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Podcast Transcript

A Dangerous Dance

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  0:10  
Welcome back to "Your Authentic Path To Powerful Leadership" with Marsha Clark. Join us on this journey where we're uncovering what it takes to be a powerful woman leader. Marsha, welcome back.

Marsha Clark  0:27  
Well thank you very much, Wendi.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  0:28  
And I am guessing that our listeners might be wondering exactly what we're going to be talking about today, considering our episode is titled "A Dangerous Dance". This has got to be another one of your metaphors, right?

Marsha Clark  0:44  
Well yes, Wendi. Welcome back to everyone. And yes, we are using the idea of "dancing" as a metaphor. And it's a metaphor for how our interactions with other people can resemble a dance, the movement back and forth that can sometimes be very symbiotic and fluid, and other times clumsy and out of sync with one another.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  1:04  
Yeah. So what is it that makes the dance dangerous? Is it the clumsiness of it all? I'm thinking of me dancing.

Marsha Clark  1:13  
Yeah, stepping on toes. Yes. Someone told me once in high school, "My dad told me if I  danced and never lifted my foot, I'd never step on her toe".

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  1:23  
Oh my gosh. I'm sorry. Sidebar.

Marsha Clark  1:28  
Sidebar. In some ways, yes that is the clumsiness of it. But the bigger dance comes when we don't even realize that we are out of sync or that we're trying to push our way or approach on to others. And that's a form of stepping on toes, but it's much more, quite honestly, than bruised feet. So I'm ready to dive into the topic and explain what we mean by "The Dangerous Dance".

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  1:52  
Awesome. So where's the best place to even start with this topic? I know that you introduce a model in your book, "Embracing Your Power", that is at the core of this topic. So you want to start there?

Marsha Clark  2:06  
Yeah, I think that's the perfect place to start. And, you know, some of our listeners might be familiar with the model or the tool, but for many others, this could be their first exposure to it. And I think, though, that once we explain it, that everybody's going to recognize it as something that we all do every day all day long.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  2:24  
Yes, you're very right about that. It's one of those things that you don't really know until somebody else explains it.

Marsha Clark  2:31  
Right. I often think of it as kind of hiding in plain sight, if you will. So the model for the new tool in your toolkit is called The Ladder of Inference, and it was developed and published by Chris Argyris. And it's one of my favorite models to help people get really clear on how fundamentally different our thinking can be from one another, and yet how easily through just a few steps up or down the ladder, we can learn to better articulate our position and quite honestly understand the positions or opinions of others, all in the purpose of or in order to achieve better outcomes.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  3:15  
You know, that's exactly one of the things that I love about this model is that it's so simple, but it applies to complex challenges that we all face and trying to understand others and to be understood.

Marsha Clark  3:29  
Yeah, and fully understood, right? I mean, not just understood, but fully understood. So we're not just placating one another or tolerating others. But what we truly want to understand at a very fundamental level, what allows us to value each other and ultimately work together towards common goals and greater results?

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  3:49  
So you introduced The Ladder of Inference in your chapter on Building and Sustaining Trust. Why did you put it there?

Marsha Clark  3:59  
Yeah, it's a model that could apply to many of the chapters in the book, quite honestly, because it does happen to us in so many different scenarios. And it links to our underlying nature of how each of us uniquely gathers information, whatever is happening around us, what we gather, how we process it, and how we use it to make decisions. And I placed it in this chapter because building and sustaining trust is so dependent on one basic tenet, and that's honesty. And you know, whenever I ask people what's the first word that you think of when you think of trust, honesty is often that first word. And as I explained in this chapter, it's a basic tacit agreement, if you will, that's sort of the real definition of it. And I'll read you a little bit from the book: "You expect others to tell you the truth, right, I mean, we hope we can trust that, in a comprehensive, accurate and timely way. Don't sugarcoat it or leave some things out, the important things out, don't make me come find you when I hear something from someone else that I would have wanted to hear from you, like your brother or sister, that you broke grandma's China or whatever, and that you have the courage and the integrity to tell your truth, not just when it's good, but also when it could be bad."

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  5:28  
And you make a point about using the word "your", as in "your truth" here and in the book. So why is that such an important distinction for you?

Marsha Clark  5:39  
Yeah, it is an important distinction. I offer another consideration around the whole concept of truth. And when I emphasize this, it may seem odd at first. I mean, truth is truth, right? That's what we believe. You know, everybody can say that it's X, Y, or Z. And yet the answer is, not exactly. You and I can witness exactly the same thing, we can be standing side by side with each other and come away with very different stories about what we just observed. And how we share our truths say almost as much about ourselves as it does about what we each observe. So our life experiences, our cognitive abilities, our value systems and perspectives influence what we observe, how we interpret that, what assumptions we make, what conclusions we draw, and what actions we take. And it says if each person is wearing a pair of glasses that has a unique set of lenses through which we see the world. And one of my newest favorite quotes, you know I have lots, is by Jose Ortega y Gasset that I think really speaks volumes around this. And the quote is, "Tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are".

