We all make assumptions about the world we live in. Without assumptions, we would be unable to function effectively; we would spend far too much time making even the smallest decisions. But sometimes, our assumptions can lead us astray – or lead us into conflict.
You may have heard of the “Ladder of Inference”, a concept first proposed by organizational psychologist Chris Argyris and used by Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. Here is how it works:
The bottom rung of the ladder consists of objective facts and data. As we climb the ladder, we
- Experience objective facts selectively, based on our beliefs and prior experiences
- Add meanings by interpreting the selected facts
- Apply assumptions based on those meanings, often without conscious thought
- Draw conclusions based on our interpretations and assumptions
- Develop beliefs about the selected facts based on our conclusions
- Take actions that are based on those beliefs, and which therefore appear to be the "correct" actions
This can result in a reflective (and destructive) loop. Our assumptions, beliefs and prior experiences influence what facts we select, and often lead us to ignore other facts and data entirely. We then “jump to conclusions”, missing important facts and substituting belief-driven conclusions for reasoning.
For example, if I am having dinner with a friend and she pulls out her phone, I may 1. focus on that action, 2. believe that she is bored with our conversation, and 3. assume that she is checking her facebook updates. As a result, I may 4. conclude that she does not value our friendship, 5. believe that I am wasting my time with her, and 6. change my own demeanor for the worse. The reality may be that my friend was thoroughly enjoying our conversation (at least until I changed my demeanor to match my unfounded conclusions), and was letting her partner know that she will be home later than expected because she does not want to cut the evening short.
So step off that ladder and take a moment to examine the underlying facts more fully. You may discover very different meanings – and a much broader set of options – than those you saw once you started climbing.