Rethinking Thinking Using the Ladder of Inference

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In today’s fast-moving world, you are under pressure to act swiftly, rather than spend time understanding the facts and reasoning things through. Not only can this lead to incorrect conclusions, it can also cause conflict with others who may have drawn different conclusions.

You can’t live your life without adding meaning or drawing conclusions but you can improve your communication through reflection and using the “Ladder of Inference” in three ways:

  1. Becoming more aware of your own thinking and reasoning: AKA reflection.
  2. Making your thinking and reasoning more visible to others: AKA advocacy.
  3. Inquiring into other’s thinking and reasoning: AKA inquiry.

The Ladder of Inference:

Actions and decisions should be founded in reality so when you accept or challenge other people’s conclusions, you need be confident that their reasoning (and yours) is firmly based upon accurate facts. Whats nice is there are tools to help you understand this, one of which is the “Ladder of Inference.”

The Ladder of Inference describes the automatic thinking process that we all go through, usually without even realizing it, to get from a fact to a decision or action. The thinking stages can be seen as rungs on a ladder and are shown below:


Starting at the bottom of the ladder, we have data and facts. From there:

  • We select some portion of the data/facts based on our beliefs and prior experience;
  • We interpret meaning;
  • We apply existing assumptions (sometimes without considering them);
  • We draw conclusions based on interpreted facts and our assumptions;
  • We develop beliefs based on these conclusions;
  • We take actions that seem “right” because they are based on what we believe.

These automatic reflexes can create a vicious circle because our beliefs have a big effect on how we view reality, and can they lead us to ignore facts altogether. Soon we are literally jumping to conclusions; missing facts and skipping steps in the reasoning and communication process.

“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” – Anais Nin

By using the Ladder of Inference, you can learn to get back to the facts and use your beliefs and experiences to positively effect outcomes, rather than allowing them to narrow our field of judgment. Following this step-by-step reasoning can lead us to better results and shared conclusions thus avoiding unnecessary mistakes and conflict.

The Ladder of Inference can be used at any of stage of your thinking process. To help navigate the ladder, here are some helpful questions to ask yourself:

  • Is this the “right” conclusion?
  • Why am I making these assumptions?
  • Why do I think this is the “right” thing to do?
  • Is this really based on all the facts?
  • Why does he/she believe that?

images-3From your current “rung,” analyze your reasoning by working back down the ladder. This will help trace the facts and reality that you are actually working with.
 At each stage, ask yourself what you are thinking and why.

As you analyze each step, you may need to adjust your reasoning. For example you may need to change some assumption or extend the field of data you have selected.

“Beliefs can’t change facts. Facts, however, should change your beliefs.” – Author unknown

The following questions can help – starting at the top of the ladder working down:

  • Why have I chosen this course of action? Are there other actions I should have considered?
  • What belief lead to that action? Was it well-founded?
  • Why did I draw that conclusion? Is the conclusion sound?
  • What am I assuming, and why? Are my assumptions valid?
  • What data have I chosen to use and why? Have I selected data rigorously?
  • What are the real facts that I should be using? Are there other facts I should consider?

UnknownWhen you are working through your reasoning, look out for rungs that you tend to jump – we all have at least one or two that we jump often.

Do you tend to make assumptions too easily? Do you tend to select only part of the data? Note your tendencies so that you can learn to work that rung of reasoning with extra care in the future.

With a new sense of reasoning and perhaps a wider field of data and more considered assumptions, you can now work forwards again step-by-step up the rungs of the ladder.

One thought on “Rethinking Thinking Using the Ladder of Inference

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