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  7:03  
So what is it about that quote that's so relevant for you?

Marsha Clark  7:07  
Well for me, it's the perfect example of how this ladder of inference shows how what we pay attention to is a direct reflection of how we show up in the world and how we form our truths, not the truth but our truth, through those respective lenses, those glasses that are unique to each of us.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  7:28  
Exactly. Okay, so this is feeling a little bit circular. Break this all down in a step by step for us.

Marsha Clark  7:35  
Yeah, and I will because it's really a step by step model, so I'm happy to do that. First if everyone in your mind's eye, if you will, can imagine a stepladder, just a ladder you've got to step up to get higher, and it's standing in a pool of water. And the ladder has five steps or rungs that are on the ladder that are coming up from the water.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  8:02  
Okay, I have to ask real quick, does the fact that we're in a pool of water have any significance to this ladder? I mean, it's not leaning, it's not leaning against a building? We're in a pool of water. I'm just curious.

Marsha Clark  8:16  
Yeah, yes. Well, of course it has significance. So it does, it does and what the pool of water represents, and it's like an ocean, it's not even a pool, it's an ocean, represents the infinite pool of data that is available to all of us. And when I say infinite, I mean infinite. It's like we have to know every single thing about every single thing.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  8:40  
Right. So give me an example.

Marsha Clark  8:43  
So so the infinite pool of data holds all of the possible information ever presented in human existence - language, cultural traditions, laws, contracts, data about the weather, weapons, the lyrics to every song that was ever written - and it's a total repository for all the data ever. Now just think about it, isn't that overwhelming? ,

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  9:08  
Yeah, that's quite overwhelming. I think that's even beyond Google. So we have a ladder in the middle of the pool of Google infinity. What do we do with all of this data?

Marsha Clark  9:21  
Yeah, and that is the first point, or the rung of the ladder. We don't do anything. We do not do anything with all the data. We can't. Our brains can't hold all that. So we can't possibly take it all in as human beings. We can't know all of the data or store all of the data or retrieve all of the data, at least at this point in our evolution. And so instead, we're placed in this infinite pool of data at a set point in time, and are already limited in the types of data and amount of data that we can even absorb, or you know kind of thinking about it up through the bottom of our metaphorical ladders. And here's an example of what I mean. For just a moment I want everyone to think about themselves as a human stepladder. So I'm the left, right. And now think about being set down in a shallow pool of water. The pool itself is infinite, but it's shallow enough that you can see the bottom of your ladder in the water. So you kind of got that image yet?

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  10:29  

Marsha Clark  10:30  
Okay. So now think about your end of the pool. Where and when in time where you dropped into this pool? What year were you born? And where did you grow up? Were you the firstborn to your parents or did you have older siblings? Were you an only child? Or maybe the only child of your gender? Did you speak multiple languages in your home? Were there multiple generations that you grew up with? Did you travel and learn about other cultures? Did you read a lot and expand your understanding of the world around you? And did certain subjects in school come more naturally? Did you compete in athletics? Music Theater? Were you a good student? Did you struggle in school? Perhaps you had a learning challenge and maybe it was even undiagnosed. Did you have a specific religious affiliation or training growing up? So you get my point here is that the questions can just go on and on. And there are 1000 more that I could ask. And they represent a different data point that influences how you think. Where and when and how you landed in this infinite pool of data already impacted how and what you have absorbed.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  11:41  
So let me put this into context for our listeners. There is some infinite pool of data out there, but we only know that we're a part of it. We know we're only a part of that infinite pool.

Marsha Clark  11:56  
Yeah. So to be really clear, we only know our part. Right. And The Dangerous Dance, and this is really important, The Dangerous Dance starts when we believe our part is the only part. So let me repeat that. The Dangerous Dance starts when we believe that our part of the pool is the only part of the pool.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  12:24  
Okay, this is hearkening back. I'm totally going off script here. This is hearkening back to your episode on "On The Nightstand", "Cassandra Speaks". So you know, the thinking when women's voices are removed from the room and it's only men's voices that have told the story, their part has been the only part of the data set.

Marsha Clark  12:27  
That's right.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  12:31  
Just wanted to draw that correlation real quick.

Marsha Clark  12:31  
That's very good.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  12:37  
So we're hanging out in this infinite pool of data, but we think we're only in the little swimming pool that's our part of the pool, like the little shallow end. And we're oblivious to other parts of the pool. Correct?

Marsha Clark  13:12  
That's right. And  let me say this. In some cases, and you know we could say most cases, the answer to that is yes. And yet in other parts, we're aware of the other parts of the pool, but they seem so foreign to us that we don't really even bother to even learn about them, or we disregard regard them as irrelevant or unimportant. And we dismiss the other data either because we don't understand it or we don't value it.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  13:43  
Right. So I'm starting to see how even simple cultural disagreements can happen because we think our end of the pool is either the best or it's the only.

