Moving Down the Ladder: Using Powerful Questions to Help Clients Improve Decisions

by Rosa Edinga, MBA, PCC for Coaching Out of the Box®
Moving Down the Ladder: Using Powerful Questions to Help Clients Improve Decisions

The amount and speed with which we receive information has almost become overwhelming. 

Add that with the increased pressure to take action more quickly, and the continued stretch of leading (and living) through a pandemic, leaders find themselves with less and less time to think through a problem. 

Without this space, I am seeing an increased number of the those I work with are making more reactionary, sometimes short sighted decisions.

The Ladder of Inference is a powerful tool to help leaders identify their thinking process in order to challenge the premise of decisions, thereby increasing the probability of a solid decision.  The Ladder of Inference was created by organizational psychologist Chris Argyris in the mid-1970s and became well known when it appeared in Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization.

The Ladder identifies 7 steps, or rungs we climb to make decisions.

Our foot first steps on the rung of observable data and experiences. From there, we use our established filters to select the data from the first rung that we will carry with us higher up the ladder. 

We take that data and add meaning or perceptions. These can be personal meanings or perceptions based on a cultural tradition or societal norms.

Higher and higher we go – moving from our assignment meaning to assumptions, drawing conclusions that form the basis of the beliefs we adopt of the world.  Then, we are high off the ground of observable data and fact…we act. 

Sometimes, we move up the ladder in seconds. 

Over time, the beliefs we have created, whether accurate or not, become the filter through which we select our data from all the facts.  Without any reflective time, we get locked into to a reflexive loop of only selecting information that supports our already held beliefs. Talk about propping that ladder up on shaky ground!

I find that combining the Ladder of Inference with powerful questions creates a “light switch moment”, enabling my clients to pause, think and take responsive action, instead of just reacting.

I have used it to support clients to:

  • review an action and course correct;
  • choose a path of action when several options exist;
  • explore all possible courses of action;
  • unpack beliefs about the world that are no longer serve them;
  • challenge assumptions;
  • identify blind spots or information gaps; and
  • identify unconscious biases

And it is a great takeaway visual to help clients center back into themselves and climb down the ladder.

Once there is a willingness to pause and reflect on the decision-making process, we can move down the ladder just as quickly as we ran up.

Where to start?

  1. Meet your client where they are. If they are not aware of the tool, introduce it as a means of context.  Then ask “where are you on the ladder?”.
  2. Using questions to move them down the ladder. Use these or similar questions as a starting point for the discussion, meeting your client on whatever rung they are on.
  • Taking Action (Rung 7) – Tell me more about the action you took? What were the costs of the action you described? What were the benefits? What led you to take that action?
  • Adopting Beliefs (Rung 6) - What beliefs led you to make your decision? How are these beliefs serving you? What beliefs would serve you better?
  • Forming Conclusions (Rung 5) – What conclusions did you draw? Tell me more about how you came to form those conclusions.
  • Making Assumptions (Rung 4) - What assumptions are you making about the situation? What are you pretending not to see?
  • Adding meaning and interpretation (Rung 3) – What meaning did you layer on the information you had? What impact do your previously held beliefs about the situation/person impact how you interpreted the facts? How else could you interpret the facts you selected?
  • Selecting “data” (Rung 2) - What facts are you basing your decision on? What other facts would be important to consider? What are you not to include in your decision making?
  • Observing reality (Rung 1) - How do you know this information is accurate?
  1. Move to action. Now that they have explored the different aspects of their decision making, it is time for them to move to action – taking their insights and confidently moving towards a more robust decision.

Using this tool with clients supports them to take a more reflective approach to decisions in a world where reflection time has become a luxury.