Mental Models – Understanding The Self

Image result for mental models
Image result for mental models

(Senge, The Art and Practice of Learning Organization, 1st Edition, 174):

Mental models are deeply ingrained or held pictures (images, assumptions, generalizations or abstractions based on data) that each of us holds in our mind that influences how we understand the world, our work, our families, and so on and how we take actions.

Very often, we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effects they have on our behaviour, particularly in limiting us to familiar ways of thinking.  That is why, the discipline of managing mental models – surfacing, testing and improving our internal pictures of how the world works – promises to be a major breakthrough for building learning organizations.


Together we explore the work by Chris Argyris which helps us throw light on why this happens and consciously leads us to a place where we may work with mental models more rigorously.

With that awareness, we begin to learn that the discipline of working with mental model starts with turning the mirror inward; learning to unearth our internal pictures (left hand column and ladder of inference) of the world, to bring them to the surface and hold them rigorously to scrutiny.  It also includes the ability to carry on “learningful” conversations that balance inquiry and advocacy, where people expose their own thinking effectively and make that thinking open to the influence of others, engendering values of openness and love of truth as a community in the process.

(Senge, Rick Ross, Fieldbook, 242):

Our ability to achieve the results we truly desire is typically eroded when we hold thoughts and feelings that:

  • Our beliefs are the truth
  • The truth is obvious
  • Our beliefs are based on real data
  • The data we select are the real data

In today’s fast-moving world, we are under pressure to act swiftly, rather than spend time understanding the facts and reasoning things through.  Not only can this lead to incorrect conclusions, it can also cause conflict with others who may have drawn different conclusions.



A man was found dead in the desert.  Near him was a package.  If he had opened the package, he would not have died.  What was in the package?


  • What do you think happened?  Why did it happen?
  • In what way, does this exercise help us better understand the definition of mental models?
  • What questions, if asked, would have led us to the answer?

Learning to unearth our internal pictures is not easy.  Very often we are not aware they exist or how we may locate them and since for many of us they happened a long time ago, we don’t usually remember them.

The ladder of inference is a tool, first developed by Chris Argyris, that provides a structured way for us to reason as to why we don’t usually remember where our deepest attitudes or deep-seated behaviours came from.  These may include fear of the unknown or of something new.  Fear of trusting persons.  Fear of believing someone other than themselves would look out for their best interests.  The data is long lost to memory, after years of inferential leap.  Before long, we come to think of our longstanding assumptions as data, but we are several steps removed from data.


We can’t live our life without adding meaning or drawing conclusions but we can improve our communication through reflection and using the “Ladder of Inference” in three ways:

  1. Becoming more aware of your own thinking and reasoning aka reflection.
  2. Making your thinking and reasoning more visible to others aka advocacy.
  3. Inquiring into other’s thinking and reasoning aka inquiry.

We ensure we make sure our actions and decisions are founded on reality. Likewise, when we accept or challenge other people’s conclusions, we need to be confident that their reasoning, and yours, is firmly based on accurate facts.  The “Ladder of Inference” can help us to achieve this.

The Ladder of Inference describes the automatic thinking process that we all go through, usually without even realizing it, to get from a fact to a decision or action. The thinking stages can be seen as rungs on a ladder and are shown below:


Starting at the bottom of the ladder, we have data and facts. From there:

  • We select some portion of the data/facts based on our beliefs and prior experience;
  • We interpret meaning;
  • We apply existing assumptions (sometimes without considering them);
  • We draw conclusions based on interpreted facts and our assumptions;
  • We develop beliefs based on these conclusions;
  • We take actions that seem “right” because they are based on what we believe.

These automatic reflexes can create a vicious circle because our beliefs have a big effect on how we view reality, and can they lead us to ignore facts altogether. Soon we are literally jumping to conclusions; missing facts and skipping steps in the reasoning process.

“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” – Anais Nin

Rick Ross
Excerpt from The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook. Copyright 1994 by Peter M. Senge, Art Kleiner, Charlotte Roberts, Richard B. Ross, and Bryan J. Smith. Reprinted with permission.

We live in a world of self-generating beliefs which remain largely untested.