Marsha Clark  13:54  
That's Right. That's right. Yeah. And we're going to get there in just a minute because you're starting now to walk up the steps of the ladder, the rungs of the ladder, and it gets even more precarious when we start doing that. So before we go there, I want to spend just another minute down here at the bottom of the ladders of our pool if I may. Remember the quote that I shared with you earlier, "Tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are'. So now let's unpack that as we better understand where we are on that ladder in the infinite pool of data. So tell me what you pay attention to and I will tell you who you are basically means that whatever data you even choose to access, in other words to pay attention to from the pool, will tell me who you are. So think about your work. Do you pay more attention to the data related to people like employee survey ratings, attrition, retention, diversity numbers, promotion of women, people of color? Or is your attention drawn to the return on investment numbers, market share, earnings per share. Do you pay more attention to the cost per unit to produce something or to the environmental impact of your packaging or waste products? What you pay attention to tells us who you are. It tells me what data from the infinite pool of information you're naturally drawn to. And even that alone tells me who you are. It tells me in a nutshell what you base your truth on.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  15:30  
Okay, so I can already see, or I'm starting to see how our ladders can be so different just based on where our ladder is planted, if you will, in this infinite pool of data. So when I try to explain what I do as my career to my parents and my aunt, you know, that kind of thing, their eyes kind of glaze over because podcasting is clearly just totally foreign to them. I had to explain why it's called pod and then casting and you know, the whole thing. And it really feels like I'm speaking a different language. I mean, especially nowadays, I mean, technology just makes all of us feel like we're speaking a new language almost on a monthly basis. But I'm not.

Marsha Clark  16:18  
Yes, that's right. No, you're exactly right. So we already know that just based on our different life experiences, the generation, right, when you talk about parents and aunts and grandparents, and so on, we can gravitate to the different parts of the infinite pool of data. So some people like hanging out in the marketing end, others in the financing, some love, you know, the loud boisterous party end with all the sales team members and others want to be focused on R&D. We love our end of the pool, whatever part of the pool we're in, and we're surrounded by people who get us, right, who may have had more similar experiences and are paying attention. You know, in today's diversity world, it's called the echo chamber, right, because we have people speaking back to us. They speak our language with ease.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  17:05  
Yep. But we're still at the bottom of this metaphorical ladder, correct?

Marsha Clark  17:11  
Yes. Good catch. So let's wait, we haven't even begun to climb up the rungs. So let's, we're just going to hang out with the other people like us, seek out and absorb the same data, and we're all getting along pretty easily. So imagine that and now...

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  17:26  
Yes, you know, it really makes sense of why like attracts like. People just are more comfortable being around people who are like them, and why trying to have a conversation with someone who sees the world differently than I do can be a challenge and sometimes can be frustrating. You know in the past, I've definitely walked away from conversations wondering how someone could possibly think what they do based on all the, you know, air quotes, "facts" that I presented that completely contradicted their point, in my opinion, from my perspective, from where I'm standing in my spot in the pool.

Marsha Clark  18:14  
Well, that's right. And it's phrases like "What planet are you from?" "Where did you ever come from on that?" Or, you know, "What were you thinking?' I mean, "Who are you?" All those are questions that are like, you're saying something so foreign to me, so unfamiliar to me. And it's probably more accurate to think, instead of "What planet are you from?", it's more like, "What part of the pool are you from?" you know or, are you still swimming in, perhaps, I mean, if you want to think about it. So if we're only hanging out with people from the same end of the pool, people who have similar life experiences, values, culture, language, and so on, then it's pretty easy to communicate, relate to one another. Yes, there's an occasional moment here and there where the other people closest to you might do or say something out of context or maybe they break out of the norm because they learned something new or traveled to a new place or reframe something, but the water stills and there's peace in the pool again when they come back home to their part of the pool.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  19:18  
When or where, if you will, does The Dangerous Dance kick in? What disturbs the surface of the water, if you will?

Marsha Clark  19:29  
Yeah. That's the point, right? Let's move into that. So the peace breaks down, the p-e-a-c-e breaks down in a couple of different ways. It can break down immediately when we encounter someone who shows up from another part of the pool and they start to present their data as facts or the truth. So even at the bottom level of our ladders, we can have clashes because their data doesn't match my data. It even might refute or contradict my data, or we don't trust their data source and they don't trust ours. So at this point, we haven't even begun to interpret or analyze the data because we're fussing over its validity or relevance. Think fake news.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  20:13  
Exactly. That's exactly what I was about to say is, wow, you've just described Facebook. Especially, yeah, especially during election seasons. Yes.

