Best Conflict Resolution Tool Ever: Ladder of Inference

Two of my very favorite people and thinkers about things organizational are Joe Gerstandt and Jason Lauritsen. Together they to the "talent anarchy" blog, and their most recent conversation has been about conflict. Jason's last post is particularly awesome, and in it he advocates becoming a student of conflict and reading some books about it and studying tactics and skills. Of course, I couldn't agree more.

It has now been almost twenty years since I started my master's degree program in conflict resolution (egad!). I haven't spent every moment since then doing conflict work, but I've certainly done my share, and over the years I have realized that if I am given ONE chance to contribute positively to a conflict situation, I will most often reach for a tool called the ladder of inference. I mentioned it briefly in my last post about shared language, but I realized it needed some more attention.

It was developed by a management theorist named Chris Argyris, and it's pretty simple, but also pretty powerful. It is a framework for better understanding the process we move through as we observe things, make sense of them, and then draw conclusions and take action. It's about how we make sense of the world. You'd be amazed at how much of that happens without you being aware of it (particularly the making sense of stuff part), and in conflict situations, understanding how we came to the conclusions we came to is critical for resolution (yet for the most part, all we do is argue about our conclusions or get mad at other people's actions).

The ladder gives you and the other party a simple framework for slowing down the conversation. When you're mad at your coworker for not being a team player and leaving the office at 5 while you're stuck doing work, you need to talk about it with him and explain your side of the ladder so he can then talk about his side. You'll talk about your workload and how you observe him leaving at 5 without even asking you if you need help. He may explain about the two hours of work he does at home every night after putting the kids to bed, or he may explain that his boss told him not to get involved with the workload of other departments (it's the manager's job to do that), or he may explain that based on what he observed from you he did not realize you were overworked, and tomorrow he'll stay til 7 to help you finish up.

The point is, you won't know how he made sense of that situation until you ask him. And there is almost always some new data (he works two hours at home) or assumption (he shouldn't get involved in workload management) or interpretation (he didn't realize you were busy) that fuels the conflict. It's rarely so cut and dry as you make it out in your head (he's not a team player). The ladder is a great tool for uncovering that in a way that allows both people to contribute to the conversation and take responsibility for the situation.

I do training and consulting on conflict, and I also have a white paper on the subject. If you're interested in a handout I have that covers the Ladder of Inference specifically, please email me.

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