. A belief about yourself, a situation, person or outcome. The beliefs you hold can directly impact your filters (selected data).
  • Actions: Last but definitely not least, you take action based the other five steps. This is the top of your ladder. The actions you take can directly impact the observable data. In neurolinguistic programming (NLP) we refer to three possibilities that can occur at this point: distorting, deleting or generalizing the observable data in order to back up your view of reality.

One of the top qualities commonly associated with highly effective leaders is impulse control. The ability to pause, breathe and maintain executive thinking in the midst of undesirable situations before taking action.

It’s the ability to stay at the bottom of the ladder without getting spun up to the top. It’s being centered and objective in order to see what’s really going on around you, listening to understand rather than to be understood.

Being able to separate fact from rumor, opinion or gossip, commonly referred to as the FROG effect.

What kind of leader are you when it comes to impulse control? Which step on the Ladder of Inference do you relate to the most? The least? What action step do you want to commit to today based on what you have learned? Perhaps it will be to observe what triggers in your life result in climbing the Ladder of Inference.

Our goal today is to up your game when it comes to your ability to reach conclusions based on evidence and reasoning rather than filters, assumptions and the conclusions made from those steps which end up resulting in action that fuels misunderstandings.

In Sherpa Executive Coaching we use a tool called Weakness Mountain that fits nicely with what you discover about yourself when it comes to the Ladder of Inference.

There are four phases to Weakness Mountain:

  1. Acknowledge: an aspect of your filters is an opinion which can quickly turn into a judgement and spill over into a negative behavior. Think about a behavior of yours that has a negative impact on your professional relationships.
  2. Observe: when this behavior is triggered
  3. Change: Offer a change behavior that will help you stay in observable data.
  4. Evaluate: Is the change behavior working for you? If not re-evaluate and choose another behavior. For example, you might list all of the observable data around a situation at hand.

An excellent TedEd talk by Trevor Maber will give you the opportunity to see the Ladder of Inference in action.

Once you observe what happens in your mind, you can then become the boss of your ladder moving forward. You will begin to intentionally stay in the observable data knowing that all kinds of drama will occur when you start to climb the ladder.

This tool is a game changer when it comes to your ability to create clear conversations based upon different assumptions. Now moving forward, it will help you avoid misunderstandings.

Below is a summary of the five steps to short circuit your ladder referenced by Trevor in his TedEd talk:

  1. Breathe
  2. Ask yourself: What beliefs are at play?
  3. What data and observations did you filter out because of your beliefs and why?
  4. Are your assumptions supported by facts?
  5. Would a different set of assumptions create different feelings? Result in new and better conclusions and actions.

Lauren E. Miller has a Masters in Adult Education with a Certification in Human Resources Development. She has personally conquered two of life’s top stressors at the same time, advanced cancer and divorce. Now Google’s #1 Stress Relief Expert, Award Winning Author, HRD Trainer and Certified Sherpa Executive Coach, Lauren provides process driven programs and custom trainings with structure, guidance, support and accountability designed to create positive change in behavior resulting in positive impact on business (IOB) and life purpose. Explore More:

Categories: Business Insights, Management & Leadership