Marsha Clark  20:25  
So The Dangerous Dance begins at the source and agreement, or more accurately, the lack of agreement about whose facts or truths are more truthful. Can you see how we're already stepping on toes and we've barely moved?

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  20:40  

Marsha Clark  20:42  
So the dance becomes even more dangerous as we then begin to climb up the ladder, or work our way up the ladder, and especially if we're doing it without any concept or sense of personal awareness. So, you know, we start at the bottom of the ladder and we proceed up each rung. And let's say that you and I observe the same thing, maybe it's an interaction in a meeting between two colleagues, we climb up to the first step and each of us selects certain facts about what you saw and what I saw, what you observed and what I observed. And there may be similarities, and there will likely be differences. So you may notice and recall certain words used. I may have focused in on the tone of voice or the body language. And you may already know about one colleague's past experience with the other person, and I don't know anything about either one of them. Or I may know that one of them has been dealing with a sick child at home and struggling with balancing work and taking care of that sick child. And so Step One beyond the ladder in the pool, is selecting, and you can also think about it as filtering, facts from the pool of what's available. So already, I'm eliminating some data and elevating other data.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  22:03  
Okay, so we've been in this pool of infinite data. Now we're stepping on this first rung. And and the infinite pool of data, even though that we know there's an infinite pool of data, we've stayed in our kind of end or area of this pool. So now we're stepping onto the first rung of the ladder, and we're picking and choosing which of the facts are available to us that we're going to focus on. So which ones rise out of that infinite pool that we prefer?  I mean, how are we already limiting, or what I'm hearing is that we're already limiting other possible solutions or answers from the very beginning.

Marsha Clark  22:49  
Yes, that is exactly right. And it's perfectly human to do it. So it's not like there's something wrong with us or our brain's not working. In fact, it's how we survive and function. So if you think of it this way. If you learn to drive a car in the United States, and let's say it's an automatic transmission, just to make it easier, then you already have experience in a part of the pool that millions of other people in the world have never had. And when you come up to a four-way stop in the middle of a small town that you've never been to, you have the ability to immediately process all the data that's coming at you to make an executive functioning decision. You don't really have to think about that at all because you've had years of data that's been coming in and that you've been processing. So you know, that strange object by the road has always been there, so it's what does that red side mean that says stop, you know, kind of thing. And who gets to go first? It's all automatic pilot and your brain bypasses all the infinite data pouring in because it's already been processed and filed as "driving". And you're already naturally climbing up the ladder of inference. So let's hold that with Step One, that's the filtering and so on. Then Step Two is where once each of us have selected what we think are facts, we're now going to make interpretations. So we go select, step one, step two is make interpretations of those facts. And those facts can appear to us as good, bad, useful, not useful, smart, not smart, relevant, not relevant. So you know, we have that on off switch, if you will. So back to the lively discussion with our colleagues or with our dear cousin or, you know, whoever might be that on the other side of our conversation. We're now at the stage where not only do our facts differ, but we are definitely interpreting them again from our own perspectives and experiences, seeing them through our own unique lenses and from our natural biases of right and wrong.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  25:03  
Okay, we're only on step two at this ladder and it's just so clear how misunderstandings can occur. I mean, it's not possible to have all of the data. And even if we did, we would have to naturally start editing based on our interpretation or judgment. I mean, otherwise you would be stuck in constant overwhelm.

Marsha Clark  25:28  
Yeah. And the people, I have to tell you. I was on a teaching session today. And you know that one of my favorite questions is,"Do you want to be right or do you want to be effective?" and one of the women there was saying something along the lines of, well, I know I'm right! And that's just another way of saying, "I have all the data. I know I have all the data. I've considered every single data point in the pool, and therefore I know I'm right." And the way someone had asked it to her was "Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?" And she responded with "Well, I'm happiest when I know I'm right". And I just loved it. I loved it, because and so I offered to her the alternative of "Do you want to be right or do you want to be effective?' because being right will always make you happy typically, right? I mean, most of us would like the idea, to think that we're right, but it doesn't mean we're always effective because we are limiting, if we recognize and we're self aware about how we are limiting ourselves to select data, and we filter it a certain way. So this natural sorting process helps us, you know, to make sense of that never ending stream of data hitting us at any given time. And if we didn't take these steps up the ladder of inference we would then get stuck, would truly be stuck. And, you know, we'd be at that four-way stop and not be able to move, right? So it's only natural that we gather, then take in the data, process it and sort it. And we just need to be more aware of the fact that we're doing it.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  27:01  
Got it. So the next step, I'm guessing, moves us from interpreting what we experience to making assumptions about those interpretations.

Marsha Clark  27:14  
Well, that's right, if we make those assumptions then, and let's remember what the definition of an assumption is. Not, not that one.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  27:25  
To assume is...

