In part 1 of this topic, I explained how the ‘ladder of inference’ can lead us to certain conclusions about why other people act the way that they do.

This is a theory of how we can start with a fact (a bit of data), and use our own specific thinking to come to a certain conclusion (sometimes wrong!)

This can happen because we all interpret a piece of data according to our experiences in life. We start with the data, but then view it according to our past experiences, and then draw conclusions or inferences from it. These are not tested, as we rarely make this process visible to anyone else, so it cannot be corrected if it is wrong.

How to Avoid Climbing the Ladder of Inference

We all use inference to derive meaning from events which happen in our lives. If we did not use past experience to predict what will happen in the future, we would not learn.

One way to minimise the chance of ‘climbing the ladder of inference’, and automatically making assumptions about others’ behaviour, outlined by Rick Ross, in The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, was:-

  • Become more aware of your own thinking and reasoning (reflection);
  • Make your thinking and reasoning more open to others, and make sure that they understand it  (advocacy);
  • Ask about others’ thinking and reasoning (inquiry).

This will help you become more aware of pieces of information that you take for granted, which are likely to be linked to your beliefs. It is worth checking that they are in fact true, i.e., facts, and that others agree with them. You may find that other people do not share these beliefs, and this can help you understand why they act in the way that they do.   


Useful phrases to use include:-

  • “So, I’m hearing that you like this part, but not that aspect. Would you agree?”
  • “It sounds to me like…”
  • “I’m thinking that x makes sense, but do others agree?”

It is also worth asking yourself:-

  • What is the observable data behind that statement?
  • Can you run me through your reasoning?
  • How did we get from that data to these abstract assumptions?
  • When you said “[your inference],” did you mean “[my interpretation of it]”?

In the example above, Betty could also have asked open questions such as the following, to open up a conversation about why Alice was late:-

  • “Is everything OK?”
  • “Did you have trouble with the traffic this evening?”
  • “Was 7.00pm too early for you? We could have made it later.”
  • “Was it inconvenient to meet up this evening? You can always let me know if so, and we can rearrange.”
  • “Goodness, you’re very late!”

Alternatively, when Betty says that she doesn’t want to meet up next week, Alice might say to Betty:

  • “Are you OK? You’ve been very quiet this evening.”
  • “Is something wrong?”

It is generally not a good idea to mention the ladder of inference when asking your open questions to test assumptions. It would not have been helpful for Alice to say to Betty:-

“Betty, I think you’ve moved way up the ladder of inference. ”
“Here’s what you need to do to get down.” (!!!)

The point of this method is not to point a finger at anyone, but to make our internal / thinking processes more obvious to ourselves, and if we choose to share our thoughts, more obvious to others.

The ladder of inference is best used to improve our thinking processes, and to make it easier for us to notice when we are making assumptions, and viewing what happens in life ‘through’ our beliefs.


  1. The Ladder of Inference.
  2. Ross, R. (1994). The Ladder of Inference.
  3. Mulder, P. (2018). Ladder of Inference. 

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