Don't fall off the Ladder of Inference
Updated: Jan 9
DANGER: You can make poor decisions when you fly up the Ladder of Inference without consciously considering the What, So What, and Now What.
The new year is a perfect time to start building new, more positive habits. This includes how you think about the people you interact with on a daily basis at work, especially if you are the one leading said team of people. It's easy to quickly pass judgment or not want to take the time to ask the extra question that may give needed context to a situation. But, in order to keep you balance on the Ladder of Inference, it's important to know how to manage yourself.
What is the Ladder of Inference? The ladder is comprised of seven rungs. The bottom rung represents data you observe that serves as the foundation for decision making (the WHAT). The ladder then steps up through layers of subjective personal meaning and bias that influence how you perceive the objective data (the SO WHAT?). The top rung represents the action you take as a result of how you process the data through your personal lens (the NOW WHAT).
As a facilitator, it’s easy to climb up the ladder of inference too quickly. Let me share two real life mistakes I made and the impact it had.
I was facilitating a series of meetings with a team over the span of a few weeks. Throughout our sessions, one participant showed a lot of non-verbal expression that I interpreted to mean he didn't want to be there. His body language was very closed off, he rarely said a word, and when he spoke up asked really challenging questions. He also quietly refused to engage in any planned activities that were designed to generate ideas. I took it personally, assuming he didn’t like my facilitation or the meetings I designed. It triggered feelings of self-doubt, my confidence buckled, and I lost my ability to effectively navigate the group through some difficult decisions.
After the meeting, I met with the CEO. I learned that, indeed, the VP wasn’t keen on being in the meeting. But it had nothing to do with me. The bigger issue was that this guy was really struggling in his role! He was new to the leadership team and was having difficulty meeting expectations despite working 70-80 hours per week. The core issues were burn out and fear of failure. There was nothing a facilitator could do in a meeting that would alleviate his problem. This was a job for his boss.
I'm leading a 16-person meeting. There was great energy! Everyone was leaning into the process and sharing ideas except for one person. She was sitting back, arms crossed, and not participating. After the meeting, she approached me. Gulp – I steeled myself for negative feedback.
"I thought this was an amazing meeting," she said. "You did?" I replied. "Yeah, and I'd love to be part of this project and help move us forward. I just don't do well in big groups, so I'm hoping I can contribute without having to come to another of these sessions."
And, we did. We worked with the team leader and now this unwilling meeting participant is a key player in implementing the initiatives the larger group is discussing.
In both scenarios, what did I learn? Don’t jump to conclusions. Take time to fully understand what’s happening before making your next move. Pay attention to body language and follow up with people later to learn more. If you get derailed by someone who looks uninterested, the productivity of the whole meeting will fall.
So, how do you use what you are seeing to guide the meeting once it's underway? Here’s a three-step process that I follow. I also recommend checking out theW3 Liberating Structure.
1. Notice (What?). Ask yourself, what am I seeing and hearing? Do not judge these things. Just notice.
2. Check In (So What?). You can do this in lots of ways. Call a break and check in with an individual with body language or behavior that concerns you. You can check in with the group midstream. In either case, start by saying, “I noticed…” and then ask, “can you help me understand what’s going on?”
3. Decide on Next Steps (Now What?). Maybe you need to talk about something that’s not on the agenda. Maybe you simply have to give someone a chance to express a simmering frustration. Now that you truly understand what’s happening, you can make informed decisions together.
I'd love to talk to you about your experiences as a facilitator. How do you guide groups through the Ladder of Inference? How do you check in with people? Feel free to schedule a time to chat with me one-on-one.