As individuals desiring to grow in leadership abilities and the art of relationships, learning the ability to suspend our judgments and assumptions during conversations is critical. This can mitigate many well-established, almost electrically-charged issues of diversity that occur in everyday conversations with people who we truly listen to. I often say and remind myself that, “Assumptions will get you nearly every time!” when I see the result of confusion in communication due to my assumptions. In business and personal coaching research by Bacon & Spear (2003), they stated, “We have found that many coaches prematurely decide what the client’s issues are, direct the conversation according to that assumption, and frequently discover later that they were wrong” (p. xx). As a leader, how often do you think this is true of you?

Listening while suspending my judgments not only aids me in remaining open to learn, it demonstrates respect, and allows me to truly, fully hear others. It is a relational ability and skill worth learning about and practicing.

The Ladder of Inference is a powerful principle of the discipline of suspending judgment. The visual of the Ladder of Inference shows our human predisposition to leap instantly to counterproductive conclusions and assumptions when listening to anyone.

Understanding the Ladder of Inference

What the diagram implies is that we begin with Real Data & Experience – the kind that would be captured by a movie camera without any judgments or assumptions attached. We then choose a set of Selected Data & Experience that we pay attention to. To this Selected Data & Experience we Affix Meaning, develop Assumptions, come to Conclusions, and finally develop Beliefs. Beliefs then form the basis of our Actions which create additional Real Data & Experience (Senge, 1994, pp. 242-245).

By learning about the Ladder of Inference, effective leaders can guard from climbing up the rungs of our own “ladders” while engaging in communication during all types of conversations. This allows us to mentally slow down and not prematurely jump to the formation of judgments, conclusions, and recommendations for what the other person “should” do.

In the pursuit of suspending judgments through awareness of the mental Ladder of Inference, issues of diversity are more appreciated. As leaders, we stay on the lower rungs of the Ladder of Inference through our awareness of our natural habit of forming assumptions. This mental perspective, along with approaching individuals with authentic respect, allows leaders to leverage diversity in their conversations and relationships.

Respect and suspending judgments in conversations and relationships are simple yet extremely powerful strategies to do more than manage diversity. They allow room for appreciating all of the uniqueness and value of an individual. Suddenly the leader has a new dose of humility as she approaches time with an individual – however different the background, view, perspectives, or beliefs of the person may be. “What can I learn from this person?” remains central to her approach to conversation with the person. This is a far cry from approaching time with a person (whether or not you think you do or will like him or her) and treating the person as though he is an inanimate object.

Suspending judgments is an art in relationships. And it is closely tied to possessing an openness to learn – one of the other elements of effective leaders. Learning takes place when we step out of our comfort zone, or our “box” of normalcy and habits, to a place of growth and challenge. Often, learning occurs when we suspend our assumptions. When we question our own thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, and step back to view things as though from a video, we are equipped to engage in more productive and effective conversations. Suspending judgments is a mental discipline and perspective that allows leaders to leverage diversity of thought and embrace it in an effort to know and understand others.

Thinking & Learning Activity: Suspending Judgments

1.     Think back across this past week. Think of the many conversations you’ve had. Remember all of the individuals you spoke with; remember where you were, the time of day, whether it was face-to-face or via telephone. (Exclude virtual conversations in this activity.)

2.     Choose one of these conversations where you recall sensing a strong direction, solution, or advice you came to early in your mind during the conversation. Answer the following:

  • Who was the conversation with?
  • (For your recall only) Where and when did this conversation occur?
  • What were your early thoughts, responses, assumptions, judgments, or conclusions during the conversation?

3.     Sit back and reflect on that conversation and what occurred in your mind during it. During the conversation, mark below when you recall arriving at certain assumptions, judgments, or conclusions:

Before the person opened his or her mouth; I could tell the outcome based on other info Within the first few minutes As soon as I had heard most of the person’s story After I had the chance to ask a question and get feedback to it After the person had shared what he or she wanted, and after I had made many inquiries to more fully understand

4.     What limited your ability to fully hear the person and his or her message or conversation? Identify 3-5 things that distracted you from focusing intently.

5.     What assumption(s) did you make during that conversation that was/were incorrect? Name at least one! (You may have a few to write down.)

6.     Growing forward, think of a mental cue you can recall during future conversations to help you not climb up the Ladder of Inference. How will you remind yourself to suspend your assumptions and judgments during conversations with those you work or live with? Be creative.

7.     Your “Suspending Judgment” Action Plan: Create a physical reminder for yourself with the mental cue you just described above. Some ideas follow; whatever you decide – take action and make it happen or get it calendared.

  • Make a Post-it Note with a key phrase for you to look at during the day.
  • Create a daily e-mail or recurring appointment for yourself at the beginning of each day to remember your mental cue in conversations that will occur that day.
  • Make some sort of an electronic reminder to help you reflect at the end of the day on conversations you have had. Then self-evaluate how you are doing in this area of effectively communicating.
  • Share your strategy for improving your communication and relationships as a leader in the area of suspending judgment with a trusted advisor, colleague, friend, or family member – and have a dedicated discussion with him or her on your growth in this area.

Improving in the area of suspending assumptions and judgments in conversations is tremendous to increasing your art of relationships as you grow in your personal development and leadership. Without these skills, you just may find yourself at the top of your Ladder of Inference during a conversation – only to find that your assumptions caused you to lean it against the wrong wall!

By Dr. Heidi Scott – Leadership and Organizational Development Specialist

Reference List

Bacon, T. R., & Spear, K. I. (2003). Adaptive coaching: The art and practice of a client-centered approach to performance improvement (1st ed.). Palo Alto, CA: Davies-Black.

Senge, P. M. (1994). The fifth discipline fieldbook: Strategies and tools for building a learning organization. New York: Currency, Doubleday.