Marsha Clark  27:29  
That it's a thing that is accepted as true or is certain to happen without proof. See that last, those last two words are really important. So I believe it with all my heart that it is this way, or it's going to happen this way and yet, I have no proof whatsoever.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  27:49  
So what does it mean, at this next step of the ladder, to make assumptions?

Marsha Clark  27:55  
Yeah, so assumptions tend to be more universal or broad-brushed in nature. They're you know, pretty vague, and that sort of thing. And an interpretation is typically related to one particular situation. So for example, four-way stop sign in a small town, you interpret it at face value. I should stop and look all ways for traffic. And you could even say the interpretation of the sign tells you that if you're the first one there, you get to go first. But that's actually where you're now moving into the territory, if you will, of assumptions. Because you've moved a singular interpretation of something that you have experienced as true, and applied it to a more universal situation. You assume that every town in the U.S. follows the same road laws, and for the most part, they do. But this little particular town may have an unwritten rule that even though there's a four- way stop at Main and First Street it doesn't mean everyone has to stop or fully stop. Maybe the drivers on Main Street are given higher priority. Or maybe in this small town, certain drivers or vehicles are given the right of way, regardless of who stopped first. And so at this point in the ladder, not only are we making assumptions about our interpretation of the facts, but we also tend to make assumptions or judgments about the other person. Okay, now we're getting into dangerous territory, right? If you say something that differs from me, I now assess you as being right, wrong, smart, not smart, whatever and because you've selected, depressed because you've selected different facts than mine.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  29:35  
Right. So not only are the facts wrong, but the person is wrong also.

Marsha Clark  29:42  
That's right. And we don't differentiate that. And so now we are now fully into the dangerous stance, three rungs up our five rung ladder. We've left the solid footing of facts and we've now added layers of sorting through the data to interpreting it, to now making broader assumptions about it, resorting and combining the data in our minds to create a case, the case of how we are right and justified to believe what we believe, which naturally takes us to the Fourth Step on our ladder, which is drawing conclusions. So I think it's very telling that the Cambridge Dictionary defines conclusion as "the act of arranging or agreeing on something formally". So that's exactly what our brains are doing. As it walks up this ladder of inference, it's engaged in the act or process of arranging and agreeing on the data that you've selected and interpreted into a formal decision or belief. And it's an internal agreement you've made with yourself based on the data or the truths that you've collected.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  30:55  
This is just so interesting to me. And I can see how as we're moving up this ladder it feels to me like your inner core, your inner psyche is getting more and more committed, invested in whatever your opinion, your assessment, you know, each one of these steps as we're moving up out of the pool, you're just getting more and more invested.

Marsha Clark  31:25  
Well, and I think our ego plays in, you know, that's a part of this story as well. And so, you know, I'll go even further depending on which version of Chris Argyris' model that you look at, we're either at the top of our ladders, or we have one more step to go. So for those models that include an extra step beyond this drawing conclusions, it's called beliefs. And it's where we solidify our conclusions, and we believe them to be true, and therefore, they then deepen our belief system of whatever it is. And this may be the most dangerous impact of this step, and it's what we call a reflexive loop. And so this is where the loop from beliefs all the way back to our pool of data and our selection criteria, we begin to limit the types of data and sources we're willing to lend credibility to. Alright, so we are now narrowing. Our beliefs become a filter through which we collect data, which automatically narrows our thinking and the possibilities.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  32:30  
Yeah, this is definitely our own echo chamber. Everything, all of the input that I'm taking, I'm only extracting those pieces that are reinforcing my already honed beliefs.

Marsha Clark  32:47  
That's right. And you know, how we judge the person and if we don't agree with the data they're bringing that we make them wrong?

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  32:48  
Mm hmm.

Marsha Clark  32:55  
When I reaffirm my beliefs, I'm making me more right. Right? See how that...

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  33:00  
Exactly, yeah, and the ego that ties into that.

Marsha Clark  33:06  
I get real, like you say, invested, attached, and you know.  So it's absolutely the danger, right, that internal belief system that we are so right. And we can find ourselves dismissing data and people based on those beliefs that we've come up with. And I want to bring in again one of those favorite questions, because when I find myself, you know, being very self conscious about it at the top of my own ladder, and where I find myself thinking about critical or negative thoughts, those things about the other person, I ask myself, I'm at the top of the ladder, "What else could be true?". Because what we now know, when we understand this ladder is we made up that story, we can make up a different story. I mean that's how ambiguous this can be, you know, how many options we might have. And so I go back to the first rung of the ladder, and I gather more or consider different data. And then I proceed up each rung again, and more possibilities become available to me when I do that. And it's almost like when I use the, you know, putting on a pair of glasses with my own unique lenses, I put on a different pair of glasses, right? And so once we move past that step, by now you know is where we act. So after beliefs is we act based on our conclusions and or beliefs. And this is the only part of this entire process, and this is another really important point, where we see the other person's experience, right? It's in those actions because all those other things have been internal, select the data, source the data, interpret the data, make assumptions about the data, draw conclusions about the data, develop beliefs about the data, all happening inside of us. And it's not until they say something, or act a certain way, that now the differences begin to show up. And it's like, imagine this because for those of you who are visual out there, it's talking heads at the top of each of our ladders of inference.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  35:18  
Wow, that's a visual. But, you know, something else that's a visual, though, is, as you talk about the steps along the ladder, and moving up, how quickly those are happening mentally, like that's nanoseconds of new data in to me, not only making decision about it and how I'm going to behave or think about or my belief about it, but not only my belief, but saying something or doing something that shares and shows the world what my trajectory up that ladder has been.

