Ladder of Inference

The ladder of inference is a construct created by Chris Argyris for thinking about, analyzing, and changing the way we make sense of information that we encounter all the time.  The big idea here is that our previous experience has enabled us to develop a working model to explain our current experience, and that sometimes that mental model leads us astray by attributing erroneous meaning to something that happens.  The ability to recognize when we are going “up the ladder”, without examining other possible explanations, allows us to entertain alternative explanations and thereby take control of how we make our decisions about acting in response to any given event.

We see the ladder of inference as a useful complement to the cycle of inquiry.  At any given stage of the cycle of inquiry, the coach might ask questions designed to check the educational leader’s assumptions about a situation or event, such as “what evidence do you have that she is trying to undermine you?” “can you think of any possible alternative explanations for his behavior?” “what other data do you have that might give you a more complete picture?”

The role of the coach is to prompt the client to think about when she or he may be making unwarranted assumptions or ascribing unnecessarily negative motivations.  The client may then, with the support of the coach, generate possible actions that are more productive.