Tip #657:  Understanding Others’ Thought Processes

“There are some people who live in a dream world, and there are some who face reality; and then there are those who turn one into the other.” Desiderius Erasmus

Chris Argyris has identified seven different subconscious stages in decision making that he calls rungs on The Ladder of Inference.

We can use the Ladder with others, helping them to analyze their thought process at each rung so we both can understand the decisions they have made.

[Note: This is very much like the 5 Whys, which is a quality improvement problem finding technique. In the 5 Whys you keep asking “why?” until the other person has moved down from the obvious or presenting problem to the root cause of the problem. The difference between the two techniques is that the “whys?” used in 5 Whys are general, while the “whys?” used with the Ladder of Inference are very specific.]

Let’s take the case of a curriculum designer who is confronted with a manager who is insisting on using lecture and PowerPoint.

We’ll identify the manager’s thought at each rung and then question what motivated that thought.

Rung 7: Action- A manager insists on using lecture and PowerPoint

     Why? What beliefs led to this action?

Rung 6: Belief- Lecture is an effective way to train

     Why did the manager draw this conclusion?

Rung 5: Conclusion- If college professors use lecture, we should use lecture.

     Why? What is the manager assuming?

Rung 4: Assumption- College professors know how to train.

     Why has the manager understood training this way?

Rung 3: Interpretation- College professors use lecture.

     Why? What facts has the manager chosen to use?

Rung 2: Selective Reality- Lecture a way to conduct training.

     Why? What are the real facts that the manager should be using?

Rung 1: Reality- There are many effective ways to conduct training

Some people may subconsciously work through all seven rungs, but most of us skip over or get stuck at rungs as we make decisions.

It is clear that the manager in our scenario jumped from belief (lecture is an effective way to train) to action (insisting on using lecture and PowerPoint), which is a very subjective but typical decision making process.

It would probably not be appropriate or wise for the curriculum designer to keep asking the manager questions about his decision. Instead, this might be an occasion where the “yes, and…” technique would be useful.

The curriculum designer could say, “Yes, I can see that you would like to use lecture and PowerPoint, and they would be very effective if you would like your employees to gain information about the new procedure. If you want to be certain that they understand and can use the new procedure, you may want to consider a different training method…”

Skipping rungs on the Ladder of Inference can also lead to unnecessary worry.

For example, during a training class:

Rung 2:  I observed that the participant had been frowning for an entire 50-minute module (selective reality).

Rung 3:  I interpreted it to mean that she was unhappy.

Rung 4:  I made the assumption that her unhappiness had something to do with me.

Rung 6: This concerned me, because of my belief at that time that it was my responsibility to keep my participants happy. (I’ve since adjusted that belief to one more reasonable and realistic.)

Rung 7:  When I gave the participants a break, I immediately headed toward the participant to find out what I could do differently to meet her needs. (action)

Yet, as I approached her, it soon became clear that my interpretation of her frown was completely off base. I overheard her tell another participant that she was in terrible pain because she had just had leg surgery (rung 1: reality, the first and most important rung that I skipped!) It had nothing to do with me.

I didn’t need to question my training ability or change my training approach- I needed to do what I could to make her more comfortable. I found a padded chair and gave her another chair to rest her leg on.

[Note: This example is not intended to suggest that trainers should ignore negative nonverbals from their participants. Trainers should just observe and act upon participant nonverbals in an objective manner, if any action is necessary.]

For a very useful infographic of the ladder of inference, please see:


May your learning be sweet.


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