We adopt those beliefs because they are based on conclusions, which are inferred from what we observe, plus our past experience.  Our ability to achieve the results we truly desire is eroded by our feelings that:
 Our beliefs are the truth.
 The truth is obvious.
 Our beliefs are based on real data.
 The data we select are the real data.

For example, I am standing before the executive team, making a presentation. They all seem engaged and alert, except for Larry, at the end of the table, who seems bored out of his mind.  He turns his dark, morose eyes away from me and puts his hand to his mouth.  He doesn’t ask any
questions until I’m almost done when he breaks in: “I think we should ask for a full report.” In this culture, that typically means, “Let’s move on.”

Everyone starts to shuffle their papers and put their notes away. Larry obviously thinks that I’m incompetent — which is a shame because these ideas are exactly what his department needs. Now that I think of it, he’s never liked my ideas.  Clearly, Larry is a power-hungry jerk.  By the time I’ve returned to my seat, I’ve made a decision: I’m not going to include
anything in my report that Larry can use. He wouldn’t read it, or, worse still, he’d just use it against me.  It’s too bad I have an enemy who’s so prominent in the company.

In those few seconds before I take my seat, I have climbed up what Chris Argyris calls a “ladder of inference,” — a common mental pathway of increasing abstraction, often leading to misguided beliefs:
 I started with the observable data: Larry’s comment, which is so self- evident that it would
show up on a videotape recorder . . .
 . . . I selected some details about Larry’s behaviour: his glance away from me and apparent
yawn. (I didn’t notice him listening intently one moment before) . . .
 . . . I added some meanings of my own, based on the culture around me (that Larry wanted
me to finish up) . . .
 . . . I moved rapidly up to assumptions about Larry’s current state (he’s bored) . . .
 . . . and I concluded that Larry, in general, thinks I’m incompetent. In fact, I now believe that
Larry (and probably everyone whom I associate with Larry) is dangerously opposed to me . . .
 . . . thus, as I reach the top of the ladder, I’m plotting against him.

It all seems so reasonable, and it happens so quickly, that I’m not even aware I’ve done it. Moreover, all the rungs of the ladder take place in my head.  The only parts visible to anyone else are the directly observable data at the bottom, and my own decision to take action at the top. The rest of the trip, the ladder where I spend most of my time, is unseen, unquestioned, not considered fit for discussion, and enormously abstract. (These leaps up the ladder are sometimes called “leaps of abstraction.”)

I’ve probably leapt up that ladder of inference many times before. The more I believe that Larry is an evil guy, the more I reinforce my tendency to notice his malevolent behaviour in the future.  This phenomenon is known as the “reflexive loop”: our beliefs influence what data we select next time. And there is a counterpart reflexive loop in Larry’s mind: as he reacts to my strangely antagonistic behaviour, he’s probably jumping up some rungs on his own ladder.  For no apparent reason, before too long, we could find ourselves becoming bitter enemies.

Larry might indeed have been bored by my presentation — or he might have been eager to read the report on paper.  He might think I’m incompetent, he might be shy, or he might be afraid to embarrass me.  More likely than not, he has inferred that I think he’s incompetent. We can’t know until we find a way to check our conclusions.

Unfortunately, assumptions and conclusions are particularly difficult to test.  For instance, suppose I wanted to find out if Larry really thought I was incompetent.  I would have to pull him aside and ask him, “Larry, do you think I’m an idiot?” Even if I could find a way to phrase the question, how could I believe the answer? Would I answer him honestly? No, I’d tell him I thought he was a terrific colleague, while privately thinking worse of him for asking me.

Now imagine me, Larry, and three others in a senior management team, with our untested assumptions and beliefs. When we meet to deal with a concrete problem, the air is filled with misunderstandings, communication breakdowns, and feeble compromises. Thus, while our individual
IQs average 140, our team has a collective IQ of 85.

The ladder of inference explains why most people don’t usually remember where their deepest attitudes came from. The data is long since lost to memory, after years of inferential leaps.

