If you’re anything like me, your mind moves a mile a minute, and not always in a good way. You know that saying about assumptions? The one about you, and me, and a less pleasant term for a donkey? Yeah. Been there—painful. 

Whether it’s working with clients, fuming in traffic or trying to lend a helping hand, our lives are a constant series of rapid fire decisions—to the point where half the time we don’t even notice the process of making a decision, or the factors that influence it. As mentioned before, this can get us into trouble. Thankfully, there are tools we can use to slow and evaluate our decision making process. 

The Ladder of Inference” was developed by American business theorist, Chris Argyris, and popularized when Peter Senge, Senior Lecturer on Leadership and Sustainability, referenced it in his book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization (1990). The Ladder of Inference outlines a series of steps we take when coming to a conclusion or taking action—many of the rungs correlate with personal convictions and experiences.  

Imagine the list of words below as rungs in a ladder. You start at the first rung and make your way to the top. Read from the bottom up, as if you’re climbing a ladder; my word processor is still not speaking to me over this number formatting transgression. 

7. Actions: We take action, and do what we think is right based on our beliefs, and move on to create a new situation.

6. Beliefs: We then use these conclusions to affirm or adjust our beliefs about the situation, event, etc. 

5. Conclusions: The newly weighted and supplemented interpretations are played out to their logical end. 

4. Assumptions: We take these interpretations and apply other existing knowledge we have to them.

3. Interpreted Reality: We invest or assign meaning to the facts/events/information/data left after our mental sift. 

2. Selected Reality: We automatically filter through the bare facts, removing information we deem irrelevant or unnecessary for the situation at hand. This is tricky, because sometimes this is totally subconscious. 

1. Reality + Facts: We observe our circumstances. These are the bare facts. 


The Ladder of Inference isn’t a a static process, either. It creates a continuous feedback loop that, if left unchecked, can start snowballing into other decisions and actions. As an example, I’ll re-tell the story about how my friend, Kaitlyn, met her now husband, Patrick: 

Patrick was walking down the street one sunny day, when he happened to look up and see a woman walking toward him. She smiled (Reality + Fact). Patrick remembered noting how pretty her smile was (Selected Reality: pearly whites!!), and how pleased he was that she had made a point of smiling (Interpreted Reality: she is smiling on purpose) instead of looking away after their gazes accidentally met (Assumption: she smiled because we made eye contact, because people generally smile for a reason)

The woman, Kaitlyn, steps into a coffee shop, where Patrick also happened to be headed. He gets in line behind her. Given that they had exchanged smiles (Conclusion: she must be a friendly person), Patrick decided to strike up a conversation with her while waiting (Belief: I, too, am a friendly person, and friendly people should get to know each other). He says hello (Action: how YOU doin’?!). Kaitlyn says a shy hello back. They continue chatting. Fast forward to the rehearsal dinner, where the groom re-tells the story of their meet-cute.” 

To most of the room’s surprise, at the end of the story the bride is in tears—from laughing

Turns out, what Patrick had assumed was a intentional exchange of smiles followed by pleasantries was, in fact, a total fluke. Kaitlyn was walking to get her usual cup of coffee, and it was bright outside. She forgot her sunglasses. As she approached her destination, she thought of a funny video her friend had sent her earlier that morning. She laughed to herself. Upon getting in line, a man in line behind her says hi. She’s slightly taken aback by a total stranger’s forwardness, but is in a good mood and responds. She hadn’t even seen him outside due to the bright sunlight, much less smiled at him. 

Nevertheless, Patrick goes up the ladder and subsequently down the aisle. 

Thankfully this Ladder of Inference has a happy ending, but you can see how quickly it can go the other way. Using the Ladder of Inference to identify and evaluate what we’re thinking and why we’re thinking it provides us with opportunities not only to be better communicators and draw more accurate conclusions, but also to challenge others more effectively. Easiest way to climb back down the Ladder of Inference? Ask why—and don’t stop till you get to the bare facts. No donkeys around here, anymore! 

 — Rachel Atterstrom, @rachenomics