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Developing Your Own Critical Thinking Skills

November 5, 2018

I frequently hear references to critical thinking in business from comments of frustration regarding the lack of critical thinking about an important problem, or inquiries about which interview questions elicit evidence of a candidate’s critical thinking abilities, or comments about the seeming lack of critical thinking skills in the workforce. What’s interesting, though, is there is little discussion about exactly what critical thinking is and how it can be developed in our workforce. 


Let’s start with a gross assumption that these skills, in fact, are not present in our workforce to the degree we’d like them to be. Do we just throw our hands up and declare defeat? Certainly not. This brief article will discuss what critical thinking is, how it’s tied to emotional intelligence, and what we can do to develop these skills. Critical thinking helps us make better decisions for ourselves, our families, our communities, our teams, and our companies. Everybody wins.

Critical Thinking Defined


There are many definitions of critical thinking available, but they all essentially say the same thing: critical thinking is the structured process for analyzing, assessing and reviewing information on any topic. It relies on facts, evidence and information to remove self-bias, distorted perceptions and inaccurate data. It is a self-directed discipline in which the thinker withholds judgment and opinion until facts and information have been reviewed for veracity (accuracy, truth) and bias. 


The short version is this: the ability to look at a situation (problem, information, etc.) and think it through in a systematic manner.


Critical thinking relies on three fundamental mental traits: curiosity, skepticism, and humility.


These are required to think through problems systematically and objectively. If you are not curious enough, you will fail to look at all aspects. If you are not skeptical enough, you will accept the first answer (or the one most aligned to your personal biases) without further investigation. If you are not humble enough, you’ll have difficulty being found wrong if your initial judgment or assessment does not hold up to scrutiny.


For more on critical thinking see https://www.criticalthinking.org/


Emotional Intelligence Defined


Emotional intelligence is defined as the ability to identify and manage one’s own emotions and the emotions of others. It includes emotional awareness (know and understand), the ability to harness or manage emotions (apply to thinking and problem-solving), and the ability to manage emotions (manage and control self and others).


Emotional intelligence often is discussed in terms of how people relate to others in a group, often at work. Do they self-assess well or do they think they’re much better (or worse) than they actually are? Do they recognize when they’re becoming defensive or aggressive? Do they recognize when others are having an emotional response? Do they know how to deal with their own and other’s emotions in these situations? These are common questions we ask that reflect emotional intelligence at work.


The Link between Critical Thinking and Emotional Intelligence


You can see there is a clear link between critical thinking and emotional intelligence. Are we able to self-assess accurately? Can we see our own biases enough to think through them? Do we look for evidence and do we perform analysis of the information before forming conclusions or opinions? 
How often have you been presented with the “facts” of a problem and either jumped to conclusions or taken action based on these emotionally charged “facts”? It only takes a couple of misadventures to break yourself of that habit – you typically charge in with a solution only to find that your zeal, your intent or your solution are ill-suited to the actual problem. You anger people, burn bridges, or perhaps tarnish your reputation as an even-keeled leader.


When you lack the ability to control your own emotions (anger, frustration, fear, elation, hope), you short circuit your critical thinking abilities. Your results will almost certainly fall short of your target. If you’re not great at managing your emotions, you likely aren’t great at critical thinking. The good news? With focus and intent, you can improve both of these functions and become more effective.


Steps for Improving Critical Thinking and Emotional Intelligence


First, you need to see the outcome. People who have developed their critical thinking skills are seen as more logical, rational, fair-minded and empathetic. So, that’s your goal. Even if you think you have those skills and that’s how people see you, I’d ask this: Are you sure? Are you certain? Is it possible you are over-estimating your skills? For the sake of this exercise, you should assume you lack these skills or that these skills can be significantly improved (as can all of our skills in this regard).


1.    Be more interested in getting it right than being right.
This is the aspect that relies on your emotional intelligence. Most of us want to be right, it’s a natural reaction. However, you can cultivate a mindset that is more interested in getting it right. Part of the exercise is to avoid jumping to conclusions. If you immediately begin to ask questions (curiosity, skepticism, and humility) rather than form an opinion, you’re less likely to become immediately invested in your point of view. If you and your team develop the habit of declaring that you want to get it right rather than be right, you’ll keep an open mind. This will allow you to investigate, gather facts, and analyze the information to draw a more informed opinion and make a more informed decision.


2.    Do not accept unverified information.
It’s easy to take the information someone provides at face value. I can’t tell you the number of times people have come to me for assistance with a very rigid mindset because of the “facts” they believe to be true. Rather than taking those statements and declarations at face value, I begin to investigate. I investigate not to see if someone is lying; more often than not they are being as truthful as their view allows them to be. My job is to investigate, get to the facts and deliver the right solution. As we all know, the right solution the wrong problem is useless (or worse, damaging). Verify information.

 

3.    Don’t rush to judgment, but don’t over-analyze.

This is related to the prior item. You need to have the skill and poise to resist the temptation to jump to conclusions with incomplete or inaccurate information. Similarly, once you’ve gathered information, you need to have the confidence and clarity of thinking to make your decision and move on. Analysis paralysis is a decision – a decision to do nothing and continue to gather data long past the point where any new information will have a material impact on the outcome. We usually know exactly where that point is and we avoid it out of fear or uncertainty. Check yourself on that tendency. Document your analysis, your conclusions, and your decision, then move on. 

 

4.    Develop these critical thinking skills.
These five skills are essential elements of critical thinking. Some independent research on your own can help you develop these skills: 

•    Interpret (learn to interpret data, results, people, emotions, situations)
•    Analyze (learn to examine the components of the problem or situation)
•    Infer (learn to develop conclusions based on the evidence presented)
•    Evaluate (learn to evaluate various data sources for accuracy)
•    Explain (learn to interpret and explain information or conclusions)
•    Examine (learn to develop awareness and countermeasures for personal biases and blind spots)

 

Actively working on improving your critical thinking skills will benefit you in all aspects of your life, including in your career and especially as a leader.
 

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