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Jumping to Conclusions and climbing the “Ladder of Inference”

Jumping to conclusions ladder of inference

 “I didn’t mean it like that!”

“How did you even get that from what I said?”

We all do it at times, and are on the receiving end of it as well, without even knowing what we were doing. Have you ever been surprised at the interpretation someone has given to something you did, or said? Did they give what you actually said, a meaning that was completely different to the one you intended? When was the last time you read, or heard someone’s comments and, without even consciously realising, moved yourself to a position where you are sure that they meant something else?

This may be a ‘cognitive distortion’. Chris Argyris (1970) suggests something more; that moving from one mental position, to another, without logical evidence, is climbing a ‘Ladder of Inference’. This movement is from a point of data (what you said, heard or experienced), through a number of thought processes, to a conclusion. There is room for erroneous thinking at every point from that initial data point. Furthermore, once started, one faulty or inaccurate thought, can lead to another (you start ‘climbing the ladder’).

You might think that this starts at some point in the chain of thoughts, yet it actually begins at the initial data point. How you make that first interpretation of what is said or experienced determines the direction of your inference. This is where your first cognitive distortion may deviate your thoughts from the actual facts of the data. It is how you interact with that data on your terms, with your knowledge, beliefs and experiences, that leads to the meaning you attribute to the data, and the conclusions you subsequently draw.

This happens so quickly that you may not even be aware that you are ‘interpreting’ the data, rather than taking only the factual content. You are also unlikely to recognise the mental processes you progress through, to get to the conclusion. So, instead of noting the progression of thoughts that A=B, so B=C, so C=D, therefore D=E, you are just aware of thinking that A=E.

therapy therapist talking conversation man woman ladder of influence jumping to conclusions

Where does it start? Your beliefs, knowledge and experience determine which aspects of the messages data that you select and how you then subsequently interpret that data. To illustrate this, consider the case of Michael, a hypnotherapist. He is newly qualified and rather unsure of himself at present.


Michael takes a booking from Gemma, for an appointment at 2pm the next day.

Gemma arrives 15 minutes late for her appointment. She doesn’t explain why she is late, nor refers to it at all.

Step 1:
Michael considers Gemma doesn’t regard the appointment as important so didn’t make an effort to be on time.

Step 2:
Michael considers Gemma doesn’t regard him as effective as if she did she would have regarded the appointment to be important.

Step 3:
Michael becomes defensive which Gemma can feel and finds unhelpful. She doesn’t book another appointment.

Step 4:
When Gemma doesn’t book another appointment, Michael concludes it is because she doesn’t think he is an effective therapist.

There may have been many different reasons for why Gemma was late. She could have struggled to find a parking place; wrote down the wrong appointment time; her watch may even have had the wrong time. However, Michael took the original data, that Gemma was late, and his chain of interpretation reflected his inner beliefs and assumptions.

If this is mainly outside of our awareness, how then do we avoid climbing the Ladder of Inference? We will always interpret any data with our knowledge and experience and beliefs. If we had to scientifically assess everything in our life we could get so overloaded that we’d cease to function effectively. We create systems and shortcuts to help us interpret the meanings from the world around us. We learn from each experience, and that influences our future experiences. So, accepting that we do ‘interpret’ data is useful. You can then be aware that you may be reaching meanings and conclusions based on more than pure fact.

Then, it can be helpful to have a strategy that enables you to check on any assumptions that you may have made. There are a range of different thinking and communication strategies, that you can employ to help you keep clear of the Ladder of Inference.

Reflective listening is a useful skill to employ when working with that original data point. By asking the speaker about what they are thinking and meaning, you are able to clarify meaning and formulate less inferred responses. A key component of reflective listening, is active listening…

active listening ladder of inference reflective listening jumping to conclusions

It is important to be present in the communication and keep focused on what is being said, rather than too quickly making assumptions and climbing that ladder. You can then question for clarification. For example: “So I am hearing that you like the colour of the new carpet in my office, but that you find the window blinds clash? Would you agree?”

Perhaps the most critical stage in the process is the timing of when you clarify. If you clarify four of five stages into your interpretation, the speaker will be less likely to understand what you are talking about, as they haven’t gone on that “inference journey” with you. Far better, as part of your active and reflective listening, to clarify very early on.

Thus, in the case of Michael and Gemma, Michael could have simply raised the lateness by asking if she was OK. This provides an opening for Gemma to offer an explanation. However, as this is a closed question, he could have probed more and asked whether the appointment time had been convenient. Alternatively, he could say that if she encounters any difficulty getting to an appointment, she can let him know.

Accurate communication on your part, will help avoid others climbing their own Ladder of Inference. So as a hypnotist or hypnotherapist, it is really important that you are clear in your communications. Even more so, as your clients may not be engaging in active and reflective listening, nor even be aware of the influence of their beliefs. Therefore, instead of the client engaging in a clarification process for themselves, it can be helpful to be pro-active and check for understanding of meaning. This can avoid the client climbing that ladder.

Finally, Self-awareness will help you understand any deeply-held beliefs which could have influence in relevant situations. Reflecting on your thought processes can help you gain insight into any underlying prejudices, or biases, and how you respond when certain ‘buttons are pushed’. Then you are able to be more vigilant in your checking and clarifying to ensure that you are working with the intended meaning, rather than the inferences you have created. This can help you avoid making assumptions, and help you focus your work more accurately. Ultimately, enabling you to be a more effective communicator, an essential skill for every hypnotist and hypnotherapist.


We hope this blog on jumping to conclusions and climbing the “ladder of inference” has been helpful, and if you have any questions relating to this blog, do please get in touch, because we’re always happy to help!

– written by Dr Kate Beaven-Marks
(HypnoTC Director)

Dr Kate Beaven-Marks HypnoTC the Hypnotherapy Training Company

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