Using the Ladder of Inference

You can’t live your life without adding meaning or drawing conclusions. It would be an inefficient, tedious way to live. But you can improve your communications through reflection, and by using the ladder of inference in three ways:
 Becoming more aware of your own thinking and reasoning (reflection);
 Making your thinking and reasoning more visible to others (advocacy);
 Inquiring into others’ thinking and reasoning (inquiry).

Once Larry and I understand the concepts behind the “ladder of inference,” we have a safe way to stop a conversation in its tracks and ask several questions:
 What is the observable data behind that statement?
 Does everyone agree on what the data is?
 Can you run me through your reasoning?
 How did we get from that data to these abstract assumptions?
 When you said “[your inference],” did you mean “[my interpretation of it]”?

I can ask for data in an open-ended way: “Larry, what was your reaction to this presentation?” I can test my assumptions: “Larry, are you bored?” Or I can simply test the observable data: “You’ve been quiet, Larry.” To which he might reply: “Yeah, I’m taking notes; I love this stuff.”

Note that I don’t say, “Larry, I think you’ve moved way up the ladder of inference.  Here’s what you need to do to get down.” The point of this method is not to nail Larry (or even to diagnose Larry), but to make our thinking processes visible, to see what the differences are in our perceptions and what we have in common. (You might say, “I notice I’m moving up the ladder of inference, and maybe we all are. What’s the data here?”)

This type of conversation is not easy. For example, as Chris Argyris cautions people, when a fact seems especially self-evident, be careful.  If your manner suggests that it must be equally self-evident to everyone else, you may cut off the chance to test it.  A fact, no matter how obvious it seems, isn’t really substantiated until it’s verified independently — by more than one person’s observation, or by a technological record (a tape recording or photograph).

Embedded in team practice, the ladder becomes a very healthy tool. There’s something exhilarating about showing other people the links of your reasoning.  They may or may not agree with you, but they can see how you got there. And you’re often surprised yourself to see how you got there, once you trace out the links.

By using the Ladder of Inference, we can learn to get back to the facts and use our beliefs and experiences to positively affect outcomes, rather than allowing them to narrow our field of judgment. Following this step-by-step reasoning can lead us to better results and shared conclusions thus avoiding unnecessary mistakes and conflict.

The Ladder of Inference can be used at any of stage of our thinking process. To help navigate the ladder, here are some helpful questions to ask yourself:

  • Is this the “right” conclusion?
  • Why am I making these assumptions?
  • Why do I think this is the “right” thing to do?
  • Is this really based on all the facts?
  • Why does he/she believe that?

From your current “rung,” analyze your reasoning by working back down the ladder. This will help you trace the facts and reality that you are actually working with.
 At each stage, ask yourself what you are thinking and why. As you analyze each step, you may need to adjust your reasoning. For example, you may need to change some assumption or extend the field of data you have selected.

“Beliefs can’t change facts.  Facts, however, should change your beliefs.” – Author unknown

The following questions help you work backwards (coming down the ladder, starting at the top):

  • Why have I chosen this course of action? Are there other actions I should have considered?
  • What belief lead to that action? Was it well-founded?
  • Why did I draw that conclusion? Is the conclusion sound?
  • What am I assuming, and why? Are my assumptions valid?
  • What data have I chosen to use and why? Have I selected data rigorously?
  • What are the real facts that I should be using? Are there other facts I should consider?

When you are working through your reasoning, look out for rungs that you tend to jump – we all have at least one or two that we jump often.

Do you tend to make assumptions too easily? Do you tend to select only part of the data? Note your tendencies so that you can learn to work that rung of reasoning with extra care in the future.

With a new sense of reasoning and perhaps a wider field of data and more considered assumptions, you can now work forwards again step-by-step up the rungs of the ladder.


Twelve Angry Men:

While watching this 8-minute clip try being an observer of conversations:

An advanced exercise on the Ladder of Inference:

  • Where on the ladder were the speakers?
  • When someone gave data what was its effect on the group/conversation?
  • When someone operates at the level of beliefs, assumptions, conclusions, what was the effect? (give data)
  • Look for instances of confirmation bias. What do you think were the beliefs that influenced the speaker?

 Short Video:  Learning to Become Thinkers.  Click here.


