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Published on November 11, 2019

How to Develop Critical Thinking Skills and Think Clearer

How to Develop Critical Thinking Skills and Think Clearer

Every day, we are bombarded by information. From the morning paper to news and on social media throughout the day. We might not think of it much now but, that’s an overwhelming amount of information.

And it can be dangerous in some cases. From fake news or inaccurate information, or the information heavily biased.

This, in turn, impacts you. It impacts who you vote for, what you buy and maybe how you feel. In a sense, the information we consume dictates our entire life.

As a result, critical thinking skills become our saving grace in our lives. It’s a skill that so many of us lack in our lives and yet it’s one of the most critical.

The Importance of Critical Thinking Skills

First off they help with critical thinking, a skill I said that many people lack these days. Critical thinking is merely our ability to be thinking, and present evidence for our ideas.

How is this different from how we typically think?

Well, most of us tend to gravitate towards our own personal reasoning. We cling to information and ideas naturally without checking them. And of course, we develop a bias, pushing away other ideas and only accepting ideas and opinions that support our existing belief.

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To see that in motion, consider a CEO similar to the man I read about in an article published in Harvard Business Review.[1] He was very confident in himself and believed he was the market leader of a company. But eventually, he lost one of their largest clients.

How did that happen? Because the CEO was certain his clients wouldn’t leave and that leaving would be expensive. He didn’t consider the possibility they could leave.

Another way to think of critical thinking is that it’s a self-directed, self-monitored, self-disciplined, and self-corrective method of thinking.

Why this is important boils down to several reasons:

  • A universal skill – Regardless of occupation, having critical thinking skills helps. True, some jobs need it more than others but there is always a time and place to use this skill anywhere. It’s why many people value this talent regardless of field.
  • Improve language and presentation skills – Critical thinking can also determine how we best articulate and present our ideas.
  • Promote creativity – Critical thinking often demands we think creative.[2] Whether it’s finding a middle ground between ideas or presenting an idea outright, how we get there is through a creative process.
  • Improve self-reflection – If critical thinking demands self-correction, there is some level of self-reflection involved. You can’t present ideas using critical thinking skills unless you’ve spent time reflecting.
  • Solve problems before they become bigger – Critical thinking allows us to look at situations and to digest them in different ways. We can identify problems before they become larger issues.

Examples of Critical Thinking Skills

As I said, critical thinking skills aren’t restricted to specific occupations or scenarios. Examples of this way of thinking at work are:

  • A manager considers customer feedback and uses that information to create training sessions for employees in customer service.
  • A real estate agent reviews the home and surrounding area to determine how to best sell to their customers.
  • A stock investor keeps an eye on the news to determine whether to sell their shares or invest in a company.
  • An attorney reviews evidence to devise a strategy to win the case or whether this matter should be settled out of court.
  • A group of nurses analyze patients’ medical conditions to determine which order each patient should be treated.

Another great example of critical thinking is actually an exercise that you can do as well. It forms the basis of critical thinking skills.

In this example, think about something someone told you recently. Follow that up with the following questions. The questions in parentheses dive deeper:

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  • Who said it? (Someone you know? A manager? Does it matter who told you this?)
  • What did they say? (Was it a fact or opinion? Did they present all the information or did they leave something out?)
  • Where did they say it? (Public or private area?)
  • When did they say it? (Is timing important? Was it before, during, or after an important event?)
  • Why did they say it? (Did they explain their opinion? Was the goal to make someone look good or bad?)
  • How did they say it? (Recall their tonne and body language. Were they happy, indifferent or sad? Could you make out everything they said?)

This exercise is simple but it adds perspective to what critical thinking is like.

How to Develop Critical Thinking Skills

Anyone can develop critical thinking skills, the big question is how to do it. Asking yourself questions is a good start and ensuring you dig deeper, however, consider these other techniques.

1. Ask Meaningful Questions

The questions mentioned above are solid, but you can go deeper. But before asking them, it’s key that you don’t take everything you read or hear as the absolute truth.

This sets asides biases and favouritism, and helps you to ask those important questions such as:

  • What’s the problem?
  • What are all the solutions to this problem?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of each one?

You still have to believe in something, however by setting aside biases and ask those meaningful questions, you feel confident about your decisions.

2. Look at Motives

Information and conversations always have a motive. After all, people are the ones who control that and there is always some agenda. Yes, no one isn’t always going to tell you outright what that is, but it’s safe to think there is one, malicious or not.

But understanding others’ motives can be tricky and have several pitfalls as motives can often be conflated with personality and character, or disguised by emotions.[3]  And that’s all the more reason to evaluate information based on where it’s coming from. This should also determine how you act on it- if at all.

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3. Do the Research

Critical thinking skills demand information. And while information is overwhelming at times, it’s also the most powerful tool around. It becomes incredibly powerful when you decide to make your own decisions.

