Updated 13:30 17th January with another checklist!
So many conversations leave leave people with more misunderstanding than they started. Workplaces are rife with suspicion about hidden agendas, lack of trust, and brewing resentments because the quality of discussion is so poor that we read (and often mis-read) between the lines to figure out what is really happening.
I’ve recently been reading around the work of communication guru Chris Argyris and came across a brilliant book, Discussing the undiscussable by William R. Noonan. In it, Noonan discusses one of Argyris’ key ideas, the Ladder of Inference. Essentially it’s a way of analysing the way you’ve reached a conclusion and helping to ‘re-trace your steps’ so that you can check out where you might be creating a misunderstanding at the root of a disagreement. I’ve already found it so incredibly useful and exciting that I wanted to blog. It won’t solve every disagreement but I think it’s a really helpful way to break down some of the defensiveness and resentment and reframe the discussion.
The Ladder of Inference
Argyris suggests we consider our reasoning as a 3-part process.
- We select our facts or data
- We filter the things that we see, hear, or remember and select or highly-weight useful items (generally ones that confirm existing thinking or assumptions). This process is partly conscious (e.g. filtering out or minimising items that we deem boring/ridiculous/irrelevant, or where we believe the source is unreliable/biased/foolish/annoying) or unconscious (we’ll notice words or pictures of people/things we have a stronger emotion about – e.g fear/excitement).
- We bring a particular lens to the filtering process – e.g. we may be typically more sensitive to positive emotions, or perhaps we’re more cynical and look for the worst.
- Our emotions us can restrict our ability to ‘cast the net wide’ – we ‘amp up’ some facts and ‘drown out’ others while our nerves are jangling. [See more in this blog about emotional blindness]
- We aren’t aware of what we aren’t aware of – we don’t know what data are out there, what events have occurred, that we aren’t aware of. We can only begin to reason from the small subset of information we read, hear, or see – missing out enormous amounts that others have read, heard or seen.
2. We interpret the facts
- We ascribe our own meaning to items of evidence based on our mood, our previous experience, culture (organisational, personal, national, etc) and understanding. It is inevitable that elements of nuance (or even major aspects) or meaning that were intended by the author/speaker are missed, and that we superimpose feelings and ideas that were also not intended.
- Words have associations to us that they may not have to others – each word or idea is tainted with different positives and negatives to us than it is to another person.
3. We draw conclusions
- We summarise our filtered, re-interpreted data and select a concluding thought
- We unconsciously connect an emotion to it through our own interpretation – again based on where it came from, our current situation, our past, our mood, our feelings about the other person or people involved.
- We focus on the conclusion and tend to allow the data and interpretation process to fade from memory.
We’re prone to reach conclusions that conform to our existing views, filtering and interpreting the data to help us achieve this. Challenging views which may lead to us feeling embarrassed or angry tend to result in us drawing a conclusion that the other person is hostile, unreliable, untrustworthy, etc.
On the other hand, if we like someone then we cast even unreasonable data in a more favourable light, reaching less negative conclusions. We may choose to minimise or water-down any conclusion, and pussy-foot around its presentation to avoid presenting data that we believe could harm our relationship. [See more about communication issues and techniques here]
Argyris noted that, once we reach a conclusion, we tend to cling to it. However, most people reach conclusions while missing a significant number of other views, interpretations and facts.
To dramatically reduce miscommunication, Argyris and Noonan suggest that we carefully check our assumptions and those of others, systematically checking facts, observations and inferences.
- Interrupt the action:
As soon as you realise that you’re engaged in debate that is mainly abstract conclusions and misunderstandings, interrupt your thought pattern and emotional response to take a step back.
- Engage your curiosity:
Rather than focusing on ‘being right’ and trying to persuade, focus on trying to fully understand the other person or people’s position. What may be obvious to one of you may not be obvious to the others.
- Shine a light on your differences:
Publicly note that you’ve spotted a misunderstanding and different point of view. Tentatively paraphrase what you’ve understood of the other position(s) – both final conclusions and observations – inviting clarifications and additions to clear up what you’ve missed.
- Pursue a line of enquiry
Importantly, these authors state that you must begin with a brutally honest reflection on your own conclusions or opinions, interrupting any impulsive or emotional reaction to check your facts. This needs to happen before you approach someone else to challenge their own beliefs or conclusions. You can then follow a respectful enquiry approach with the other person, as follows.
- What facts or observations have you and I selected to make our cases?
- Is there anything that I’ve deliberately chosen to ignore, reject or minimise? Is it worth re-checking its value? What about the other person?
- What might we have missed? Is there something that one person has observed that the other is unaware of? How might we find out?
- Are these facts or observations truly objective or have we layered on our own interpretations about meaning? What would they look like in a purely objective way with no interpretation?
- Is it possible to reasonably come to a different conclusion?
- What extra information will we need to seek in order to check our conclusions?
Use this checklist to, as Argyris and Noonan would put it, “climb down your ladder of inference” to check for misunderstanding. This may be needed quite rapidly, in a meeting or conversation. Social media arguments may seem fast-paced but their brevity makes them particularly prone to a self-reinforcing cycle of misunderstanding on both sides. Emails can very often appear colder and more aggressive than the sender intended – hence it is important to check your reading of what is ‘between the lines’ and the intended tone.
The same techniques can be used both to check your understanding of someone else’s assertions or opinions. Work back carefully, asking questions to understand what led the other person to a conclusion, and the underlying observations or facts. This can help gain an insight into the person’s real meaning, or uncover a relatively easy-to-resolve misunderstanding at the heart of a disagreement.
You can also use this approach to present your own ideas and conclusions more effectively. By carefully layering up from selected data, adding your interpretations then presenting your idea, you have time to check for understanding and missing data/facts along the way and present a cogent case with less chance of misinterpretation and more chance to learn and improve the conclusions along the way. You also present ideas in an open way, able to be both clear and authoritative while also showing a trust-inducing openness and ability to listen.
This is really just the tip of the iceberg of Argyris and Noonan’s work and I’ll try and blog more of the approaches in future.
What are your reactions to this? Have you used these techniques? Am I missing other ideas or approaches that would help? Is there a flaw in this that I haven’t spotted? Please do help me explore this.