CONTEXT:  ____________________________________________

Questions and conversations consistent with my beliefs / frames
(“I am not aware of my mental model”):

I take actions:

Questions and conversations seeking clarifications beyond my beliefs / frames (“I am aware of my mental model”):

I adopt beliefs:



I draw conclusions:


I make assumptions:


I add meaning:


I select data:






Questions and conversations consistent with my beliefs / frames (“I am not aware of my mental model”):I take actions:



Questions and conversations seeking clarifications beyond my beliefs / frames (“I am aware of my mental model”):
What do you need to learn / do to do your job better?I adopt beliefs:



What is making it difficult for us to prevent another urgent file from being created?
What skills are lacking in our officers that is making this target difficult to achieve for them?I draw conclusions:



Is there anything we are doing today that is making the problem worse?
 I make assumptions:



What is making it difficult for us to have a conversa-tion about it and find the root of the problem?
 I add meaning:



 I select data:












The less LOIs are recognised the more entrenched the system archetypes become.


Here is Chris Argyris’ backstory that has led us to what we are doing here today. Without this story, the reason that brought us together would not have risen.

His Biography:

Born into a family of Greek immigrants to the United States in Newark, New Jersey, Argyris (pronounced AHR-JUR-ris) grew up in Irvington, New Jersey and Athens, Greece.[3] In World War II he served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps.[4] 

After his service, he studied psychology at Clark University, where he met Kurt Lewin. He obtained his MA in 1947 and joined the Kansas University, where he obtained his MSc in Psychology and Economics in 1949. In 1951 received his PhD from Cornell University, with a thesis on the behaviour in organizations under the supervision of William F. Whyte.

In 1951 Argyris started his academic career at Yale University as part of the Yale Labor and Management Center where he worked under its director and an early influence, E. Wight Bakke.[5] At Yale, he subsequently became appointed Professor of Management Science. In 1971 he moved to Harvard University, where he was Professor of Education and Organizational Behavior, until his retirement. Argyris was active as director of the consulting firm Monitor in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Chris Argyris received an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Toronto in 2006. He also received a Doctor of Science award from Yale University in 2011.[6]

He held the position of “Thought Leader” at Monitor Group.[2] Argyris, like Richard BeckhardEdgar Schein and Warren Bennis,[citation needed] is known as a co-founder of organization development and known for seminal work on learning organizations.

The Backstory

Well, here it is.

“We may speak different words.  But the theory behind our actions are the same all over the world about how to handle people nicely.  We then by-pass the threat posed by the theory.  We cover up the threat.  And then we cover up that we cover up.  The British call it “being civilized.” The French say, as I recall, “being concerned.”  Well, when I study, what is it that they say and do?.  – Argyris.

There are only two mindsets that infiltrate an organization.  “Control” or “Learning”  If learning dominates, then we create all the different aspects that we call the Learning Organization.  The books and references that we have are all of the hows and tools we use to do it.  –  Peter Senge

Chris Argyris was an author and leadership expert whose essay titled Teaching Smart People How to Learn presents us with timely insights into why some of the smartest, most self-motivated and result-oriented people often struggle with assessing their own performance.

Argyris’ insights are the results corollary to many years of research among business sector consultants in some of the top firms in the country.  He argues that although his research subjects hailed from the four greatest business schools in America, most struggled with learning from failure because of defensive reasoning that arises from a general fear of feeling vulnerable and incompetent.

The author finds that some of the smartest people are great at problem-solving by identifying the problem and taking direct action.  This type of learning comes from years of academic study and applying the learned principles to solve real-world problems.  Argyris defends that this approach forms an “espoused” theory of action that is often inconsistent with what he labels as a “theory-in-use”.

Argyris argues that everyone develops a theory of action—a set of rules that individuals use to design and implement their own behaviour as well as to understand the behaviour of others.  Usually, these theories of actions become so taken for granted that people don’t even realize they are using them.  Nonetheless, the actual theory-in-use is contradictory.  People consistently act inconsistently, unaware of the contradiction between their espoused theory and their theory-in-use, between THE WAY WE THINK WE ARE ACTING AND THE WAY WE REALLY ACT.

