Working with the Ladder of Inference

Working with the Ladder of Inference – a guide for group workers.

(For a brief description of Peter Senge's work n this area click here)

Have you ever been in a Mexican standoff? How about an Australian standoff? A standoff is where you and the other person or groups refuse to budge and you know you are right and they keep insisting, clearly wrongly, that they are correct and you are wrong. “How can they not see the obvious” you think to yourself. Another way to put it is to see each person or group as stuck in symmetrical roles (ways of being), where there is some imperative or need to convince the other that they are ‘wrong’ and you are ‘right’?

Ever worked with people like this or been in a group where this occurs? Ever seen others do it and chuckle at how obvious this symmetrical system is? In my experience this system occurs regularly in management groups, therapy groups, families and in life. What’s going on?

Haven’t you ever looked at something that was so bloody obvious to you that any explanation of ‘it’ was redundant? You express an opinion. Such as “What about this current government then!” It’s not really a question at all. It’s is sometimes called “rhetorical” because there is no need to answer as the answer is in the questions delivery. And then someone makes the redundant query: “You don’t appear to approve of the government. Can you tell me why?” And when you have laboured long and hard to show them the clear and obvious ways in which the government has been performing poorly (or worse), they still don’t get it! And after making arguments with great finesse, daring, creativity and shades of brilliance while clearly presenting the obviousness of your position, when you did this, ‘it’ still wasn’t obvious to the other person or group. What’s going on?

Have you ever liked someone and been unable to work out why another person hasn’t? Have you ever detested someone and been unable to work out why others don’t follow your brilliant lead? Have you ever found seeing it from the other’s point of view impossible or perhaps entirely unnecessary?

Apart from everyone else being losers, tossers, thoughtless, moronic, stupid, blind, head in the clouds or up their own fundament, slow to learn or some-such other disability, there must be more to it. There is.

This is the simple version:
We know the truth
The truth is obvious
The truth is based on real data
The data we select is the real data

You can also make it first person:
I know the truth
The truth is obvious
The truth is based on real data
The data I select is the real data

And the corollary or extra, implied bit:
The data I don’t select is irrelevant or to use a technical word, crap

The rest of this paper is a longer version of the mental model called the Ladder of Inference. Once I have presented the model I will show how I use it to uncover interesting things that can assist people.

The Ladder of Inference

This mental model is set out in Peter Senge’s book “The fifth discipline field book.” You will also find a lot about it on the web. All very useful. I visited the model first with Deborah Johnston while working with BHP. Anyway, to work…. The following discussion relates to meetings between people but equally occurs with groups, objects and often my own experience. It is called a ladder because we can look at how we go up each step of the ladder and then how we might come back down.

Selecting Data.

In any situation there is effectively an infinite amount of data you can tune into. You can tune into yourself and how you feel. You can tune into other people and what they look like, sound like, how they interact, the content of discussions. You can tune into your response to other people, places and things. You can tune into the colours and shapes of the people, places and things around you. You can tune in with your eyes, with your ears, with your nose, with your body and various combinations. However you don’t tune into an infinite amount of data. Neither do I. What we do is select certain data to pay attention to and pay almost no attention to the rest of the data. Why do we choose that data and not this data? Why don’t I notice some things and always notice others? When I want to buy a Toyota of a particular model why do I keep seeing them? Have they always been here? Well stay with me and I might assist you to come up with a kind of an answer – at least an in-principle answer that you can focus on yourself.

Making or adding meaning to the data.

We notice certain data. And then we create a meaning for that data. A meaning is something like “loud”, “quick”, “sad”, “tall”, “wrong”, “jerky”, “fluid”, “pushy”, “stylish”, “aggressive”, “arrogantly”, “shyly”, “coyly”, “seductive”, “skulking”, “thoughtful”, “internalised”, “off”, “foreign”, different”, “odd”, “drunkenly”, “lazy” and other such responses. Often this first step up the ladder of inference is hard to notice. This is because it is so quick and so obvious. The whole ladder process takes nanoseconds (One billionth (10-9) of a second) or perhaps picoseconds (One trillionth (10-12) of a second).

Almost instant development of assumptions, conclusions and beliefs.

Once you have selected some data and given it a meaning then very quickly you will develop an assumption about this data and its meaning. Then before you know it, coming to a conclusion informed by the assumption. It is then a small step to firming up a belief informed by the conclusion. And generally speaking we all take action based on our beliefs. Another word for belief is values or deeply held truth or as I playfully like to present – ruts. Of course one of the actions that are influenced by our beliefs is the selection of data. The data selected tends to support our beliefs and the data ignored would tend to disconfirm my beliefs if I paid it any attention.

There is a popular anecdote of Charles Darwin keeping a small notebook on his journeys. A question was put to him about what he kept in his notes in this small book, as against the large books where he kept pictures and data. He answered that he kept a record of all the discoveries that cast doubt on his theory of evolution. When asked about the other discoveries that supported his theory he is supposed to have said “Oh I remember all the discoveries that support my theories, it is the ones that challenge the theory that I tend to forget. It is these I need to record and keep close to me.”

This means we have a tendency to notice things that support our version of events and discount those that don’t support our version of events.

