Jamie asks:  My colleague and I had a disagreement over the future of our project.  She thought we should cut our losses now, while I thought we could still grow a customer base in a specific territory.  Before I knew it, tensions escalated based on assumptions I made about her commitment to the project.  We still haven’t decided what direction to take this project and now we aren’t interacting as well as we used to.  I’d like to address the situation.  Have any advice?  

Tawny Lees, COO or Mariposa, responds:

As you know, in business, decisions and actions ought to be based on reality and facts.  It sounds though as if the situation escalated because you may have jumped to conclusions, rather than keep the discussion focused at the facts level.

One mental model you can use next time you encounter a disagreement is the Ladder of Inference.  The ladder describes thinking steps that lead one to jump to inaccurate conclusions, where decisions and actions are made far from reality.  The ladder looks like this:

ladder of inference_smallImagine at the base of a ladder lie reality and facts.  As we head up the rungs of the ladder, we select data from the set of facts to add meaning based on our own prior experience and beliefs, make assumptions, draw conclusions, develop beliefs based on these conclusions, then finally, take action that seems “right” (because it’s based on what we believe.)  As you can see, beliefs drive what information we choose to see, which may or may not be based on reality!   And acting on assumptions can lead to damaged relationships.

In your next discussion, we suggest getting into rapport with her by matching your body language, voice and words with hers.  This will help level-set any uneasiness you both might be feeling.  Then, describe the thinking process of the Ladder of Inference, and let her know where you were “on the ladder” in your last discussion.  Revisit the project facts from there.  You’ll be able to move to decision when you’re both focused on the reality of your project!  Good luck!

For more information on the Ladder of Inference, read Overcoming Organizational Defenses by Chris Argyris, Allyn and Bacon, 1990.