“Let’s hang white lights.”
“I’d like to have white lights on the patio. It’d be pretty, give us some light, and is in keeping with the condo regs. It’s something I really want to do.”
Can you feel the difference between these two statements? Do you know which you would you prefer, if the person was talking to you?
If you are an impulsive person who enthusiastically jumps into something new and doesn’t mind change, you might like the first statement. But careful. While the statement “Let’s hang white lights” is simpler, it can also lead to misunderstandings.
It’s so easy to make assumptions. Here are three different sets of thoughts that could happen.
“White lights? How boring. I’d prefer colored lights. But she always gets what she wants, anyway, so I’m just not going to say anything about that. Easier to go along and not make waves.”
“Well, that’s a surprise. We agreed we’d ask each other about making a change and here she is announcing what she wants. Just like that without asking me. As usual – so much for agreements we made about how we’ll live together.”
“Cool idea. We could get those ones that hang down and look like icicles. I saw some at the store. I’ll buy them when I go out today and surprise her.”
You can see how each set of thoughts on the part of the listener is entirely different. And how an assumption can lead to a misunderstanding. And that misunderstanding can lead to judgement. And that judgement might generate actions that create unhappiness.
Ladder of Inference
Chris Argyris, a Harvard Business School professor, developed a model of this process he calls the “Ladder of Inference”
It starts with observable “data” and experiences. A video camera would capture this first step.
The ladder is climbed in steps:
I select “data” from what I observe.
I add Meanings (cultural and personal).
I make Assumptions based on the meanings I added.
I draw Conclusions.
I adopt Beliefs about the world.
I take Action based on my beliefs.
Only the first observation and the last action is outside the person. All the other steps are internal and happen at such a speed that we may not even realize what has happened.
If you’ve ever experienced a conversation or behaviors from another person that are different than what you might have expected, there’s a good chance that both of you are climbing your own ladders but that they don’t match.
The Change She Asks For
By taking the time to explain why she is proposing putting white lights on the porch, Louise helps Karen from climbing this ladder.
Louise starts with an “I statement.” She simply states her own desire. She then gives her reasons for the desire. She also anticipates that there are regulations to be considered. Finally, she states how strongly she feels about it. All this gives Karen enough information to consider the idea.
This is part of how they have worked out living together. As Karen says, “We try to be clear about what I want and need and why and how strongly we feel about it.” Three dimensions of communication. Three parts that prevent climbing the ladder of inference.
- I statement
- Why it’s important
- How important it is
Next time you are making a request of another, consider planning how will you will ask. Use each of these dimensions.
Living well with others does require good communication. But it doesn’t require constant communication. And it definitely doesn’t require chatter. Karen and Louise say, “We leave each other alone, we don’t butt in and we aren’t intrusive. There’s no explaining oneself all the time, we don’t tell each other about our comings and goings. We have ’negative space‘. We allow for silence.”
It’s been working for them for more than a decade. Would it work for you?
And yes, they did put white lights on their porch.
Note: Karen and Louise, with their third housemate, wrote “My House, Our House“, about buying and living in a house together. It’s worth reading, especially if you are considering owning with others.
Have you gotten tangled in misunderstandings? Do you have your own ways of making sure communication is clear between you and others? Is the “Ladder of Inference” a helpful idea? Are you good at making “I” statements?