What kind of preparation do you do for important work-related conversations? What kind of thoughts do you have during a crucial dialogue? What approach do you take when you follow-up on a conversation?
Many of us will brainstorm points we need to cover so we don’t forget.
Maybe if it’s a particularly sensitive topic we’ll carefully craft wording so we don’t say something the wrong way. We might be thinking about steps we can take to communicate effectively.
These are all beneficial techniques.
I want to outline another tool that will help you prepare a little differently.The Ladder of Assumptions, also called the Ladder of Inference, is a fascinating tool that helps us understand our thinking – so we can better interact – and thus succeed.
Now, just like climbing a ladder in real life, we’re going to start at the bottom and work our way to the top. Each rung is a different point in the process.
The rungs on the ladder of assumptions
The first step involves our senses. Inherently we scan our environments and pick up what can be seen and heard. It’s possible we might also notice other sensory information like smell or touch.
We are likely not consciously aware of most of the things we’re observing (this is when people talk about “I just had a feeling about it” or “I had a sixth sense about it…”).
As we subconsciously absorb information about what we experience, our brain moves to the next step and begins taking more notice of certain elements. It’s human nature that we notice some things more than others.
As we process this selected information, we move to the next step and start to apply some meaning to it. The way in which we do this is based on culture, experience, and past beliefs.
It could be influenced by the culture of a community, our own heritage, or the corporate culture. Or, it could be applied from our personal norms and values.
Next, we start making assumptions based on the meaning we’ve ascribed to the information we selected. At this stage, our assumptions are based on our own view of things and applied to others.
After making assumptions we move up the ladder to drawing conclusions about the environment or situation, the world around us.
Depending on the context, this could mean we’re reaching decisions or passing judgments about coworkers, bosses, the team we’re working with on a particular project, or the company.
We adopt beliefs based on conclusions we draw, thinking them to be true (even if there is no empirical evidence!), and these beliefs inform how we think. Our beliefs guide our actions.
We reach the top of the ladder now as we take actions based on our beliefs. What we believe could pertain to our organization, people around us, or even the world.
Takeaways from the ladder
You can probably see how the Ladder of Assumptions could be a good thing. Our ability to use our senses to quickly assess the environment and people around us and use that information to draw conclusions could protect us from harm.
Going with our guts is often wise. However, the Ladder of Assumptions happens all the time and consequently could be less reliable if we’ve misinterpreted first impressions or made false assumptions. Let’s delve into this a bit more.
Subconscious versus conscious
It’s worth noting that the first few steps of the Ladder of Assumptions occur at a subconscious level. We’re not deciding to evaluate what’s around us based on our senses, it just happens – viscerally, instinctively.
Think about walking into a crowded presentation room and what you might observe: Your senses might pick up on the bright natural light pouring in through windows, that people are stopped at a registration table to the left-hand side of you, and there’s a song you like playing in the background.
However, what you select out of that barrage of information might be the registration table – while you’re not consciously aware of the light and the sound. You might grow in awareness, moving from the subconscious to the conscious. For example, you might catch yourself humming along to music and then notice that it’s one of your favourite songs!
As our mind continues through the next steps of adding meaning, making assumptions, and drawing conclusions, many of us continue moving up the ladder subconsciously.
I want you to think about that: If we’re not really thinking about this, you’re not questioning yourself. Without awareness, there isn’t any guarantee of critical thinking.
What if the data your mind noticed wasn’t the most relevant? What if the meaning you’ve applied isn’t accurate or your assumptions were way off? Now consider the impact of those missteps as you draw conclusions and adopt beliefs that aren’t grounded on facts and evidence.
Kind of alarming, isn’t it? But this is precisely why we study the ladder, so that we can try to improve our awareness. Because we’re running up that ladder all day long.
A key component about us running up this ladder is that it’s not a one-time, one-way trip. Once we reach the point of making beliefs, those beliefs will then start to guide us – whether they’re right or wrong – and that guidance will begin to affect what we notice and the meaning we give it. This is called the reflective loop.
For example, you might notice that large trucks on the highway kick up gravel more than other cars. Then next time you’re driving on the highway you might decide to avoid following a large truck and avoid having your windshield chipped or smashed.
But let’s consider beliefs one might adopt about people based on looks, background, gender, or race. It’s entirely possible a belief might cause you to notice something in someone else and confirm the conclusions reached in the past. In this case, what we observe is self-fulfilling pre-conceived notions.
As we move up and down the ladder our own actions can have an impact on what’s happening around us. Let’s think about that: The actions we take based on our right or wrong beliefs can affect the world around us. This is what we call the action loop and it, too, happens alarmingly often.
