“The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.” Author and journalist Christopher Hitchens was essentially telling us that we can either be led by automatic thoughts or we can learn to be proactive in how we approach problem-solving and major decisions. So, how do you learn to think critically?
The art of thinking critically
How many times a day do you find yourself saying something you didn’t mean to say? Or even driving for 10 minutes without having any recollection of what you’ve just driven past?
Most of our days are spent in automatic mode that psychiatrist Daniel Kahneman called system 1 thinking in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. We also have access to system 2 thinking which is the disciplined process of actively conceptualizing, applying, analyzing and synthesizing data for more effective problem-solving and decision-making.
In other words, critical thinking is the mental process of intentionally using our thoughts to evaluate information to devise the best way forward. It means you are critiquing data objectively rather than being blinded by your biases. As we saw in a previous blog, those biases cause poor judgment and missed opportunities.
How do you learn to think critically both at work and in everyday life? You need to become aware of how you get misguided by automatic thinking. For example, it isn’t so helpful when making strategic business decisions, but it comes in very handy when instinct and reflexes stop you from driving into someone who cuts in front of you too sharply.
In fact, exploring the question “how do you learn to think critically” won’t just increase your self-awareness but it will also open up a host of benefits:
- Simplifies complexity: with critical thinking, you clarify problems and expand your options making you more strategic in the long run
- Navigates limiting beliefs: you get to know your biases and how to limit the mistakes they cause
- Fixes the right problem: you stay out of automatic mode to avoid jumping to wrong conclusions or even fixing the wrong problems
Five steps to critical thinking
The good news is that everyone can develop critical thinking skills and you don’t need a whole lifetime. You do need support, practice and discipline often best achieved by working with a leadership coach. There’s no better accountability partner to show you the errors of your automatic thinking.
Before we answer the question, “how do you learn to think critically,” review the following process as you reflect on how you normally approach problems and decisions.
- Problem definition
The brain is constantly looking for problems but it tends to jump to conclusions or overuse relative judgment, as a study summarized in this BBC article on “why the brain never runs out of problems” shows. In short, we use the wrong baselines of experience to create problems that don’t exist or to lead us off on tangents.
Instead, good critical thinking takes your point of view and collects every other possible viewpoint before you even begin to consider evaluating any information gathered. As every systems thinker and Lean 6 sigma engineer knows, the devil is in the problem definition.
Defining critical problem statements is a key first step to getting you on the right path. This summary of how to write an effective problem statement includes typical techniques such as the 5Whys and 5W2H (what, where, when, who, why, how, how much).
In summary, how do you learn to think critically if not by asking questions? Open questions are the key to unlocking your true root cause so you can then go on to fix the right problem.
- Analyze data
When synthesizing or evaluating data, you need to clear your head of past experiences to avoid being swayed in the wrong direction. So, look for data you don’t normally review and ask people you don’t normally talk to.
All data has some form of human bias imposed on it. This can be from the words we use to the interpretations we impose.
For example, it’s very common to hear statements such as “we need to improve customer service.” What does this actually mean though and how will you measure success?
The more specific you can be with your language, the clearer your problem analysis can be. Indeed, a language coach can be particularly invaluable and enable you to see how your language frames your problems.
- Challenge assumptions and problem solve
A good way to stay away from assumptions and beliefs is to, quite simply, list them down. Then, for whatever specific problem, write alongside each assumption how you might approach the problem differently without that particular assumption.
In a sense, understanding the question “how do you learn to think critically” is also about understanding your assumptions generated by observation and experience. That’s not to say that experience and instinct are wrong but once you know how they impact you, you can start to evaluate arguments more objectively.
- Potential conclusions and inference
A useful technique at this point is triangular thinking where you interpret the same information in 3 different ways. If the 3 points triangulate, or converge, you’re on the right track but if they don’t, you need to expand your theory.
For example, customer success can be generated from engagement trends, surveys or churn rates. Moreover, the more you can see the connection between ideas generated by different data points, the more possibilities and options you’ll see for potential conclusions.
- Decision and communication
The development of critical solutions that are both objective and optimized isn’t something you should just do alone. You also need to gather the right people and communicate the solutions along with any risk management initiatives.
In summary, how do you learn to think critically? Observation, experience and reflection are not enough. You also need the structured framework detailed above to minimize your biases.
How else can you improve your critical thinking?
It all comes down to pausing, asking the right questions and remembering to think intentionally:
- Work with a coach. The definition of biases is that we can’t see them. Instead, work with a coach to get to know them and how they influence your strengths and weaknesses. Then, you can practice seeing beyond them into new viewpoints.
- Change your language. Reflection, reasoning or communication are all key aspects of critical thinking. So, when answering the question “how do you learn to think critically,” go back a step and ask “what have you not tried before?”
- Keep asking “why.” Solving problems starts by defining the root cause. The more you ask why the more you uncover the root cause because you eventually can’t answer why anymore.
- Ask “so what.” Avoid getting distracted by using this question to really dig deep into why this problem or potential solution is relevant.
- And “what’s next.” Don’t just accept the status quo. Use this question to think ahead about consequences or even missing information to get a more complete solution.
Practice critical thinking
Make a point of pausing to analyze and question your assumptions and data points. Ways to practice:
- Grow your business. How can you use the above steps to help you see more possibilities and niche opportunities?
- The numbers don’t add up. What can critical thinking show you when you see a mismatch in, for example, metrics that don’t explain your losses? Or customers that are engaged but not buying?
- Day-to-day activities. Work through the 5 steps to prioritize without bias, plan without firefighting and even coach others, a powerful management tool, without judgment.
Everyone is a critical thinker
The ability to think critically is something that we all have within us. It takes practice and discipline along with the habit of asking open questions. The more you practice, the more skillful you’ll become at conceptualizing, applying and analyzing problems and decisions.
Finally, it takes courage to break away from our beliefs and biases but anyone can be a critical thinker. Nevertheless, all great freethinkers work with a coach at least at some point in their lives.
Or as Leo Tolstoy puts it, “Freethinkers are those who are willing to use their minds without prejudice and without fearing to understand things that clash with their own customs, privileges, or beliefs. This state of mind is not common, but it is essential for critical thinking.”