Marsha Clark  36:03  
Yeah, and you know, I'll just add another piece to this is that when we don't say anything, but we just keep, we still hold on to whatever that belief is, having gone up the ladder to that point, we may not feel safe in being able to say it, but it doesn't mean it's not there. Mm hmm. And it can still get in the way, maybe not in that moment of exchanging conversation, but it'll show up, it'll show up somewhere, somehow. And so yes, it is nanoseconds and our brains process this so quickly. We all have a ladder. We're going up and down this ladder, many, many, many times a day, mostly unconsciously, it happens so fast. We don't know we have a ladder unless you're listening to this, and now you know that you do. And we don't know which step we're on. And we don't realize we're zipping up and down. And so it's not until we end up in that disagreement that the dangerous dance, that the dance becomes so dangerous. The danger is leading up to it, leading up to it, leading up to it. And now it's like the clash, right. And, you know, guess who usually is the culprit in that kind of scenario?

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  37:13  
Yeah, you know, it's probably rarely us that's the culprit, you know, or me, you know, I feel like for those who are listening, you know, the proverbial me. So, yeah.

Marsha Clark  37:32  
Yeah. So one of our first opportunities is we've got to recognize all this is going on. And you know, always the first step is to acknowledge what's what's really happening. And to get and be more effective and get better outcomes is to acknowledge that we have this ladder and take time to reflect on what your natural biases might be when it comes to recognizing and selecting data, you know, recognizing what end of the pool you're in or what part of the pool. And do you tend to gravitate and elevate certain data points and ignore or dismiss others, you know, in research and important practices what they call triangulating the data.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  38:14  
Yeah, I've heard of this before. And it's ironic that I've read something that specifically used that phrase this week. And basically, it's saying that you should get three sources of data before you draw a conclusion, triangulate. Is that correct?

Marsha Clark  38:32  
That's right. That's right. So triangulation means using more than, it's not just three sources of data, but using more than one method to collect data on topic. So it's that I can one, is to replicate any kind of study or research so I get the same results, and that is what three sources will get me. But the use of a variety of methods to collect the data on a similar topic or the same topic, and involving different samples, as well as methods is what really triangulates the data. So don't just keep going to the same sources all the time, or the same people all the time to get the data. Because if all you ever use is survey data to make your point, you're missing out on the potential to fully vet your idea and quite honestly, in some observations or experiments, as I said, to see if you can even replicate the information. So it's more than simply cross validating your data. It's intended to give you a more detailed and holistic picture of the situation that you're exploring.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  39:36  
What are some other suggestions for how we can manage our ladders and avoid that this dangerous dance with others?

Marsha Clark  39:46  
Well, that's certainly where we want to get to. So getting clear, first step is getting clear about our own data selection and interpretation so that steps one and two, rung one and two of the ladder can go such a long way in clearing up misunderstandings, and quite honestly full on conflicts or disagreements. And once we're clear ourselves, we can also more clearly articulate where our own conclusions are coming from, or where we developed these assumptions that we hold. And calling them out as conclusions and assumptions is helpful to us, you know, because it allows us to consider them for what they are. And you know, they're no longer facts. It's like, always differentiate between fact and opinion or fact and assumption because if I declare all of this is a fact, when in fact it's an opinion, then all of my facts become suspect. I mean, that's an important piece of this. And when that happens, you know, I've lost credibility, I've lost face, quite honestly. And then the other thing is to say, let me take you up my ladder. I often say, let's go back down to the, you know, you and I are talking, we've come to very different places when we take our action at the top of the ladder. And I go, wait a minute. I know Wendi and I want to go back down. What did you see? Here's what I saw. Well, how did you interpret that? Here's how I interpreted it. Well, you know, then we can begin to compare notes and go back up our ladders together with greater clarity and understanding.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  41:28  
What's the best way to do that?

