Tell New Stories: 5 Questions to Climb Off a Ladder of Inference

Our stories shape our experiences. This isn’t a bad thing. Our stories carry our history – reminding us of lessons we don’t have to painfully relearn and sharing accomplishments that inspire confidence. Personally, I like my stories. They are the mental cryptograms that help me to sort information, make decisions and just plain figure out life.

How we use our stories can get in our way, especially when we encounter experiences and information incompatible with our stories. In fact, marketers and campaign managers count on our stories acting as barricades to new information and perspectives that might change us. Yes, our stories remind us of who we are. And left unchecked, our stories keep us where we are.

Chris Argyris developed a classic model, the Ladder of Inference, which describes how our stories influence our interpretations of experience, and how our interpretations ultimately influence our actions. Argyris points out that we often act not on complete data and experience, but of data we select from an experience. We select data that supports our stories. From there, we proceed through a series of self-selected meanings, assumptions and beliefs that lead us to a self-justified action. An example of how we can climb the Ladder of Inference to the wrong place is below.

To avoid climbing the Ladder of Inference and tumbling over the top, keep your stories in check with these questions:

1. Am I working with all the relevant information I can get?

2. What other possible interpretations can I develop?

3. Who do I trust to help me challenge my assumptions?

4. What would happen if I didn’t believe this?

5.  Can I suspend judgment until I know more?

My stories are my treasures. So are yours. But we are both best served when we can look at new situations and understand that it’s not necessarily like the last situation, nor are we. Let’s open ourselves to new experiences – and new stories.

4 thoughts on “Tell New Stories: 5 Questions to Climb Off a Ladder of Inference

  1. I think #3 poses the greatest challenge..not just to determine who is trustworthy enough for this role and how willing are to be challenged in a productive and meaningful way. Terrific, thoughtful post Susan – thanks!

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