The importance of critical thinking
In a time-poor, dissatisfied world, how often do you hear friends, customers or colleagues complaining that they ‘haven’t got time to think’? Yet we all know that we have to think in order to make decisions and take actions, even if it’s only for the briefest of moments. The quality of that thinking can determine how successful the outcomes of our actions are and no more so than in our relationships with others.
At the heart of all our decisions, are people and whether we like it or not, we are all in the relationship business! In my experience, successful outcomes rely on us being more skilful at bringing others along with our thought processes and available options. Herein lies true collaboration. Welcome to critical thinking.
So what exactly is this critical thinking?
It wasn’t until I trained as a magistrate that I realised just how important it is to think critically. The definition that makes most sense to me is the following: critical thinking is a process, involving disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence. In many situations the evidence you have available makes it quite straight forward to make a rational decision. Sometimes it is not so easy, especially when emotions are running high. It is at this point that the ability to think critically can be your very best friend.
The essence of critical thinking centres not on answering questions but on questioning answers.
The essence of critical thinking lies not on answering questions but on questioning answers, so it involves high levels of:
Don’t be afraid to examine and challenge the evidence before you. Does it make sense? Think about what is not there. For example when invited to respond to a draft presentation most people will confine their thinking to what they read or hear. Sometimes what is not there is just as important and needs to be considered.
The practicalities of critical thinking can be divided into two main areas:
six core skills and seven dispositions.
The Six Core Skills
- Interpretation: Understanding and expressing the meaning and significance of the information you have
- Analysis: The identification of the intended and actual relationships between pieces of information. For example the identification of similarities and differences between two approaches to the solution of a given problem
- Evaluation: Assessing the credibility of the information
- Inference: The process of coming to logical conclusions on the basis of the evidence
- Explanation: The ability to express the outcomes and the reasoning that has taken place and indicate the basis for the particular set of results
- Self regulation: To be aware of your own prejudices that could influence a decision. To challenge with additional research and check any figure work
The Seven Thinking Dispositions
These dispositions indicate the traits or attitudes critical thinkers have been shown to have in common:
- Systematic: The motivation to make and execute plans, formulate goals and visualise outcomes; coupled with the ability to spot any lack of direction
- Curious: The inclination to investigate and identify problems; a keen eye for irregularities. The ability to observe closely and formulate questions
- Analytical: The ability to process information accurately. A drive for organisation and thoroughness, with an alertness towards possible errors
- Open-minded: To be willing to discover new ideas and generate alternative options
- Confident in reasoning: To be aware of and monitor the flow of your own thinking; be alert to complex thinking situations; the ability to exercise control of mental processes and to be reflective. This is where mindfulness can be a great adjunct
- Truth seeking: A desire to seek understanding, clarify and focus; to find explanations and an ability to create concepts
- Judicious: An inclination to question what is presented, to require justification and need for evidence. The means to assess and weigh reason
How to improve your critical thinking
Like most skills, critical thinking is best developed and improved though regular practice. Here are some approaches that will open you up to critical thinking opportunities:
- Become curious about a wide range of issues
- Commit to becoming well-informed
- Trust in the processes of critical thinking
- Keep an open-mind regarding different world views
- Maintain flexibility in considering alternatives
- Seek to understand the opinions of others
- Be fair-minded in appraising others reasoning
- Be honest with yourself about your own biases, prejudices, stereotyping or egocentric tendencies
- Be prudent in suspending, making or altering judgements
- Be willing to reconsider views where reflection indicates that a change is required
So if you like the idea of some mental gymnastics, why not take on or refine this highly effective skill? If this all sounds too much like hard work, just think of the benefits: better relationships, more balanced decisions and a different perspective on the world you inhabit. Now that’s got to be worth it.