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Matchmaking, Shia LaBeouf, and the Ladder of Inference

Ladders“I just want someone to want to go out with me,” she desperately admitted, “and at this point I’m ready to change whatever I need to to make it happen.”

I’m here at the request of a matchmaker who sensed some additional help with a client might be warranted. What a wise matchmaker, by the way, to pair this client up with a coach before sending her back out there.

“You want a relationship and you believe you need to be someone different to have one?” I ask.

“Well who I am right now clearly isn’t cutting it.”

I understand the concern. When things go other than the way we envisioned they would, the urge to reinvent ourselves – to abandon what we perceive isn’t helping us achieve our goals – can be a strong one.

Being something that you’re not can have consequences. Just ask Mario Licato.

This past weekend in New York City, he jumps on the F train and heads for the Lower East Side to hear some music. He’s on his own, minding his own thoughts and watching his feet on the stairs as he heads for the club when some random, frat-boy looking dude coming the other way just cold-cocks him right in the face. The last thing Mario hears before passing out is this guy screaming, “That’s because you look exactly like Shia LaBeouf!”

See? At first glance it appears to be a random act of violence, but it turns out there was a perfectly good explanation for punching Mario in the face.

I’m kidding of course – I would never condone punching anyone in the face for looking like someone else – and I happen to like Shia – but I’m not making this story up.

We are surrounded by mindlessness – and if you’re a regular reader of my blog then you can guess where I’m going next, so I’ll change it up a bit this week. Like our matchmaking heroine, we all have a perception of happiness and we believe that only certain conditions will make us feel satisfied or successful. But it is often our very idea of success that makes us unhappy. We must first examine our perceptions in order to break free from them.

Ladder of Inference

There is a framework that can be used to promote awareness of our thought processes – a model that can change the recurrent patterns of poor thinking and disappointing outcomes.

The Ladder of Inference was first put forward by organizational psychologist Chris Argyris and used by Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. The original “ladder” has seven rungs but I’m adopting a shorter version here for clearer interpretation. The 5 rungs of the ladder are:

  1. At the bottom or first rung, we have an experience. We are exposed to data in the form of images, words, sounds, or other sensory information.
  2. At the second rung, we select specific pieces of data from the experience to focus on.
  3. At the third rung, we make assumptions about the data that we have selected.
  4. At the fourth rung, we draw conclusions based on our assumptions.
  5. At the fifth rung, we take action based on our conclusions.

We climb the ladder very quickly and most of us are unconsciously going through this process.  And in practice, people usually believe that their thoughts are the truth and that their truth is obvious.

Collection of SuitsHere’s a business example:

The Junior Executive has just read the latest monthly figures and a key metric in Mario’s division is down – a condition that the Junior Executive will likely have to answer for – and it’s simply not good enough. Mario needs to be fired!

Let’s put it on the ladder.

Monthly numbers have been reported (the experience) and the Junior Executive has focused in on Mario’s division (data selection begins). A key metric is down (the selected data is interpreted), it’s entirely due to Mario’s performance (assumption), and I’m going to have to answer for it (assumption). Mario is not performing well (assumption) and isn’t the right man for the job (conclusion). Firing Mario is the best option (action).

Rash, but not totally illogical.

Let’s start with the data selection – why is the Junior Executive focused on Mario’s division? Was there a preconceived idea at play here; data selected to support what was already believed or suspected? Maybe Mario is new and couldn’t possibly be as good as the Executive’s cohort? Perhaps the Junior Executive originally preferred someone else for the position? Or maybe Mario keeps getting punched in the face because he looks like Shia LeBeouf.

Or maybe it’s the data itself.

Although the metric is down in Mario’s division, it’s actually down less than in other areas. Perhaps production and distribution are behind, the terms of a significant booked sale prevent immediate reporting, or there are other personnel concerns affecting the division.

Reexamining Assumptions

Remember: to put the Ladder to use, you first have to recognize the need. If you’re a regular follower of this blog then you already know the value of mindfulness – and while this is yet another perfect opportunity to remind you to be present, the Ladder is a wonderful tool to promote objectiveness and, when working or challenging others, reach a shared conclusion without conflict.

Here are the steps:

  1. First – Stop. From your current “rung,” analyze your reasoning by working back down the rungs on the ladder from your current position. This will help you trace the facts and reality that you are actually working with.
  2. Next – Look for the places where you change rungs most quickly (or skip a rung altogether).
  3. Last – with a new sense of reasoning (and perhaps a wider field of data and more considered assumptions), you can now work forwards again – step-by-step – up the rungs of the ladder, considering other alternatives, and increased perspective.

Like our matchmaking heroine, our regrets and concerns from the past and our hopes and desires for the future color our thoughts of the present. We so want things to be a certain way that we construct the logic to think it into being.  This is how we begin to make our own reality – altering who we are, considering others as who they are not, and shaping things into right and wrong – instead of simply seeing what is.

As soon as you begin to believe in something, then you can no longer see anything else. Just to be clear – there is nothing inherently wrong with beliefs or ideas or thinking. It’s the inability to see things in any other way than our own stubborn way that begins to cause problems. The truth that you believe in and cling to makes you unavailable to notice, yet alone accept, anything new. It confines our ability to operate affectively – to act appropriately, make good decisions, and even appear attractive to others – and it limits our experience of life.


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