How often do you climb the ‘Ladder of Conclusions’ as a Leader’?
Posted on 18th May 2021 at 16:13
You might ask what have ladders got to do with leadership and mindset? Quite a lot actually. Although it might sound strange subject to be talking about, our mind actually can work in the same way as climbing a ladder. Each day we have the risk of climbing ‘The Ladder of Conclusions’ – or as Chris Argyris coined in it the ‘Ladder of Inference’.
When we set off to climb the Ladder of Conclusions we do so totally unconsciously…..and this unconscious scaling can cause us an amount of trouble and distress. As with all of these concepts, once we bring our awareness to how we do this it gives us the opportunity to tackle it more effectively…… when I came across this concept many years ago it really made a significant difference in my understanding of how I operate in the world. How I behave as an emotional being and how this contributed to my success and challenges as a leader. So how does the Ladder of Conclusions work?
The first thing to notice is when you’re in a situation and somebody does something or says something to you, that invokes a feeling inside you. This might be a visceral reaction in your stomach, a sense of unease or anxiety. Or it could be a tightness in your throat or chest or head. That’s the first rung of the ladder, an internal sensation or bio reaction (see graphic). Next rung on the ladder is that you have an emotional response to that internal feeling (see graphic). It could be anxiety or frustration, or anger – now you’re climbing the ladder……
At the next rung of the ladder, a thought is invoked within you. Then you start looking for evidence about what the person actually means that makes sense to you, or infers a certain way of viewing the situation (see graphic – meaning making) . We as humans are meaning making animals. We are constantly on the search for meaning both literally and metaphorically. So we look for meaning in a situation or with another person or a thought that we have . So………..it could go like this ‘when Joanne made that remark at the meeting, she was trying to get at me, she thinks I can’t handle the situation’……..
As we climb the ladder of conclusions we build up this story and this narrative within ourselves to back up the other person’s response and the emotion and the feeling that we experienced – an interpretation of our experience. As we do this we take another step up the ladder to the realm of assumptions. The final rung of the ladder is that we start making stuff up! We make a story up that bears no relation to reality, a conclusion… that makes no allowances for the fact that ‘Joanne’ could have something else going on in her life or that any remarks had nothing to do with you or the situation. The internal narrative and conclusion could go something like….. ‘I’ve always known she felt like this, I remember at the last management meeting, she said something similar and I could see that Richard got really upset, she does this all the time and I betcha she’s going to say something nasty to John in Finance about the situation and then we’re all going to get it good and strong….’ Knew it’!
All of a sudden I’m at the top of a very tall ladder (the more fantastic the ‘evidence gathering’ the taller the ladder!) The feeling of anger, frustration or anxiety is nothing to do with the current moment or situation and is linked to a similar feeling that I have mapped unconsciously from years ago when I felt anxious, frustrated etc in a completely different situation and usually bears no relation to actual reality. Ever been up that ladder?
So how do you stop yourself climbing the ladder in the first place and even more importantly how do you climb down from the upper echelons of our own ‘Ladder of Conclusions’?
Sometimes we climb it so quickly it’s comical!
First step, is to bring your awareness to what is actually happening inside from a body sensation or somatic perspective. You become aware or can feel a tightening in your head or you have a strange sensation in your tummy. Then bring your attention to naming the feeling that accompanies the body sensation………….’Mmm.. interesting I’m suddenly feeling anxious, or frustrated or threatened’. Ask yourself the question ‘what about this situation is making me feel like this’?
Become aware of your state and bring attention to your breathe and breathing. Become curious about how you might be mapping your response in the situation and ask yourself ‘what else might be going on with ‘Joanne’? What might that be and is it actually based in evidence and reality and not linked to your wild conclusion about what might be going on. You can only control your own response. Understand that looking for evidence in a fear based situation is exactly that ‘FEAR’ – False Evidence Appearing Real’.
The final step is to consciously stop yourself making up a story and looking for evidence that doesn’t actually exist to underline your own made up story in the first place!
Becoming more conscious of unconscious responses and how our mind can work against us in situations can save us a huge amount of time, energy and headspace. This headspace can then be used to actually have a conversation with the other person about the reality of the situation rather than our conclusions about what ‘might be going on’.
So put the ‘Ladder of Conclusions’ away in the cupboard for the moment and concentrate on actually having real conversations within your team and with your colleagues.
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