the Athena Group

Athena Bulletin

Come Down Off Your Ladder!

I learned this approach to conflict engagement from Hugh O’Doherty, one of Ron Heifetz’s colleagues. Hugh was visiting faculty for the Organization Systems Renewal (OSR) graduate program for many years, providing multiple cohorts an unforgettable visceral experience of “Adaptive Leadership.” You can read more about Hugh here. If you want to know more about the visceral experience, let’s meet for coffee.

Hugh created a conflict-engagement process based on the Ladder of Inference, an awareness tool developed by Chris Argyris. Hugh called this process “Courageous Conversations.” I’m assuming that readers of this post are already familiar with the Ladder of Inference. If this is new to you, please review this short article to get a basic understanding of what it means to “climb up your ladder.” The Ladder of Inference was our topic at the October 2018 First Wednesday Conversation in Olympia, and was also part of the recent Leadership Eastside systems learning day. I use the Ladder of Inference in all trainings I offer that are about improving team communication and increasing effectiveness.


The idea is that two people (or two parties) in conflict likely are both operating from the top of their respective ladders. Untested assumptions have led to one or both being “certain” about some deficiency or ill intention in the other. Certainty (or “knowing”) is subsequently reinforced when only confirming data are selected.

A page in a notebook with a series of steps for someone to take to be more data focused

At some point, someone decides that something must be done. Someone realizes that the relationship is valuable and worth an intervention. This could be one of the two parties, or a third party.

The first step is to co-create a “container” and invite the other(s) to problem-solve together. The container is created by acknowledging the value of the relationship and that it is worth some effort to preserve. This step is challenging, because putting forth the effort involves some risk. One of the parties (or a third party) must approach the other and own that they harbor certain untested assumptions regarding the meaning of other’s behavior. This requires vulnerability; thus, the risk, and the need for courage.

The initiator must ask the other if she is willing to engage in a conversation to explore the untested assumptions. Or, the initiator might say, “This is the story I’m telling myself… and I want to check it out with you because I might have it wrong.” Possible responses include “Yes;” “Yes, but not in this moment;” or “No.”

If the conversation proceeds (now or later), the next step is to share and examine the concrete data that apparently led to a particular meaning, conclusion, and assumption.

  • “You seemed to be preoccupied with your phone during the staff meeting and did not engage with the team.”
  • “This past month you were late to every meeting, including your own.”
  • “You don’t speak during the meeting, but I see you immediately talking with Al and Suzanne in the hall after the meeting.”
  • “I have had to remind you repeatedly to complete your project hours report.”

Concrete data are those observations you can agree on.

The next step is to share the meaning you made from what you observed, what assumptions you made, and possibly what actions you may have taken because of your assumption.

  • “When you were late for two meetings, the story I told myself is that you’re not interested in this important project. When you were late for two more meetings in a row, I concluded that you are not fully invested in this organization and assumed you are looking for employment elsewhere. As a result, I did not recommend you to HR for professional development.”

Having shared your point of view and how you arrived there, the next step is to inquire about the other’s perspective. “How do you see it?” It might be that the other agrees with your story. More likely, you will hear a different story.

  • “I was late to these four meetings because our boss asked me to mentor the new employee and the only time we could both meet is the hour before the project meeting. The new employee is temporarily located at the annex, and it takes me 15 minutes to get back.”

How could you and your colleague interact differently in the future to prevent misinterpretation escalating to conflict? The next step is to co-design new behaviors, different ways of interacting, that will improve the quality of your communication and strengthen your relationship. There’s no need to overdo it. Agree on a couple of things you each can do. In this case:

  • Don’t try to manage schedule conflicts unilaterally
  • If you must be late, let the meeting host know ahead of time if possible, or explain immediately after the meeting
  • Agree to value arriving on time for meetings and other engagements where timeliness is a show of respect

Then, commit to checking in with each other about the progress you’re making together. Set a time or times for a conversation about whether the new behaviors seem to be helping, and whether something different is needed. Keep at it. The relationship is worth it.

I’m happy to talk about what it would look like to bring this awareness and skill to your organization. Are you ready for Courageous Conversations?


Steve Byers has 20 years of experience working with teams and leaders, and in convening important conversations in communities and organizations. He has designed and facilitated conversations in culturally diverse communities and organizations on such topics as racism and fair policing, employment and recreation for people with disabilities, access to health care in rural communities, strengthening families to prevent child abuse and neglect, and social determinants of health in immigrant communities. He also trains people to do this work, thus building capacity in the community. Steve works with teams and leaders to improve performance, strengthen working relationships, and increase team member well-being. He has presented multiple interactive workshops at various conferences in the last 15 years, including Elevate Early Learning (Tacoma), In2:InThinking Annual Forum (Los Angeles), and the Pegasus Systems Thinking in Action conference (Boston & Seattle). Any workshop Steve offers can be customized for an organization so that the participants can do real relevant work while learning. Steve is a graduate of the Organization Systems Renewal program at Seattle University. He is an experienced “Art of Hosting” facilitator and trainer. He designs and teaches workshops for organizations and the public, and teaches in a graduate leadership studies program at St. Mary’s College of California. Steve is also the owner of Helping Human Systems, a consulting practice to develop leadership capacity.