Understanding and Dealing with Misunderstandings

blogLet me use the words of the ‘Cookie Thief’ poem by Valerie Cox, I recite at trainings and the ‘ladder of inference’ developed by Coghlan & Brannick (2014, p.31) to attempt to figure out why we have misunderstandings. I will interrupt the poem and use the seven steps of the ‘ladder of inference’ model during the interludes in this attempt.

 A woman was waiting at an airport one night, with several long hours before her flight. She hunted for a book in the airport shops, bought a bag of cookies and found a place to drop.

 She was engrossed in her book but happened to see, that the man sitting beside her, as bold as could be. . .grabbed a cookie or two from the bag in between, which she tried to ignore to avoid a scene.

This section of the poem helps understand the first step in the ladder of inference – Observe Data. She observes the man besides her eating her cookies. That leads to the second step – Select Data. She selected the observed data of him taking cookies from the bag. That leads to the third step – Add Meaning. She added meaning to this incident based on the knowledge that she had purchased a bag of cookies and the man next to him was taking from the bag of cookies between, inferring that he was steeling from him. This leads to the fourth step – Make Assumptions. She assumes that bag of cookies were what she had purchased. This leads to the fifth step – Draw Conclusions. She concluded that he was steeling her cookies. Let’s return to the poem.

So she munched the cookies and watched the clock, as the gutsy cookie thief diminished her stock. She was getting more irritated as the minutes ticked by, thinking, “If I wasn’t so nice, I would blacken his eye.”

The above section illustrates the sixth step – Adopt Beliefs. She believed that he was steeling her cookies. The belief was so strong that she was irritated and wanted to blacken his eye. Lets return to the poem and see what happens next.

With each cookie she took, he took one too, when only one was left, she wondered what he would do. With a smile on his face, and a nervous laugh, he took the last cookie and broke it in half.

He offered her half, as he ate the other, she snatched it from him and thought… oooh, brother. This guy has some nerve and he’s also rude, why he didn’t even show any gratitude!

His action makes her add more meaning, make assumptions and adopt belief that he is also rude and ungrateful. This leads to the seventh step – Take Actions. She snatches it from him to show her anger because of the belief he had adopted about him. Lets return to the poem and see where this leads.

She had never known when she had been so galled, and sighed with relief when her flight was called. She gathered her belongings and headed to the gate, refusing to look back at the thieving ingrate.

Her action continues to be governed by the belief she adopted about him.

She boarded the plane, and sank in her seat, then she sought her book, which was almost complete. As she reached in her baggage, she gasped with surprise, there was her bag of cookies, in front of her eyes.

Her action of seeking her book that was almost complete may or many not have been driven by the belief she adopted. She could have sought it to calm her nerves of she wanted to complete the book. But this action takes her back to the beginning of the ladder of inference. This may or may not be through the feedback loop. She observes new data, her bag of cookies are in her bag. She quickly selects data of what she observed and the previous incident with the man whom she thought was the cookie thief and make meaning that he was not taking cookies from her bag. So lets return to the last part of the poem.

If mine are here, she moaned in despair, the others were his, and he tried to share. Too late to apologize, she realized with grief, that she was the rude one, the ingrate, the thief.

She makes an assumption that the other bag was his and concluded that he tried to share. She adopts a new belief that she was the rude one, the ingrate, the thief. Perhaps the action she might take as a result is to be careful about drawing conclusion in the future.

I recommend you use this writing to reflect on actions you have taken and work backward down the ladder of inference to see if they might have been different if beliefs adopted, conclusions drawn, assumptions made, meaning added, data selected and data observed were different. Perhaps this can lead to less misunderstanding, better relationships, better decisions, more success and more happiness.


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