This find is extremely important for several reasons. First, it identifies a general human propensity towards the idealization of a certain applaudable behaviour.  Secondly, it finds that some of the brightest and most objective thinkers are capable of contradictory behaviors between their espoused theory and the way they really act when their core competency is challenged.  Thirdly and most importantly, it identifies that the fixation on the espoused theory hinders individuals from learning during times that they may need it the most.  Challenging the espoused theory leads individuals down a path of defensive reasoning and doomed thinking, causing them to become hypercritical, aversive and accusative.

A pastor and church leader shares his insight as a result of doing a fair amount of self-reflection.  Here is his example.

I once experienced a small crisis when attempting to provide a formative assessment of a sermon a co-pastor recently preached. What I intended to be a constructive and formative conversation suddenly turned into a defensive and accusative argument. It finally ended with my fellow co-pastor ironically exclaiming, “not all of us are theologians with Ph.Ds.”

What I realized is that the formative assessment I attempted to model was something completely unprecedented and not a part of our leadership culture at church. Because it was unprecedented, it was interpreted as a summative assessment saying, “this is not good enough, you need to do better.”

Additionally, I realized that I hadn’t submitted myself to the same sermon assessment I was attempting to model. I had never given my fellow pastors and staff members the opportunity to express how I could become a better preacher. Neither had I previously expressed any intent in providing or receiving formative assessments regarding our Sunday meetings.  My espoused theory of action was completely inconsistent with my theory-in-use.

Since the episode with my fellow co-pastor, my approach has been to incorporate a segment to our weekly staff meetings where we assess everything about our Sunday gathering, including the sermon content and preacher.

Chris Argyris’ research among mid-level consultants caused him to look more deeply into how they related to peers and senior management when confronted with the risk of failure.  He found that defensive reasoning was consistent throughout the strati of the organization.  He then asks, How can an organization begin to turn this situation around, to teach its members how to reason productively?  The first step is for managers at the top to examine critically and change their own theories-in-use.  Until senior managers become aware of how they reason defensively and the counterproductive consequences that result, there will be little real progress.  Any change activity is likely to be just a fad.


  • Beliefs and espoused theories (what we say we believe in) vary widely
  • Theories-in-use do not vary
  • The theory-in-use that is most prevalent is called Model 1 or otherwise called unilateral action mode
  • The use of Model 1 is consistent, regardless of gender, race, culture, education, wealth and type of organization.
  • The purpose of generating these models is to help people become aware of the ineffectiveness of their theories-in-use and to help them learn to adopt if they choose, a more effective alternative theory.
  • Model 1 behaviour is made up of four basic values people hold and influence their behaviour.


  1. Be in unilateral control and achieve the purpose as I perceive them.
  2. Strive to win; Maximizing winning, minimizing losing.
  3. De-emphasize emotional content; Suppress mine and others’ emotions and feelings.
  4. Emphasize the intellectual and rational.




Y, a senior executive, must communicate to X, an older officer that his performance during the past five years has fallen below standard.  Y knows that the difficulty of his task is compounded by the fact that X believes his performance has topped off because of the way the firm has dealt with him.

We give here the transcript of several key sentences that Y used in talking with X, sentences that represent the range of meanings that Y communicated to X during their session:

  1. X, your performance is not up to standard (and moreover …)
  2. You seem to be carrying a chip on your shoulder.
  3. It appears to me that this has affected your performance in a number of ways.  I have heard words like lethargy, uncommitted, and disinterested used by others in describing your recent performance.
  4. Our senior professionals cannot have those characteristics.
  5. Let’s discuss your feelings about your performance.
  6. X, I know you want to talk about the injustices that you believe have been perpetrated on you in the past.  The problem is that I am not discussing something that happened several years ago.  Nothing constructive will come from it.  It’s behind us.
  7. I want to talk about you today and about your future in our system.

Answer three questions:

  • How effective do you believe Y was in dealing with X?
  • Assume that Y came to you and said, “How well did you think I dealt with X?” In answering the question, assume Y wanted to learn.  What would you tell him?  Consider:
    • Y’s motives
    • Y’s action strategies
    • Y’s impact on X and in supporting learning
  • What advice would you give Y to make his performance with X more effective?