Marsha Clark  41:30  
Yeah, so a couple of ways. And as I mentioned, one is pretty direct and the other is a little more subtle. Both work well, and it's, part of it is the situation and quite honestly, the level of relationship and trust that you have with the other person, how transparent you feel like you can be. I want to emphasize that in either approach, this is really important, your motivation is to better understand the other person's ladder, not to stress your point or make sure you get to declare yourself, quote, unquote, "right". Okay. And I'm going to say more about that in a moment. But the language that I find useful in this is, help me understand. So when you get to the top of the ladder, you say, "What else can be true?" And then you're talking with the person on the other side of the conversation, you say, "Help me understand. Let's go back down here, and let's go walk through this again." And you know, this is, show the model, I mean, if you want to be totally transparent, and the person has never been exposed to this, pull up the model. You know, I have a lot of my clients and leaders that I work with, who carry their tools with them. So I can pull it up on their phone, they can do whatever and explain that you'd like to share your thinking and how you selected the data, how you interpreted it, and so on. And then you ask them if they'd be willing to write down their recommendation in that same way. And, you know, for some, it's easier just to walk through their own thought processes, literally, in helping them understand how their brain is taking all this information in. And I've found it's, you know, easier to get someone to open up, if I don't mention at the beginning that the act of selecting data is based on a bias because that gets you, that word gets you off target. So I just ask them what data they used, and what was the basis of their recommendation, their choice. And if it's a high trust relationship that we've established I might ask them, you know, for their sources of data, so that I can better learn and expand my own thinking around that, and get a sense of just how wide or how deep or how much of a subject matter expert they might be, or how much data from the infinite pool they consider.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  43:46  
Yeah, I can see where this direct approach would work with some people, especially those people who I already have a positive and trusting relationship with.They're going to be much more willing to share with me where they got their data. And I can also see how it might get really uncomfortable early on if they start to realize that their argument or conclusion was based on faulty or limited data.

Marsha Clark  44:16  
Yeah, I've been outed, right? I mean, you know, my mother's brother's cousin's doctor told me or some words very, you know, many, many iterations. So this is the really important point. So the tool, this tool like all the tools can be used with good intention, right, to truly understand the other person's ladder and thinking around it, to create understanding and enhance relationships and build trust, or it can be used as a weapon to attack or judge or criticize or make wrong the other person.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  44:51  
Right, so in what way is it weapons?

Marsha Clark  44:54  
Yeah, its deeper. So it's like I'm trying to trap you, right. And I will tell you, when I've taught the phrase, "help me understand", there have been organizations and cultures that when they heard that coming, because it wasn't used with the intent of learning and understanding it was used with, give me enough data that I can whack you on the head with it, right? I mean, that's really been real. So I'm going to trap you or get you to admit that your data is faulty, or your thinking is flawed. And so we're already in trouble and the tool's being used in a way that it wasn't intended. And so going back to do I want to be right, or do I want to be effective is where this can play here as well. Am I trying to make you wrong? And, you know, one of my favorite quotes is that "Managerial courage comes in search of a better solution, not in destroying others". So I look at this ladder of inference as a way to display managerial courage in search of better outcomes. And that's the real point.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  45:59  
So being right, or being effective, can we not be both?

Marsha Clark  46:04  
Yes, yes we can be both. But it's when our efforts are so focused, when we put more emphasis on the right part, we can often lose our effectiveness. So there has to be the balance of that. And we can get so locked onto you know, advocating for the rightness of our data, or the sources of our data, even our interpretations of our assumptions that we lose sight of the fact that we can be both right and justified in our conclusions. And, you know, have you ever talked to those people who maybe you found out or discovered some flaws in their research or their data? Well, then what did they do? They say, Well, you need to talk to this other person, because they think I've got this, you know, and it's like, well you don't believe me, so then I'm gonna bring, you know, bring somebody else in, or I'm gonna send you something else that, you know, just was a third paragraph down from what they've already sent me, you know, in the same article, and the same flawed thinking. So, you know, there's such a need to be right in that situation.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  47:13  
So how would you use this model in a more subtle way?

Marsha Clark  47:18  
Yeah, so that was the direct way, right, we're gonna draw the model, we're gonna check it out. So it's the same fundamental process, except you wouldn't come out and call it a model and talk about the steps and that sort of thing. You would start by asking if the other person would be open to hearing your data, right? So you're modeling that you're willing to share what your data is, and where it came from. And you could then you know, continue to walk up your ladder simply by sharing the information at each step. Well, here's the data that I selected. And here's how I interpreted that data. And you can ask them, if you know, then you begin to look at the reciprocation, but I'm modeling it for them in the first way, just by saying, using the words but not saying it's a rung on the ladder or stepping them off kind of thing. And, you know, one other approach is also, you know, to repeat back to them, what you've heard is their data and sources and check that you're understanding it well, too, because you may have misunderstanding, they may have some additional data that, you know, they didn't think to share in the beginning. And it could be really important data. Have you ever said, "Oh, well, that's new. That changes everything in our conversation".  And, you know, by repeating their data and their sources back to them, you can help them identify any gaps that they might have. And, you know, even in asking questions, and again, in the spirit of truly understanding what they have collected, how they've interpreted it, what assumptions they've made, just getting clear about that makes more sense to you now because you learn something in the process.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  48:59  
Yeah, I remember how rich this model seemed to me the first time I saw it, and yet at the same time, it's so simplistic. It's, well of course this is how we think and make decisions. I mean, it just is right there staring you in the face. But it's not until you actually break it down to walk and mentally walk yourself up and down this ladder that you realize all the places where a conversation or a debate or a meeting, a decision making point, can just get derailed.

