Each of us sees things from our unique perspective. We understand the world around us through an unconscious thought process. We constantly form and update beliefs and values that we apply to assess the situation, formulate alternatives, make decisions and interpret the intentions of others.
But since we are constrained by our own experience, our perception of the world is inherently limited. Our understanding is imperfect. How often do we recognize this? What should we do about it?
Chris Argyris used the metaphor of the “ladder of inference” to describe the mental process for understanding what we experience. In this model, we process information through each of seven steps (starting with reality or facts) that lead to beliefs and ultimately taking action. As Argyris and his co-author Donald Schon explain in their 1974 book “Theory in Practice: Increasing Professional Effectiveness”, most individuals are not aware of this process or how pre-existing beliefs impact our interpretations and behavior.
Do we all interpret the situation in the same way? How do we know? With awareness of the limits of our single point of reference, we can slow down and actively move to increase our shared understanding with collaborators. We can ask questions and make things as explicit as possible — especially when the stakes are high.