Article: Advice (sigh!) on Advice-Givers

By David Stamps
Publication: Training
Date: Saturday, January 1 2000

Most professional advice is flawed and ultimately counterproductive, argues Chris

It’s not that Chris Argyris bears ill will toward Stephen Covey or John Kotter or any of the other big-name consultants and management gurus whose recommendations he critiques in the opening pages of his newest book: “Flawed Advice and the Management Trap: How Managers Can Know When They’re Getting Good Advice and When They’re Not” (to be published this month by Oxford University Press).

Argyris, the James Bryant Conant Professor of Education and Organizational Behavior at Harvard’s graduate school of business and longtime OD guru himself in his role as a director with the Boston-based Monitor Co. Inc., confesses that he actually enjoys reading Covey. “One certainly can’t fault his principles, which emphasize the importance of character and responsibility,” he says.  As for Kotter, the author of a number of books including What Leaders Really Do and Leading Change, “he is full of some very fine advice,” Argyris concedes.  It’s just that much of the expert advice rendered by these and other professional advice-givers is not “actionable,” he contends.  Or, rather, it’s disconnected from the types of actions most professional managers have taught themselves to execute effectively in today’s solve-the-problem, get-things-done-quickly world of work.

“For advice to be helpful,” Argyris writes, “it must specify the intended outcomes or objectives to be produced, the sequence of actions required to produce them, the actions required to monitor and test for any errors or mismatches, and the actions required to correct such errors and mismatches.” Most professional advice simply fails to meet these standards, he says.

Then there is the added problem of “skilled unawareness”—to use one of Argyris’ trademark terms that prevents us from seeing the gaps and inconsistencies that make most of what passes for professional wisdom ultimately ineffective (more on that below). Moreover, both the people who buy business books and the authors who write them suffer from the same practised unawareness that prevents us from recognizing the shortcomings of bad advice.

Would we be better off without a cadre of professional advice-givers?

“Let’s turn that question around,” Argyris suggests, speaking in a recent telephone interview. “Should we have advice-givers? The answer is yes because you are always going to have advice-givers, whether they are outsiders, insiders or line managers.”

Nor is all expert advice unactionable, he says. The more routine the problem, the more likely the advice will work, as long as people know how to implement it. Even implementing abstract advice on routine issues isn’t too difficult, because people will figure out how to fill in the gaps. “But the moment you get to anything that’s not routine, what I call the creative transformation, most advice doesn’t work,” he says. “And even when the advice appears to work, its effects usually don’t last.”

In his latest book, Argyris has set out to describe a set of concepts and skills that allow us to recognize what effective advice is, which means we also need to be able to recognize the gaps and inconsistencies inherent in flawed advice. What are these gaps and inconsistencies? Readers of Argyris’ previous books and articles will recognize a number of concepts and terms that he’s developed and refined over the past 20 years. Among them, the “espoused theories” of behaviour that all humans possess and the “Model I theories-in-use” behaviors, which are often at odds with our espoused theories, but which we all develop early on because we learn that they are very effective at getting the job done.

The problem is, these behaviors produce the kinds of “defensive routines” that Argyris has railed against for much of his career. And yet, defensive routines such as blaming failures on others, adopting a cynical attitude toward any attempt to change things still appear to be pandemic, primarily because we all work so fiendishly hard in our own clever ways to keep it that way. That’s why Argyris uses the term “skilled unawareness,” which is not just a knowledge gap or a hole in our heads but an internalized way of making sure we don’t recognize the routines we are trapped in.

“Model I (behaviour) and the defensive reasoning on which it is based,” he writes, “are due to skill, not the lack of it.” By which he means our skilled use of “theories-in-use” behaviours, which produce the organizational defensive routines that “result in a systematic, self-fueling set of actions that inhibit learning….”

And not just any learning, but especially the kinds of “Model II, double-loop learning” that is the very thing we need to see our way out of these binds. To simplify Argyris’ famous concept of single vs. double-loop learning: Single loop is getting better at what we already know how to do; double-loop starts with asking if we are doing the right thing, then figuring out what has to happen in order for us to break out of the routine.

