In my last blog post, I discussed how and why listening is a key leadership skill. But listening with the intent to understand is only the first step in being an excellent communicator. The next step is realizing that everything that we hear, see, and experience, we interpret through our own personal lens; and this affects every interaction that we have. Most of us are unaware that this even happens. But when we bring this into our awareness, we create the possibility for better understanding and more productive communication.

I’m reminded of a quote from the British author and journalist H.M. Tomlinson: “We see things not as they are but as we are.” As we go through life, each of us develops “mental models,” ingrained assumptions and generalizations that influence how we understand the world. Imagine you are in your office, you see a colleague down the hallway, and you call her name. You would swear that she hears and sees you, but she doesn’t return your greeting. Instead, she turns and walks away. What is your reaction? Do you get angry, because she must be blowing you off? The next time you see her, are you still angry? Or perhaps you tell yourself that next time you see her, well, you’re going to blow her off too.

Chris Argyris, a Harvard Business School professor known for his seminal work on learning organizations, created the Ladder of Inference to help illustrate and understand the process of interpretation. He made a very clear distinction between data vs. assumptions. Data, or facts, are something that can be verified; assumptions are the judgments we impose on the data and are often different from person to person. Argyris’s framework states that out of the data available to us, we tend to select only parts of it, make assumptions based on that data, and draw conclusions, which in turn become the beliefs that influence future actions.

Let’s go back to the co-worker scenario. What are the data, and what are the assumptions? We saw the colleague, called her name, she did not respond. Instead of telling ourselves that she definitely saw and heard us, and intentionally blew us off, is it instead possible that she: Had dental surgery and full arms and could not speak or wave? Was so focused on getting ready for an important meeting that she was oblivious to everything else around her? Wasn’t wearing her contact lenses today and didn’t realize it was you? Any one of these is a possible alternative that would elicit a very different feeling and response in us.

The Ladder of Inference offers insight to our thinking process that in turn helps us understand common pitfalls to effective communication and mutual understanding, such as:

  • We skip steps of the Ladder in our thinking and are not aware that we have done so; so we confuse assumptions with data.
  • We do not look closely at the original data nor test our reasoning process that led to our conclusions.
  • We believe that we have all selected the same data and added the same meaning to this data.
  • We do not realize that there are other potential interpretations to the data, and may even feel threatened by interpretations different than our own.

Think about the impact of each of these things when people are engaged in typical work situations such as addressing issues, solving problems, and resolving conflict. We can be more successful in these situations when we are able to instead:

  • Understand when we are looking at data vs. when we are making assumptions.
  • Ask ourselves if there other perspectives we are not considering? Alternate conclusions we could draw?
  • Be curious, not threatened, when others have a different point of view. Ask them to share their reasoning.
  • Acknowledge that there may be a bigger picture that we can’t see, or other data we need to consider.

The Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant cautions us that we may think our view is the “correct” one, when in fact we may be making our own interpretations based on limited information. Understanding this tendency is a significant step toward making sure we don’t fall victim to it.

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