Why do we do the things we do? Why does something make sense at the time of ‘doing’, however often turn out to NOT be what we expected? Why do we not realise until AFTER the fact that what we did or said didn’t quite get the action or result we were expecting? The reason is that we hear what someone is saying, but we don’t listen to what they are telling us.


If you relate, you’re not selfish. You’re just filtering the conversation through your OWN assumptions about what YOU communicated. These assumptions, these filters, are our beliefs and they subconsciously direct the way we make a decision, take action, and also impact the consequences of what we have already said. Think about how we see people responding on social media feeds where communication is limited to text only. In the digital space we have an inability to ‘hear’ the tone being conveyed by the words on a screen.  We cannot ‘see’ the cues in body language that indicate a positive or negative response to your comments. SO we filter the text on the screen (or in an email) based on our beliefs (and this is good and bad!)


Is it? Think about the workplace. How often have you misunderstood feedback, or another’s idea because of your own assumptions about the other person? If you have a good rapport with a colleague, you’ll assume their comments are supportive and helpful. Now, how do you interpret the SAME feedback from someone at work you dislike? As a personal attack? Perhaps. It happens more often that you realise.


Well this is often what we think of as a reaction – the immediate response to circumstances. We climb up a mental process, like a ladder, from what we see to what we do in a fraction of a second, because of how things have happened in the past. There’s a theory to explain this process, it’s called The Ladder of Inference developed by through leader and Harvard professor Chris Argyris. I didn’t meet Chris, however I studied my Graduate Diploma in Change Management and Organisational Development through RMIT under one of his students. To summarise the theory, it’s the process in which we interpret what we “hear or see” and the resulting action we take. Sounds reasonable doesn’t it. However therein lies the problem – this process takes nano-seconds (that’s a billionth of one second), and we don’t often think about the process or our assumption before we open our mouth!

“The Ladder Of Inference” adapted from “The 5th Discipline Fieldbook” Chris Argyris developed the concept of “The Ladder Of Inference”, which I came across whilst reviewing the work of Peter Senge in “The 5th Discipline: The Art and Science of the Learning Organisation”


Bottom Rung: Imagine that what you See – aka information or data – is the “bottom rung” of a ladder . This data could be a comment from someone at work. Rung No. One: We then select the data we want (step up one rung on the ladder). Rung No. Two: Our next step is to add our own personal and cultural meanings (what we think of as acceptable or unacceptable). These meanings have been formed over YEARS (ie since birth) Rung No. Three: Next we make an assumption about the data we ‘chose’, that is we decide what is true/certain based on our previously decided cultural/personal meanings and life experiences. Rung No. Four: We draw a conclusion which will support our belief about the way things should be done or said, what we think is acceptable/unacceptable. Rung No. Five: I develop a way to react to the situation, or a step to take, based on how I think the world should work (which is based on the previous rungs of the ladder!) Rung No. Six: I take action, based on a decision making process that happens in a billionth of a second! The Reflective Loop: AND to create some more complications in our little minds, the next time we are in a similar situation where we hear a comment from a college, we’ve already formed a response process through a reflective loop which occurs in a pico-second (one trillionth of a second)!!


So often we feel like “that’s just the way I am” or another cliché to justify our reaction to what someone has said about what we’ve done. However we can, with some effort learn to RESPOND rather than REACT!


Ok, so there IS hope in learning how to RESPOND. When we react, its often an instant response. To Respond, means we take a moment to think through the situation, and carefully consider the best course of action to take, but it takes practice, and patience, to learn to RESPOND rather than to REACT. At my 5 year olds daycare, they were being taught how to respond to feeling anger or frustration. “Take a deep breath and count to four” is now what I hear at home. Its great advice, and it can help us in the workplace too.


Take a moment now and think about some of the interactions you’ve had with those ‘problem’ people in your workplace. Ask yourself “where am I on the ladder of inference?”, “Why did I respond to that comment the way I did?”, “How have I contributed to the situation?” You might find it useful to write out the conversation, to review it with the ladder of inference. See if you would respond differently if you had the time to climb one rung at a time.

Remember, I said it’ll take some practice and patience? Like anything new, it will take time to develop the ability to RESPOND, rather than to just REACT. Next time you receive some “data” (something you perceive as negative feedback from a college at work), firstly think to yourself that “data” is neither positive nor negative, and it’s just information. Then think about why you feel the data is negative, and consider if the “information” without a bias or filter could be helpful. Consider also that sometimes it may actually be a negative comment! Now you’ve taken a moment to THINK, you can choose HOW you would like to RESPOND.


– Written by Geoff Snowden, Rhema FM’s Business Development Manager