Climb Down Your Ladder

In my prior blog Reality is Like a Zoom Meeting, I shared the idea that reality is subjective. Surprise! Each of us processes situations through the filters of our own experiences and conditioning. This means others don’t always see what you see. Today I share a technique for avoiding the common trap of thinking that reality is objective — that others see reality the same way you do.

Ladder of Inference

The Ladder of Inference is a concept that was developed by Chris Argyris to help us understand our internal filtering process. 

First, we all take in ‘data’ and experiences like a video recorder would. We then respond based upon that input. However, a lot takes place in our brains in between the stimulus and response. And it can happen in a blink of an eye.

It’s as if our brains ‘climb up’ a Ladder of Inference, where meaning (e.g., assumptions, conclusions, opinions, beliefs) is added to the observable data or experience. We then act based upon the brain’s interpretation. The Ladder of Inference is the brain’s story-generating machine. And it’s always on!

This filtering happens so frequently and subconsciously that we typically don’t recognize it’s going on. We don’t realize how much of our own ‘stuff’ has been layered on to the observable data/experience.

In his book Conscious Business (one of my favorites), Fred Kofman talks about “ontological humility”. (Yes, I had to look up ontology and found that it is the branch of philosophy that deals with the study of reality.) The humility part is the power of being humble enough to acknowledge that one’s reality is just that – your personal reality as seen through your personal filters – and therefore others have their own reality too.

Climb Down Your Ladder

To practice ontological humility, you first have to become more aware of when your Ladder of Inference kicks in. As you go through your day, pause periodically to reflect on whether you may be holding an assumption, conclusion, opinion, or belief as the objective Truth.

Take an initial project meeting, for example, where someone doesn’t participate and seems distracted. You might decide this person is not engaged and won’t be a productive contributor. Pause to reflect and ‘climb down your ladder’ by asking “what would the video recording show”? In other words, what are the irrefutable facts? You might realize that the video recording would show the person as quiet and distracted. Period. The idea that they won’t contribute in the future — that’s a story you’ve made up.

As you get more comfortable with the notion of filtered reality, practice sharing your stories with others. For instance, instead of stating your point of view as the Truth (e.g., “Here’s what happened, <situation>, and here’s what it means”, share your story (e.g., “Here’s what happened and here’s the story I told myself, <situation>”.))  I’m curious if any of you will see it differently.

By acknowledging that others may see things differently, you welcome more ideas, creative possibilities, and perspectives.

Take a Pause and Coach Yourself

At the end of the day, isn’t inviting authentic participation what we are all hoping for in our interactions with others?

Can you imagine all the benefits we would reap if we were all aware of and acknowledged our filtered stories? This could have a huge positive impact on our effectiveness and collaboration, not only in our professional lives but in our personal ones too.