How to REALLY Listen: Reduce Conflict by Staying Low on the Ladder of Inference

Whenever we are interacting with others, we are always using the information available to make assumptions about their character and intentions so we can decide how to react, what to say, and what to do. To help you see what I mean, please watch the following video that became viral recently.

Your challenge: pause the video at 0:26 and make a quick note of your first assumptions about the man who has just walked onto the train and announced, "Excuse me ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention please!" Jot down what impressions you have about him and what you think his intentions are. Then continue watching.

Well, what happened? Did you make some off-base assumptions or were you right on?

In every waking moment, we find ourselves in a pool of available data that is there for us to perceive or miss. All other people who are in the same environment share this pool of available data, too. However, using our senses, we selectively perceive some of the data while ignoring (consciously or unconsciously) some of it. Others may notice similar data OR they may also perceive data that we opted to ignore.

We must interpret and assign meaning to the data we selectively perceive—this is a human function we cannot avoid. We make assumptions about the data using lots of factors such as our current state of mind or mood, our experience and background, our upbringing and cultural background, our knowledge of the subject and/or the person, etc.

Based on these assumptions we draw conclusions and make decisions about the data we selectively perceived. We then formulate beliefs about the nature of the data based on the conclusions we drew, and we take actions based on those beliefs (actions being things we say or do or don’t say or don’t do).

What do others see of this process? Only our actions. The rest is in our head.

This process is called climbing up the 'ladder of inference', or 'the ladder of judgment'. Here's a graphic of this process:

Graphic (c) Halelly Azulay

Graphic (c) Halelly Azulay

The Ladder of Inference

What are the chances that others have the same assumptions, conclusions, and beliefs as we do? Pretty low, given how many differences may factor into their process of inference up the ladder.

There are as many ladders as there are people in any given communication situation. Because the actions we take are based partly on facts and partly on inferences, we have a challenge to see things eye-to-eye.

In addition, there is a 'reflexive loop' from our beliefs this time to what we selectively notice the next time in a similar situation or with this person.

While this process is natural and common, our job is to be aware that sometimes what seems like ‘obvious facts’ to us is really just our own interpretation and we need to stay low on the ladder (or climb back down if we find ourselves up the ladder) and stay grounded in facts to prevent misunderstandings and unnecessary conflicts.

How to stay low on the ladder of inference

To prevent misunderstandings and stay low on the ladder, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is it possible that I am jumping to conclusions? 
  • What assumptions might I be using?
  • Why am I making these assumptions? What led me to these conclusions?
  • What makes me believe that this is the “right” way to think or action to take? 
  • Are there other actions to consider? 
  • Am I using all of the facts or data available?

What has been your experience with the Ladder? Have you noticed this process? Have you experienced a conflict or misunderstanding that turned out to be based on false assumptions? Share your thoughts in the comments below! 

Source: Concept initially developed by Chris Argyris, then popularized in The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook (1994) by Peter M. Senge, Art Kleiner, Charlotte Roberts, Richard B. Ross, and Bryan J. Smith.


Sign up to my free weekly newsletter and get more actionable tips and ideas for making yourself a better leader and a more effective communicator! It’s very short and relevant with quick tips, links, and news about leadership, communication, and self-development. Sign up now!

Also, subscribe to my podcast, The TalentGrow Show, on iTunes to always be the first in the know about new episodes of The TalentGrow Show!

You Might Also Like These Posts:

4 common listening sins to avoid (if you want to build or strengthen your work and personal relationships)

Six Principles of Effective Communication

Why you should stop distracted listening

3.5 Ideas for Building Trust (even if it’s virtual)