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Becoming a Better Critical Thinker

| May 21, 2019

by Jim Bruce

Most, dare I say all, of us, don’t do and haven’t done, much thinking about thinking. In fact, we may have never stopped to think about our thinking.
So, what is thinking anyway?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines thinking as the “process of considering or reasoning about something.” Merriam-Webster, defines it as the “action of one’s mind to produce thoughts.” And, the Cambridge Dictionary, says it’s “the process of forming an opinion or idea about something, or the opinions or ideas formed by this process.” 
Charles Fernyhough, writer, psychologist, and faculty member at Durham University in the UK, has written: “we don’t think hard enough about what we mean by this term ‘thinking’.”He continued in his essay writing: “Thinking is conscious, and it is active. It is the kind of cognitive process that can make new connections and create meaning. It is dialogic: it has the quality of an internal conversation between different perspectives, although the ‘give-and-take’ quality of external dialogues may not always be immediately obvious. And it is linguistic: verbal for those of us who use spoken language, visual for those of us who use sign language to communicate with others and with ourselves.”1
Psychologists and philosophers who have studied thinking seem to have agreed that all “thinking” often is not the same “thing.” For example, writers (see Other Reading below) often use adjectives, including abstract, analytical, associative, creative, conceptual, concrete, critical, deductive, intuitive, logical, perceptual, problem solving, rational, reflective, and visionary, along with many others, to particularize the various types of thinking that we might engage in. 
Of particular interest is critical thinking, which in its simplest form is simply the analysis of facts to form a judgment. The essay A Brief History of the Idea of Critical Thinkingtells us that “Socrates set the agenda for the tradition of critical thinking, to reflectively question common beliefs and explanations, carefully distinguishing those beliefs that are reasonable and logical from those which — however appealing they may be to our native egocentrism, however much they serve our vested interests, however comfortable of comforting they may be — lack adequate evidence or rational foundation to warrant our belief.” His practice was continued by Plato, Aristotle, the Greek skeptics and many others to this day. The result of their work is that the basic questions of Socrates can be applied in every domain of human thought.
The essay Defining Critical Thinkingformally defines critical thinking as “the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.” Or, as I noted earlier, the analysis of facts to form judgments.
Helen Lee Bouygues, an expert in business transformation, believes that many of our problems have a common root cause: the lack of critical thinking. She feels that in too many instances, we don’t stop to reason through the issues we are facing, evaluating these issues from all sides. Rather, we jump to a solution as quickly as we can based on whatever evidence is at hand. What’s missing in her view is critical thinking.
Based upon her work, she believes that there are three simple thingseach of us can learn to do better to significantly improve our critical thinking skills.  They are: always question assumptions, reason through logic, and diversify your thinking:
Question assumptions: Begin by listing your assumptions and questioning them. This is particularly important when you are contemplating a major change (seeking a new leader, changing the organizational structure, proposing a new service, etc.). What data might be helpful to you? What customer needs will be supported by the change? Who will be disenfranchised? The challenge here is to not jump to conclusions but rather to go back to first principles and ask just what you are trying to do at a very basic level. Look at what you are proposing to do in a detailed step-by-step fashion. As Mitrovicsuggests, be curious, get the data, and don’t jump to conclusions.
Reason through logic: As you make decisions, pay attention to each step in the chain of logic you’ve constructed as you’ve made your decision. To do this, you may have to slow down a bit and think more carefully through your decision process. Ask yourself whether all pieces of the evidence build on each other to produce a solid conclusion? If they do not, go back and identify the additional evidence you need to support the solid conclusion you need.
Seek out diversity of thought and collaboration: People who are different – age, gender, life story, ethnicity, political view, etc. – from me will see things differently. Therefore, it is important for you to solicit different points of view. This will make each one of us a better thinker and result in better solutions. While it is natural for us to group ourselves together with people who are like us, if we’re all thinking alike, we will be less likely to change our beliefs on the basis of new information. The more we listen to people who share our views the more polarized we become. So, train yourself to intentionally get outside your personal bubble expanding your usual thinking and gain new, richer insights.
Critical thinking is a skill that we should be using every day. And, it’s likely that each of us could benefit from being better at it. I know I can as I’m too likely to jump into a situation and not carefully and objectively review all of the facts before going to the conclusion. So, this week won’t you join me in actively practicing Helen Lee Bouygues’ three skills: questioning assumptions, reasoning through logic, and seeking diversity of thought and collaboration as we go about our responsibilities.
Do endeavor to make it a productive week for you and your team. .  .     jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

  1. Charles Fernyhough, What do we mean by “thinking”?, Psychology Today, August 2010.
  2. A Brief History of the Idea of Critical Thinking, The Foundation for Critical Thinking website.
  3. Defining Critical Thinking, The Foundation for Critical Thinking website.
  4. Helen Lee Bouygues, 3 Simple Habits to Improve Your Critical Thinking, Harvard Business Review, May 2019.
  5. Stefan Mitrovic, What Are The Most Common Types of Thinking?, Mindvalley Blog, December 2018.

Other Reading:

  1. James Kelly, Types of Thinking, The Peak Performance Center, July 2015.
  2. Thinking: Types, Development and Tools, Psychology Discussion.
  3. Critical Thinking, Wikipedia.
  4. Alison Doyle, Critical Thinking Definition, Skill, and Examples, the balance careers, February 2019.