Marsha Clark  49:35  
Well, that's absolutely true. You kind of go well of course, I mean, that's the way our brains work. Well, no, everybody doesn't understand. I didn't understand it and I feel like I'm well read, not you know, a dummy. So and then I went, oh yeah, there it is. So it's one of the reasons that I love it so much. It's not rocket science and yet, it can be really challenging when we aren't aware of what we're doing and how we can get hung up, you know, on our ladders, other people's ladders, without really taking the time to understand what each of these steps are. It's like most things. Break it down into smaller parts and it becomes more manageable. And, but that's why it's the dangerous dance because we end up making it personal and we lose focus, and therefore we lose our overall effectiveness.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  50:28  
Hmm. Let's do a quick recap then for our listeners. The model that we've been talking about is called the Ladder of Inference. And it was developed by Chris Argyris. Did I butcher that? Yes?

Marsha Clark  50:43  
No, you got it right.  

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  50:44  
Argyris. Okay. The model was probably most widely known and used after it was included in Peter Senge, and we've heard of him before in previous podcasts, but Peter Senge's seminal business book "The Fifth Discipline".

Marsha Clark  51:01  
Yeah, it was written many years ago and that's where I first learned about it. And I've used it in many, basically every course I've taught since then. And so here are the highlights, you know maybe three aha's, if you will, from the model that as I've been teaching it over the years that people take away. First, is that the ladder even exists at all, and that we all have a ladder, and that we zip up and down it many, many, many times a day and we're oblivious to that. It's happening, but we're not conscious of it. And the second one is that what we pay attention to is the data that we choose to select in advance. And it tells us a lot about who we are and how we are. And especially when we take into consideration that our beliefs and our biases influence which data and which sources we prefer and trust. And third, that we can learn to slow down and reflect on where we are on our own ladders first, to challenge our own data and sources, our interpretations, our assumptions, conclusions, beliefs, and so on, as a means to better understand our own position, as well as to be able to more effectively articulate our position, so being really clear about on what it is based. And as we're doing that we can invite others along to share their journey up and down their ladders with the ultimate goal being to reach a better, more thoughtful, deliberate exploration of everyone's thinking.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  52:45  
Just so much to think about in this episode and the number of applications to this. I mean, we've been talking about this in the context of work and meetings, and thinking about it in relation to your boss and your peers, and your direct reports and all of that. But I'm also thinking about it in the context of family and friends and who you have  debates with about ideas or topics or the news or whatever.

Marsha Clark  53:15  
So that's right. It's exactly why we wanted to include this tool in our book. And it's especially around this topic of trust because it can be such a powerful way to build trust, and quite honestly, maybe look at conversations that you're having differently, and being more deliberate and respectful that other people have their own ladders as well. And it goes back to right versus effective. And, you know, are there ways that I can think about my position and their position and engage more, authentically engage more transparently and sincerely, right? I mean really that the sincerity comes in the part of I really do want to understand your side, your ladder.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  54:08  
Mm hmm. And that's where the power lies. Honestly it is in being open to that receptiveness. Well, Marsha, thank you so much for sharing this model and for helping us recognize how we all you know, start dangerous dances with other people all the time. And I know I already have a couple of conversations that I'm going to apply this to.

Marsha Clark  54:33  
Well, it's my pleasure, Wendi, and I'm guessing our listeners might have some opportunities too where they could begin to use it. And again, think first about yourself and get clear about that. And I just want to thank everyone for joining us as you are traveling on your learning journey and taking us with you. We're glad to be there as a passenger on your ride, and as you work towards achieving your most authentic, powerful leadership self.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  55:04  
Yes, yes. Well, thank you everybody for joining us today and again, we invite you to download, subscribe and share this podcast with other women in your life. Please visit Marsha's website at for links to all the tools that we talked about today. Subscribe to Marsha's email list, stay up to date on all of Marsha's activities. You can also find out more about Marsha and purchase her latest book, "Embracing Your Power" on the site as well as her social media.

Marsha Clark  55:39  
Yes, so thank you all and please feel free to let us know what you're thinking and if you have any questions around any of the things that we talk about on this podcast. We appreciate you downloading, subscribing, leaving us with your comments and letting us know what we're doing well and what you wish we would do differently. So get in touch with us. And as always, here's to women supporting women!

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