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SURPRISING CONNECTION #3: Ladders and Airplanes

So what do airplanes and ladders have in common? Well, I’ve made three trips this month so this model is on my mind. It’s called the Ladder of Inference. This model helps us to “think about what we’re thinking”—a good habit to get into.

If we look at this ladder *, we see 7 rungs. The first rung reminds us that there is an infinite amount of observable data out there that we could choose to notice about a person or situation. Some of us notice certain things over other things. I have a friend who could always spot a new piece of jewelry or hairstyle on someone. Whereas, I confess to being oblivious to such details. So we each, often quite unconsciously, select data out (rung 2) from that observable data, and it’s what we pay attention to. From there we very quickly climb rungs 3-6 by adding meaning to what we’re noticing, making assumptions, drawing conclusions, and adopting beliefs. These in turn create some action on our part. Yes, we all do it. It’s human nature.

So, why did my travels make me think about this model? Let me confess. This particular “ladder” made itself known to me on a flight from Boston to Philadelphia years ago. The plane was full of business travelers as well as students returning from summer camps. I was sitting in a middle seat with my work colleague on the aisle and an empty seat on my right. So, I did what we all do in that situation–whether we’re aware of it or not. I took stock of the passengers coming down the aisle, giving them a mental thumbs up or thumbs down about them becoming my seatmate. The person who paused at our aisle was a tall guy with unkempt curly black hair, leather jacket, ripped jeans, heavy boots and tattoos. So, from that description you now know the data I selected out and noticed. It wasn’t his eye color or the magazine he was carrying. It was his appearance. And so I climbed that ladder of inference pretty quickly in my head (in seconds) and determined that I had nothing in common with this seatmate. In fact, I’d seen folks who looked a lot like him on the evening news making trouble. I concluded I had nothing in common with him. And so, my action (rung 7) was to make no eye contact or conversation and show extreme interest in the book I was reading.

But here’s the thing. At times, circumstances become our teachers. In this case, our plane hit an air pocket and did a quick descent. I’m sure it lasted seconds but it felt like minutes… The scene was complete with screaming campers, like something right out of a movie. When things settled down again, I heard a soft voice on my right. It said, “Excuse me, ma’am, may I ask you a question? Is that not normal?” I turned to him and admitted that I traveled a lot and had never had that experience. He replied, “Oh, you see I wouldn’t know. This is my first flight. I’ve always been afraid of flying. But, ya see, my parents are getting up in years, and they’ve always longed to see the foliage in New England. (I swear those were his exact words!). So I had no choice but to drive them safely to New England to explore. But the thing is my baby turns 3 tomorrow, and daddy doesn’t miss his baby’s birthday for anything. So I had no choice but to hop on a plane. “

Now, wait, what just happened? Well, if we go to the bottom of the ladder, some new data just came into my awareness, challenging my earlier assumptions and meaning, and resulting in new action on my part. In fact, I had a new appreciation for this seatmate of mine.

Remember that everything from rung 2 thru 6 happens in our heads in a nanosecond. It’s invisible to others. All people see is that something happens, resulting in our action. At times, things like air pockets bring new data into our awareness. At other times, we need to simply step back and be open to seeing things we don’t initially see. It’s the very value of inquiring more before leaping to conclusions, or making our thinking more transparent to keep others from doing the same.

And so, that’s what ladders and airplanes have to do with one another. However these ladders are everywhere, including the workplace. Imagine that Bob shows up to a meeting late. In a few seconds flat, you can climb the ladder to some conclusion…he’s casual about time, especially for meetings he doesn’t value, and whose topics don’t interest him… so it’s unlikely he’ll support what you are proposing…he will be a force to be reckoned with, and before you know it you’re getting defensive with Bob. And he has no clue why. Isn’t it possible the poor guy simply stopped by the restroom on his way to your meeting?

In more cases than I can count, this simple model has created meaningful reflection and dialogue between 2 parties who were not getting along. Just recently, I used it with two team members who were not getting along. Their issues were creating a ripple through the rest of the team and their client groups. As they made “their ladders” more transparent to each other, the new data created new beliefs about each other and a new possibility for working together. They reflected on it as a breakthrough moment.

So, whether it’s airplanes or ladders…they can take us to new heights!

If you’re interesting in seeing how the ladder of inference played out between two people sitting in an airport eating cookies, just drop me a note, and I’ll send it your way!


Acknowledgement: This model is the work of Chris Argyris, Harvard professor and thought leader. It was highlighted in the book The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook.

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