Understanding how people arrive at different beliefs

Have you ever wondered how someone in a similar life station can experience the world or believe so differently from you?

Or have you ever been in a conversation that seemed benign until the other party exploded, leaving you to think, “Well that escalated quickly.”

An organizational psychologist named Chris Argyris developed a model called the ladder of inference that might be helpful for understanding what’s happening in scenarios like these.

Basically, each of us filters the world around us in a different way. We select among observable data, often without thinking much about it. We add meaning to that slice of data according to our personal experiences or cultural background. Those assigned meanings lead us to make assumptions, and we then make conclusions accordingly. As conclusions pile up over time, they solidify into beliefs. We act based on those beliefs.

The ladder of inference explains how even in a congregation that averages 100 in attendance – or in a discussion between two people – the parties can end up having very divergent perspectives. It can also help us learn to explore situations through others’ eyes. How might differences at each rung of the ladder lead to ranges of beliefs and actions? Where are potential points at which further discussion might result in understanding and collaboration?

The ladder of inference could be a useful tool for committees or teams that are having trouble coming to agreement. Start at the bottom and work your way up. What are each person’s observations? What data do they choose to work with? Keep going up. Note where there are divergences. Hearing from one another is the starting point for real collaboration.

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