Writes Argyris: “In a Model II environment, the action theory-in-use helps indeed, requires mistaken assumptions to be reformulated, incongruities reconciled, incompatibilities resolved, vagueness specified, untestable notions made testable, scattered information brought together into meaningful patterns, and previously withheld information shared. These are the kinds of conditions that favour productive dialogue, not those that trigger, as with Model I, inhibitory loops.”

Or, in the case of proffered advice, the conditions that let us take a good hard look at what the experts are espousing and ask: Do these guys really know what they are talking about? Can this plan really be carried out?

Our “skilled incompetence” notwithstanding, you’d think we’d have learned by now to sort the good advice from the bad, since there’s certainly no shortage of opportunities to practice. Last year nearly 2,000 management books were published in the United States (a factoid gleaned from—where else?a recently published business management book). And now Chris Argyris has written yet another one to kick off the new year. But to his credit, he doesn’t claim to have the magic answer to all our needs, just a way of winnowing the good advice from the bad.


The antidote to reactive behaviour is reflective action.  Reflecting-in-action is the paradoxical ability to step outside the immediate events while still in them.  It involves examining what we are currently doing and the assumption that lead us to do it.  In noticing how we have been framing a situation we can see possibilities for framing, opening creative options for action.  Reflecting-in-action, and especially frame-reflective conversation is crucial to making headway on organizational issues rooted in the clashing frames held and taken for granted by contending parties.

Double-Loop Learning

Reflective conversation is mutual reflective-in-action.  By engaging with others who think differently and who do not have the same blind spots we can generate fundamentally new options.  Reflective conversation enables groups to sustain inquiry into contentious issues to the point that genuine progress can occur.

Attribution:  ActionDesign (see


  1. What is the result that concerns us? Describe concretely what is happening that is problematic.
  2. RE-ACTING: What actions produced this result? It is crucial to get concrete descriptions of what key players actually say and do, as if you were creating dialogue for play.
    Once you collect the data, start at a point where people seem stuck:
  • Paraphrase the logic in each person’s view;
  • Assess the quality of advocacy. Any data or reasoning steps missing?
  • Assess the quality of inquiry. Do people probe thinking and encourage challenge?
  • Are important views censored from the public conversation.
  1. RE-FRAMING: How is each party framing the situation such that they act as they do? Suppose that each player understands him- or herself to be acting sensibly and doing the right thing.  What assumptions does each make about self, others, their purpose?
  2. RE-DESIGNING: “What would prevent you from …?” “What led you to …?” Inquire into contextual factors, barriers and constraints as you test alternative ways of framing and acting.  [Model II is active here!]
  3. Reframe, recraft and try it out. When you see a possibly better way of framing and acting in the situation, craft the actual words one might say to act on the new framing.  Try it out by stating those actual words and inviting others to roleplay possible responses.  For example, “What if you were to say ‘ ….’  How might she respond?  What might she say?”

Getting on the pathways: Reflecting publicly on how we produce undesired results.  What did we do or say, and what were we thinking and feeling?


Left-hand/right-hand column cases are powerful and versatile learning technology.

  • By writing a case describing an actual situation you focus your learning on what is most important and relevant to you.
  • Reconstructing what you and others said in the right-hand column helps make the learning actionable. Reconstructing your thoughts and feelings in the left-hand column makes it possible to reflect on your reasoning and to see opportunities to reframe the situation.
  • This page describes how to write a left-hand/right-hand column case for use in an Action Design workshop. The quality of your case will have a major impact on what you learn.
  • The best cases focus on moments that illustrate a key theme, issue, or recurring difficulty that you would like to learn to handle more effectively. It usually takes about an hour to write a case.

Writing a Left-Hand Column:

  • Think of an episode that illustrates a difficult or challenging issue in your work.  Please choose something in which you were personally involved and which you would like to learn to handle as productively as possible.  State what the challenge was (e.g., creating a cross-functional culture in a business team).
  • Please describe the context briefly:  who was there, the purpose of the encounter, what had just happened.  Make up the names if you wish.
  • Describe what actually happened by reconstructing key moments in the conversation.  Divide your paper into two columns as shown in the attached example.  Some word processing programs have a table command that is useful for creating this format. Or you can download a case template in Word.
  • On the right-hand side of the page, write what you and others actually said.  It is not important to remember the exact words spoken.  Your best recollection will be fine.  It is essential, however, that you write dialogue, as if from a play.
  • On the left hand side of the page, write down any thoughts and feelings that you had at the time and did not say.
  • Please note any concerns or puzzles that still linger about the incident.  Write down also what help you would like from others when we discuss the case.


