May 2023

LEADER PRACTICE No. 3: Pause Making Sense

Humans, observed one of my favorite teachers, are “meaning making machines.” When presented with uncertainty, we make up stories to explain what’s happening. Facts or the lack of them don’t much matter. We do this thousands of times a day, driven to make sense of the world and to have some basis for taking action. Chris Argyris proposed the “Ladder of Inference” model to explain this mental process: we observe, select information, assign meaning to it, make assumptions, draw conclusions, adopt beliefs, and act on what we think we know. 

It’s a useful process, except when we make meaning about situations and other people based on our experiences, biases, cultural norms, beliefs, values, etc. Worse, we believe the stories we make up are TRUE. Then, going a step further, we reinforce those made-up beliefs, using our stories as screens to select the information that gets our attention. This is a circular, self-reinforcing process – the source of many judgments, misunderstandings, misperceptions, and conflicts.

How many of us have delivered something to a client, received no response, and filled the vacuum with a scenario of catastrophe? Perhaps we have convinced ourselves that a boss, peer or subordinate is treating us in a certain way because [make up story here.] When we are unaware of our mind’s storytelling, it can take us hostage. But gaining awareness of our capabilities as “meaning making machines” makes it possible to step off the “inference ladder.” We can pause to see other perspectives, ask different questions, and draw new conclusions. Refreshed perspectives are invaluable; they create space for new ways of thinking, acting, collaborating, and leading.


When you are reacting to an experience, in conflict, or sure you are right experiment with the following:

  • Remind yourself to stay curious and ask yourself some of the following questions:
    • What is the story I am telling myself?
    • Is this true? How do I know it to be true?
    • What assumptions am I making?
    • How could I be wrong here?

    You can make your own thinking known by walking yourself down the “Ladder of Inference”

    • “I took this action because I believed …”
    • “My beliefs were based on …”
    • “I came to this conclusion because …”
    • “I made the assumption that …”
    • “Here’s what I think is true and the data I’m basing that off of …”
    • “I think I can feel confident about …”

Check out this highly relatable 5-minute video about the Ladder of Inference on TEDEd:

Until next month…

Dana's signature

Founder and Principal Coach