Let’s look at an example and see what it looks like.

You can try this in any group, pretty much anywhere you like. It will resonate with most people.

Invite someone to stand in the centre of the group and enact being on the phone, in any way they care to.

I will start with an objective description and then move on to various interpretations of this experience.

The volunteer holds their hand with thumb and index finger extended. They bring their hand to their ear. Their lips are pursed. They move their shoulders forward and up. They say in a raised voice, in a moderate tempo “Hi there Jim, I wanted to talk to you about this report.” As they say this they move their weight from one foot to the other.

Now the data is available to you as it was available to everyone in the room. The piece of action took less than 20 seconds.

Peoples’ records of what they witnessed might look something like this:

The Ladder

Interpretation 1

Interpretation 2

Interpretation 3

Interpretation 4

Interpretation 5

Select data




Pace of language

Shifting weight

Add meaning

Pursed/tense lips

Loud voice

Hunched stressed shoulders

Speedy talk

Shifty movements

Make assumption

They are tense

They are bossy

They have burdens

They are in a hurry

They are tricking someone

Develop conclusions

They are really worried about some problem they have created with their client

They are pushy and can be a bully

They are out of their depth

They don’t care about their client

They have done something disreputable


support beliefs

They really care about their clients and want the best for them

They don’t care about people and always want their own way

Their caring has meant they have bitten off more than they can chew

Their client is simply a means to an end - money

They are untrustworthy and not to be relied upon

Take action

Notice how much they care

Notice how uncaring they are

Try and assist them

Notice their callousness

Notice their ‘dodgy’ behaviour

So now we have five people who from a short observation of behaviour, respectively believe this person is:
A caring client-centred person
An uncaring bully
An overworked, over committed caring person
A callous money hungry person
A con artist

Now imagine these people having a discussion together to determine whether this person would make a good addition to their work team. Each one could find supporting data for their position. Each one could legitimately dismiss the other’s concerns because they had missed that data or else considered that data as irrelevant. Each one could begin to develop peculiar ideas about their team members because of how they see this person. From a small amount of data.

And there is more data that I haven’t looked at. “Hi Jim…” is a casual form of speaking, or perhaps a friendly way of speaking or perhaps over-friendly, or perhaps a disarming way of speaking.

Now you will have noticed that the final line of the table prior, concerns actions taken. There are many actions but the most immediate action is done on a very subtle level. This action concerns the data that is noticed and not noticed. The implication of this model is that the data noticed will tend to support the view of the person and non-confirming data will not be noticed. Simply imagine thinking someone else is a dodgy con artist. How might this effect the way you listen to and pay attention to this person? Could you ever listen to them in an easy friendly way again if you thought them a bit of a crook? Could you ever take them seriously again? What if they said they had something really important to tell you?

With Role theory

In role theory, which is a core theory of Moreno, we have the idea of a role cluster – where a group of roles relate together with a central functional gestalt or way of operating as a unified whole. Each role in a role cluster has a similar worldview to the others. (A worldview is short hand for the way that I make the world work conceptually for me. It includes my values, beliefs and expectations about life, others and the universe). Each role operates as though they are a part of a similar system or story. So as I warm up to a role I immediately warm up to the worldview, the system or the story that attends the role. The warm up to this worldview, system or story leads me to pay attention to certain data, pay attention to that data in a certain way and not to pay attention to any other data in either my system or the ‘real system’. And it is as though this has always been the way I am and the way I see things to be.

Hence the familiar display of a person mistaking another person in a group or life for their absent mother/father/friend and responding as though these other people were indeed present. A group worker, especially one versed in Morenian methods, can readily produce a process where the person is counterpoised with the absent images and differentiation can occur. A person can then respond in the moment to the relationship rather than being caught by the experiences of the past.

Questions to evoke…

In groups I have found that a simple question such as:
“What story are you telling yourself now?” or “What system are you a part of now?” will often elicit useful self-reflection and can lead understanding about how the way a person believes the world to be is in fact the way they see the world. Finishing the provocation “The world works best when….?” assists the clarification of the worldview. Many people have a saying something like “If I see it then I will believe it!” The ladder of inference suggests that the real story is “If I believe something then I will see it.”


In the introduction I asked the question “What’s going on?” My answer to this question involves realising that what is going on is usually two or more people, working from a different street map, involved in a different story or systems, speaking different languages trying to read different song sheets and come up with a workable harmony. And how’s that for different metaphors! To me the miracle is that we all do so well together, not that there are so many problems. The problems are a given, the harmony is remarkable. Jacob Levy Moreno gave us ‘begegnung’ where through the effort of role reversal we enter fully into the other’s world, their story of themselves and life, the system they are a part of, the language they use for understanding and the song sheet they are using. The ladder of inference is an attempt to systematise the process whereby each of us has created such unique worldviews for ourselves.

The value of getting a handle on this level of difference is that a person can make second and third impressions rather than being locked into only first impressions of a person or situation. Parents and really anyone in a position of authority knows the absolute dilemma of having a hard and fast conclusion about another person (child) and then finding out they were entirely wrong and the other person is blameless. This model suggests one thing: pause.