  • Notice your reactions and get curious: Remember that you are  understanding and reacting to others from your perspective, which is shaped by your context and mental models.  Notice what you are feeling and get curious about your reactions.  You might say to yourself: “I’m really upset.  This may be more about me.  What about this is upsetting for me?”
  • Suspend quick judgments: The other person may be making an error.  Your idea may be the better one.  However, suspend quick judgments until you have the information you need to make a useful, accurate assessment.
  • Assume others may have logic, data or concerns you don’t understand: Rather than quickly assume others are wrong, you could think to yourself:  “She may see this differently because she is aware of something I don’t yet understand.”
  • Paraphrase the logic to yourself: Once you are aware of the data you have selected, it is useful (silently) to put into your own words what the person is saying or doing.  Try to capture the key logic in their view.  Ask yourself: “How did I hear what they said? What are the apparent steps in their thinking?”
  • Notice whether any data or reasoning is missing: Use the Ladder of Inference to help you see if data or reasoning missing that would help you understand how they reached their conclusions.  For example, rather than think to yourself, “she is being so resistant!” you might think, “She says that hiring temporary workers will make our problems worse, but she hasn’t said what leads her to think so.”
  • Give yourself instructions for further learning: For example, tell yourself, “I need to ask her what she has seen or heard, or what she imagines will happen, that lead her to be concerned.”  “I need to ask if I am doing anything that may contribute to this impasse.”


Attribution to Action Design

Our thinking is skilled (automatic, a habit).  Our skill at reasoning is both essential and gets us in trouble.  We jump to the top of the Ladder of Inference without realizing it.

  • We tacitly register some data and ignore other data
  • We don’t realize we are making interpretation (moving up the ladder)
  • Our conclusions feel obvious, so we see no need to test our views
  • We see data that confirms our perspective and miss data that does not.

The implications are:

  •  By climbing the ladder of Inference and not testing our views, we create misunderstandings.
  • When people disagree, they often hurl conclusions at each other from the tops of their respective ladders.
  • This makes it hard to resolve differences and learn from each other.

So we need to learn to:

  • Explain and test our views and assumptions
  • Probe others’ thinking with high-quality questions
  • Develop a shared understanding of the differences in order to make better decisions


Attribution to Action Design

Questions that Limit LearningQuestions that Further Learning
Don’t you agreeIn what ways is your view different?
Do others feel that way too?In what ways do others feel differently?
Do you understand what I’m trying to say?What’s your reaction to what I’m trying to say?
Did you do that because of X, or because of Y or because of Z?What led you to that?
Why don’t you just try what I’m suggesting?What about my idea raises doubts for you?
Why don’t you just tell me?What prevented you from telling me?  Did I say or do something that made it difficult?

The value of high quality inquiry is that it:

  • Slows the pace of a conversation while increasing the rate of learning
  • Maintains the focus of the conversation, reducing tangents
  • Increases understanding, lowering the risk of communication
  • Enables discovery and correction of mistakes (particularly your own)
  • Encourages the expression of diverse opinions, doubts and concerns
  • Generates new information for more informed choice and increased commitment
  • Facilitates shifts in mindset and the adoption of new perspectives.

“A second sensibility of chaos theory is that the pursuit of a stable, balanced life of equilibrium is not possible.  Chaos science says you can’t get to a truly creative or transformative solution unless you arc willing to walk through chaos, sit with your confusion for a while, and feel overwhelmed and uncertain.  Unless you tolerate moments of deep, personal confusion, you can’t change your mental models.  Systems are most capable of responding to change at the edge of chaos; therefore, if we don’t become confident that chaos is a useful state to be in occasionally, then we are going to get incremental, small solutions and miss the moments of great creativity.”

Margaret Wheatley