Do research when you have a problem you need to solve or have a decision to make. Google about the subject, and read books about it. Do so until you have a grasp and understanding as that’ll better prepare you for the future.

4. Never Assume You’re Right

We all love to be right and naturally, we think we’re right most of the time. And why wouldn’t we? We naturally have a bias to place ourselves in the best light possible. But while that feeling is definitely good, it’s that very feeling that can lead us down the wrong track: Why Our Minds Can’t Be Trusted And What We Can Do With It

Critical thinking demands self-reflection and self-monitoring, and sometimes, we have to accept that we’re wrong. Thinking this way allows us to embrace other perspectives. It helps us to develop empathy and understanding of parties involved.

If your form of thinking is taking someone’s thoughts and comparing them to your own, you’re not really doing much thinking. And it’s definitely not thinking critically.

5. Make It Simple

Occam’s razor[4] is a term used in the hypothesis step within the scientific community. What this theory suggests is that the hypothesis that provides the simplest explanation is likely the one that fits all the facts. It’s what we would call the most obvious explanation. And this obvious explanation is the truth until it’s proven wrong.

But the point here is that Occam’s razor is basically a theory that has a bias towards the common sense answer. However, it has other applications outside of science.

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For example, you turn on the TV and you see an ad promoting a high-priced anti-ageing cream. It’s something that many are excited for. The big hook is that this cream will make you look 10 or 20 years younger.

But you can break that down using Occam’s razor. Have you ever heard of that product before? If not, how can it be such a big hit if it’s so new? It’s also fair to say that there is a high chance that the company behind the product hired a younger model to promote this too. Meaning it’s likely the cream is bogus and over-hyped.

Final Thoughts

Developing critical thinking skills isn’t as simple as asking questions. It’s a deeper process that places a lot of weight on you. You need to develop deeper skills and to set aside your own thoughts and opinions.

However, by doing this, you are opening the door to a lot of self-growth and fulfilment. After all, so many people are looking for people who can think for themselves and to think in more creative and critical ways.

More About Thinking Smarter

Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Leon Ho

Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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Last Updated on April 7, 2020

4 Ways to Develop a Flexible Mindset

4 Ways to Develop a Flexible Mindset

How many opportunities have you missed because of a bad mood or being stuck in feelings of frustration?

I know I’ve certainly missed a lot. In fact, I can recall an exact time when I missed a great deal of opportunity. I was at a party filled with highly influential people. However, my girlfriend and I had just gotten into an argument because of my irrational expectations of how she would behave, and I wasn’t thinking clearly. I didn’t have any desire to talk to anyone or be open to interesting conversations. All I could think about was myself and my anger and frustration. I was caught up in this story; I was telling myself that I needed to be angry and I needed to show it. I can only imagine the opportunities I missed because I wasn’t flexible in my thinking.

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The mindset you need, then, is one of flexibility and not rigidity. You must be able to go with the flow of events without being disappointed by your expectations. This open-minded approach is a necessity if you want to be happy and experience rapid personal growth. These four ways below will tell you how to develop a flexible mindset.

1. See the feeling for what it is and accept it.

When you begin to notice yourself feeling frustration and anger, use that as a trigger to pause for a moment. See the feeling and sit with it. Don’t act, but stop and accept that you’re feeling this way. Understand that this feeling is just that ‒ a feeling. It’s not who you are, but merely a passing cloud in a sky full of clouds holding different feelings.

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2. Know that it’s OK to feel frustration and rigidity.

It happens to everyone. No one is perfect or immune to anger. It’s OK to feel this way. Give the feeling some space and compassion. It’s impossible to feel thankful and angry at the same time. By giving this feeling ‘some love’, you’re improving your mood and making it easier to come back to happiness. If you think of the feeling as a cloud, imagine opening up the sky and giving it the room to float away.

3. Notice what’s around you ― and breathe.

The key is to be in the moment. Too often we’re caught up in life and it whizzes by without us ever realizing it. Sit back, relax, and focus on your breathe for a bit. Feel it go in your nose, down your throat, into your stomach, and back out again. If you imagine your frustration as a thermometer, the more frustrated you are, the more it fills up. You need to give yourself time to allow it to cool off and that level to go down. Then, look around and be thankful for everything you see.

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4. Realize it’s OK to say, “I don’t know”.

It’s OK to not know how things should be. It’s also OK to not know how things are now. Not knowing sets you up to be able to freely investigate. Why are things this way? What series of events took place that caused this feeling? What unreasonable expectations did I have that put me in this place? Once you understand, you can fully let go and change your course going forward.

I hope these four steps help you let go of your rigid mindset and develop the flexibility to be happy and to experience personal growth. This shift in mindset will stop life from giving you lemons to make lemonade and start giving you whatever you desire. Just remember to pause, breathe, embrace, let go, and move on.

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