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The Ladder of Inference - a useful coaching tool?

Updated: Sep 7, 2022

It is sometimes useful to explore your client’s reasoning. Sometimes, people feel under pressure to respond quickly and therefore don’t think things through in a rationale and logical way.

There are several stages at which logical thinking about a situation can break down. The Ladder of Inference (Argyris, 1982) helps us to understand the ‘process of abstraction’ in logical thinking, and is a tool that can be used to help to look at facts in an unbiased way, remain objective, engage in conscious reasoning and enable us to come to better conclusions.

Reality and Facts - At the bottom of the ladder is the objective reality e.g. someone says something, or an event happens.

Selected reality - We subjectively experience the reality or facts. Our perception of reality is influenced by our beliefs and prior experience. It’s how we make sense of what’s in front of us. We may selectively attend to some things, whilst missing other important data.

Interpreted reality – we interpret the perceived data in a way that is meaningful to us

Assumptions – we make assumptions, often without thinking them through. These can be based on biases or heuristics e.g. attributional bias – ‘they behaved that way because they don’t care’ rather than ‘they may have behaved that way because they have a lot to contend with at the moment and didn’t have time to think it through properly’.

Conclusions – we come to conclusions based on our subjective reality and assumptions

Beliefs – we develop beliefs based on these conclusions

Actions – we take actions that are based on what we believe to be true, and so they seem right to us

How to use the ladder to challenge your client’s reasoning

Identify where on the ladder they are in terms of what they are telling you. Are they:

Selecting the data?

Interpreting what it means?

Making assumptions?

Forming conclusions?

Planning what to do?

From that point on the ladder, work back down the ladder step by step, exploring what they are thinking, and why they are thinking it.

For example:

Why have you decided to do that? What other options are there?

Why do you believe that is the best option? Where has that belief come from?

Why did you come to that conclusion? Is that the only explanation?

What are you assuming and why? What is that assumption based on?

What did you hear/see/experience? Is it possible that you missed or misinterpreted anything?

What are the objective facts/reality? Are there any other facts that I should consider?

You can then work forwards again up the ladder.

Argyris, C. (1982). The executive mind and double-loop learning. Organizational dynamics, 11(2), 5-22.

Senge, P. M. (2014). The fifth discipline fieldbook: Strategies and tools for building a learning organization. Crown Business.

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