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It’s been an intense couple of months in the US. A contentious election, explosive violence in seemingly safe public places, and a devastating natural disaster. These events bring on all the armchair quarterbacks and critics, those who pull out their positions like a soapbox and stand on them yelling and screaming until someone pays attention. Unfortunately, they usually get their audience.
- Hurricane Sandy is punishment for our sins.
- If all the teachers had guns our schools would be safe.
- If you vote for Obama/Romney the US is doomed.
There are some pretty extreme comments out there, which is not surprising. What is surprising is the number of people who promote them without thinking. It’s like that woman you went to high school with who always posts urban myths on Facebook. Doesn’t she think about this stuff first – or at least google it?
I first started writing about critical thinking and negotiation skills as part of a book project, but recent events have spurred me to share some of these concepts now.
I don’t have all the answers, and neither does anyone else. But what we do have access to, and can use effectively to find solutions, are critical thinking skills.
These skills will take us from being passive holders of information to actual problem-solvers working on our greatest challenges.
What are critical thinking skills?
Everyone is biased. Your experience and surroundings color your perceptions. What critical thinking does is improve the quality of your thinking through high standards. You essentially put a red velvet rope around your brain and demand that the information looking for a home there first pass a rigorous test to get in.
Critical thinking skills are the big burly bouncer to your brain, and there is a long line of information waiting to get past him.
Researcher Edward Glaser determined 3 elements to critical thinking:
- An attitude of being disposed to consider in a thoughtful way the problems and subjects that come within the range of one’s experiences
- Knowledge of the methods of logical inquiry and reasoning
- Some skill in applying those methods
There are plenty of people capable of #1, but there are many uneducated in #2 and unpracticed in #3. It’s why we have all the screaming and shouting and why progress is often slow or stagnant.
We aren’t problem-solving; we’re posturing with soundbites and guarding our turf.
Develop an Attitude of Critical Thinking
Critical thinking is essentially thinking that assesses itself. You not only put the facts and opinions on trial, you also challenge your own thought processes in coming to a conclusion. You hold yourself to a higher standard and force yourself to thoughtfully consider something before you accept it, share it, or promote it.
In the age of Likes and Retweets and multitasking it is easy to develop a “me, too!” attitude when you hear something that sounds reasonable. But a critical thinker has a followup question or wants to know more.
Critical thinkers don’t jump on bandwagons, parrot soundbites, or look to someone else to form their opinions.
They are confident in their own ability to analyze the information and come to a conclusion.
If they do not have the education, knowledge, or background to make a conclusions, they simply don’t. If they uncover information that disputes their conclusions, they are willing to change them (their opinions, not the information).
To develop an attitude of critical thinking, begin questioning the information that comes your way.
- Can I trust the accuracy of this source?
- Is this really better than that? Why?
- What other factors do I need to consider to make a well-informed decision?
- Do I have the necessary background and knowledge to come to a reasoned conclusion?
- Are my emotions clouding my judgement?
Perform a Reasoned Analysis
Reasoning is a method for analyzing and evaluating information and coming to a conclusion. It is your ability to recognize the difference between a persuasive argument, an explanatory statement, or a justification for behavior. This knowledge plays into your degree of acceptance of the information and your eventual conclusion.
In order to reason effectively, you have to keep an open mind going in. (If your mind is already made up, you are not reasoning anything.)
- Are you drawing in all the right information to make your decision, including dissenters?
- Do you understand the motives of the person or publication presenting the information?
- What would logically happen if this solution was implemented?
- Would a reasonable person not involved in the situation find this to be true?
- Do you understand all the terms being used (and are you confident the source does, too)?
When you’ve considered the angles and evaluated the evidence, you can make an informed decision. And when you begin thinking this way all the time, people will learn to value your judgement.
When you think before you speak, your words carry more weight.
Pick Your Battles
Part of critical thinking is to realize not everyone is doing it. So when you engage in someone who’s spouting soundbites like a robot and yelling to make a point, you have your work cut out for you. But you can ask them the same questions you would ask yourself, share your brain’s bouncer with them for just a moment, and encourage them to see things from every angle before coming to a conclusion.
Nothing stops a shallow argument faster than thoughtful questions.
We still won’t all be in agreement on any issue, but we will have a common set of tools to reasonably evaluate our problems and come up with workable solutions. If we hold ourselves to a higher standard in thinking, we can solve a higher standard of problems.
And that we desperately need.