The Ladder of Understanding: A Tool for Untangling Conflict and Building Shared Meaning

Uncategorized Jan 19, 2022

Conflict and misunderstanding too often leads to contempt.    

Sometimes our attempts to communicate with someone else break down because our deepest values are in conflict.  But in many cases, the root of the conflict is actually a misunderstanding that you can uncover and address using a tool called the ladder of understanding.  That's the focus of this post: using the ladder of understanding to improve  our communication with others.

Being an effective change agent in our increasingly divided world means having the tools to untangle conflict and misunderstanding.  


The Ladder of Understanding

This tool is inspired by the "Ladder of Inference" laid out in Chris Argyris's book Organization Learning, as further adapted by  Diana McClain Smith.

Three Steps for Using the Ladder of Understanding

  1. Figure out which rung you are on
  2. Evaluate your reasoning by walking back down the ladder, step by step until you get all the way back to objective reality
  3. Step 3: Rebuild the ladder, explicitly communicating about each step in conversation with the other person


Check out the video for more on how to use each step, including how to identify cognitive biases, as well as helpful mental models for understanding other people's behavior, as well as your own.




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