So when we approach the top of the ladder (which can happen in moments, many times a day, in any number of different situations we find ourselves in) and we form beliefs, we take actions – sometimes consciously and sometimes not (think about body language that you may not be intending).
What we do is observed by those around us and this could cause them to react – because they, too, are picking up on observations, adding their own meaning, making conclusions, etc.
Racism is a more extreme scenario, but it illustrates the action loop quite well. Consider someone who selects certain observations her mind picks up about a given race; she applies meaning, makes assumptions, and draws conclusions, causing her to adopt beliefs about that entire race of people.
Each time she meets someone from this racial group, her mind is more attuned to pick up data that she already thinks fits the stereotypes that she believes, which then confirms her beliefs. This is the reflective loop.
As she rapidly travels up the ladder and back down the reflective loop, she is going to start to act– consciously, and not consciously. Perhaps she avoids coworkers from that racial group, who notice. They react, responding differently based on their observations meanings, assumptions, and conclusions based on her and her race.
At the same time, their reactions then give her another opportunity to select more data that reaffirms her initial, ill-informed beliefs.
In the action loop, the actions of one cause responses from others, which generates new actions and generates more data. And, well, you can see how this can spiral out of control in a mind-numbing few moments, sometimes without us even realizing we’re doing it.
So now imagine this in a less troubling situation than racism – you and your team members forming beliefs about each other, and acting on them. Or, think about your boss forming beliefs about you, perhaps based on inaccurate assumptions, misguided beliefs, and acting on them.
Walking the ladder in the workplace
Let’s take what we’ve learned about the ladder and apply it to a common workplace scenario.
Imagine that you’re interviewing for a junior analyst position and you’re about to meet a candidate who looks great on paper. He has gone to the best schools, achieved top grades, and has excellent references from peers in your industry where he had internships.
At the observation level, the meeting room is warm and there’s a hum as the HVAC blows warm air. There’s a lingering smell of coffee from an earlier meeting. The candidate walks in, sharply dressed, with expensive shoes and well-coiffed hair and calm, pleasant demeanor. He’s obviously from a certain cultural group. At this point you’re beginning to select certain details and apply meaning.
You reach out to shake hands with the candidate, who averts his gaze. His handshake isn’t just weak, it’s mild. You might be consciously or not consciously thinking someone who averts his gaze has something to hide or low self-esteem and you feel even more uneasy with the limp handshake.
You might assume that someone with such mannerisms can’t be a hotshot analyst or has some hesitation about the work with your company. You might draw conclusions, perhaps that his credentials and references are somehow inflated – perhaps you’re biased against this cultural group and you adopt beliefs that he’s benefited from affirmative action hiring in some way.
At this point, you might be feeling less enthusiastic about the interview. You sit down and check your phone for the time. You’re just going to go through the questions from HR and see how he responds.
The reflective loop here finds you always watching people from this cultural group for signs of low enthusiasm based on weak handshakes and an averted gaze. The action loop occurring would be that your attitude shifts after the handshake and checking your phone make this candidate feel like you’ve already decided against him.
He might lose motivation, believing now that he has a slim chance to impress you and his reaction to your actions are thus self-fulfilling.
The problem is that for some cultures, averting the gaze and a gentle handshake is a sign of respect. The impressions and assumptions and conclusions drawn are all ill-informed simply because the signs of respect were misinterpreted.
Now, imagine if you had applied the ladder as you prepared for the interview. If we can focus and become more conscious at a lower level of the ladder, we’ll become more aware well before we’re drawing conclusions and engaged in actions.
We’ve given you a lot of heavy information in the blog today, but we have found this exercise to be career changing – and even life changing – for some of our clients.
As you prepare for a discussion, engage in a conversation, or reflect before you follow-up with someone, try to be mindful of the steps we’ve covered with the Ladder of Assumptions.
Consider questions related to the process like: What were you thinking about X situation when you decided to do Y? What have you previously thought about this person that led you there?
This ladder exercise is one of the most popular in our leadership workshops and it always blows the minds of participants as they realize they’ve made assumptions about staff, peers, and bosses that might have been wrong and how that may have affected their beliefs and their actions.
It’s not unusual to recognize that they were driven to say or do something that was based on their own beliefs or background and how that has likely caused the other person to respond.
Becoming aware of how the action loop has affected their behaviour toward staff or peers or a boss is a common “A-HA” moment in our workshop on Essential Conversations.
We’ve created a worksheet to help you walk through a personal example with the ladder, either a scenario that’s come to mind or a conversation you’re preparing to have.
Print it out as often as you find it useful. Click here for your worksheet.