Many a TV and movie hero would have you believe that all the best decisions are made with a ‘gut feeling’. Unlike that onscreen police detective whose hunches solve major crimes and get him the key to the city, however, most of us would likely be jobless if we operated this way.
While intuition can be a valuable skill in the workplace, most employers would prefer you excel in critical thinking and problem solving. So, what makes someone a critical thinker, exactly? It’s the ability to look at issues objectively and effectively, without letting bias or emotions cloud your judgement.
It’s not an easy task, but critical thinking improves your communication with others, helps you solve problems in the best interests of everyone involved, and allows you to see a clearer path to success and advancement in your career. The good news is you can begin right away, so read on to learn how to develop your critical thinking skills.
1. Take Time to Evaluate Your Decision Making
The first step in developing your critical thinking skills is to set aside time to evaluate your daily choices and decisions. In the same way a coach looks at a recording of a game to identify his team’s strengths and weaknesses, use this exercise to identify your successful actions that day, as well as the scenarios that didn’t turn out as well as you hoped.
Ask yourself a series of questions about those actions. What was your motivation? Did you achieve your goals? Did you do something contrary to your own belief system? Take the extra time to really think about your answers. You might want to keep a journal of these self-evaluations to help you spot patterns in your thinking and decision making.
2. Avoid Egocentrism
Most people evaluate issues or disagreements with the default view that they themselves are correct. Being a more critical thinker requires us to contemplate the possibility that we may be wrong or are acting in our own self-interest rather than the good of others or of the company we work for.
Two prominent authors and instructors in the field of critical thinking development, Richard Paul and Linda Elder, say that feelings of irritation and resentment during the workday can actually be signs of egocentric thinking. Considering how a ‘rational’ person (think Mr Spock from Star Trek) might have reacted to the same situation can help you understand how your own emotions or bias affected your actions.
Those same emotions can also affect your interpretation of others’ actions. Taking arguments personally and feeling attacked by someone else’s opinion can cloud your judgement. Try to view their statements as an attempt to solve a problem or improve conditions, and not a strike against your self-worth.
3. Be an Active Listener
When someone is speaking to us, we are often more focused on what we’re going to say in response than in carefully listening to everything they’re sharing. We miss important details and don’t take the time to consider or fully comprehend their point of view.
Next time you converse with someone, actively listen to their story, their argument and even their criticisms. Cataloguing all this information without immediately reacting to it helps you improve your critical thinking skills and understand your colleagues better.
Active listening also gives you the time to experience and empathise with their situation, which is helpful for facilitating teamwork and resolving conflicts at work.
4. Analyse the Information
Gathering data is only the first step in the process of becoming a critical thinker. Achieving a goal or resolving an argument requires analysing all that information. This once again means asking a lot of questions.
- What is the source of the information?
- Are there gaps in logic in someone’s argument?
- Are they using emotion rather than facts to sway your opinion?
- Is there any evidence to support their point of view or yours?
In a work environment, you have to carefully dissect each side of an issue, and then consider how any decision would affect your colleagues as well as the company’s bottom line.
5. Gather Research
Another important step in improving your critical thinking skills is to accept that you don’t know everything. Many articles have been written about common misconceptions about a whole range of subjects, so you should always take the time to verify any ‘facts’ you base your decisions or arguments on.
The trick of researching is to find reliable information. Always check the source. Is it a well-respected journal or news outlet? Is the author an educated and experienced expert? Can you verify the same information from multiple sites or authorities?
Critical thinkers also consider an author’s agenda, anything from a political affiliation to a product to sell.
6. Develop Your Curiosity
Think about the last time you conversed with someone who asked you a lot of detailed questions and made you uncomfortable. We often spend time with friends, sharing opinions without challenge, and it can be startling when someone actually calls us out on those opinions. Forced to explain our thought process, we may realise our argument wasn’t that sound after all.
If you want to develop your critical thinking, it’s time to be that questioning person. When someone shares an idea or judgement, don’t just accept it and move on to the next thing. Indulge your curiosity and ask some open-ended questions to get more details, and further explore the issue.
7. Approach Arguments with Compassion
In the age of social media discourse, which can escalate rapidly from name-calling to harassment to even death threats, a peaceful approach can be daunting. The first step is to look for the logic in an opponent’s argument. Focus on the critical thinking skills you apply to your own decisions and examine their motivations, evidence and reasoning.
Making an immediate effort to understand the opposing point of view can help keep you from becoming defensive and escalating the disagreement. The compassionate approach won’t necessarily lead to complete harmony, but an open mind allows you to examine all the information and, hopefully, find common ground.
The ability to understand others’ emotions and skilfully negotiate with them is considered a valuable skill to potential employers. Becoming a critical thinker in highly charged situations needn't be wasted on Twitter flame wars; it’s extremely useful in making a sale to a difficult client, keeping an unhappy customer on board or even convincing your boss to use your idea for a new product line instead of theirs.
8. Examine Decisions in Multiple Environments
When facing a difficult decision, everyone has heard the advice to ‘sleep on it’. This is sound advice. One of the main pillars of critical thinking is to remove emotion from the equation. If you’ve just had an argument with a colleague, you’ve been reprimanded by your boss for a mistake or even if you’ve just had an all-around bad day at work, it’s best to hold off on important decisions until you feel calmer and more rational.
Even when things are peaceful, take the time to look at a problem from multiple angles. Change your environment, mood, and who you interact with to help spark creative thinking and get you to a solution you might not have considered at the start.
9. Assign Yourself a Problem to Work On
Any skill you want to master requires practice. Applying critical thinking in your daily interactions will help you improve, but a specific task is also useful. Think of an issue in your career and spend any free moments during the day, like during your commute or on your lunch break, breaking that problem down into pieces you can analyse.
The goal during this analysis is to identify actionable elements. What can you do right now? What moves can you make over time to reach the perfect solution? How can you work around the issues that you can’t control? Continue to analyse the results after you act and adapt your strategies as you move forward.
Critical thinking and problem solving have always been useful at work, but employers will increasingly look for these skills as jobs become more complex and challenging due to ever-evolving technology and globalisation. Continue to assign yourself problems to tackle; even minor issues will help you keep your critical skills sharp.
10. Talk to a More Diverse Group of People
You can develop critical thinking skills with a lot of self-reflection, research and study, but staying locked in your own bubble can lead right back to egocentrism. Seek out people with different backgrounds, experiences and opinions to simply learn from them or to engage in some lively debate.
One of the most positive aspects of the internet is that it allows us to make these connections more easily. Aside from forums, group chats and social media, consider guesting on a podcast in your field of expertise. The more casual format can lead to some lively discussions and will force you to apply all your critical thinking skills on the fly. You can approach podcasters directly or try out services like Podcast Guests to connect you with interested hosts.
The key to improving your critical thinking skills is to constantly ask questions and seek the truth about everyone’s motives and actions, including your own. You won’t always be able to keep emotions out of an argument but practising these critical thinking strategies will help you find your way through difficult and complex situations to the best possible outcome.
Can you think of a time when these strategies helped you solve a problem at work? Do you have your own techniques for perfecting critical thinking? Let us know in the comments section below.