Critical Thinking – What Exactly Is It?

critical thinkingMost employers are now concerned with ensuring that staff and new recruits have critical thinking skills. One hears this term frequently yet when you ask managers to explain what they mean by critical thinking, you get a variety of answers ranging from “critical thinking skills are necessary for problem solving” to some kind of vague ability to “evaluate information more objectively“. In fact, problem solving skills derive from the ability to think critically so obviously critical thinking is a kind of aggregate or super-set of several other skills…

Rather than going through a futile exercise of defining critical thinking exactly (thinking cannot ever be exactly defined anyway), we will just use a broad definition to provide approximate guidance then list the much-better known constituent skills that make up what is referred to as critical thinking.

Broad Definition

Critical thinking is about evaluating data, observations, well-known facts, available research as well as opinions to draw some conclusions related to solving a problem or taking a decision.

So the rationale for critical thinking is that it requires some logical reasons and arguments for adopting one position or another rather than a default, gut-feel “this is how we will proceed” kind of approach.

List of Constituent Skills

So what are the typical skills needed to become a critical thinker. You may be having some of these already while some may be missing. Here is the list:

1- Questioning and Clarification Skills – The ability to ask the right questions is absolutely key. Asking questions like “how will this work?“, “what will work best in this situation?“, “what other alternatives are available?“, “what has been the experience of others who have tried this?” is usually a valuable first-step. Part of the questioning process is using clarification questions to ensure there is little or no ambiguity.

2- Analysis and Framing Skills – This refers to the ability to examine, process, assess and understand the variety of incoming information and then frame it. Framing means defining the issue, phrasing it or re-phrasing it in a different manner perhaps, creating a context. This is essentially about articulating the issue or problem or situation in a way that provides clarity to all stakeholders. As they say, you can’t fix a problem until you can define what it is.

3- Brainstorming and Idea Generation Skills – Whether it is a problem to be solved or a decision to be made, the quality of the outcome is almost always a function of what alternatives were considered and the creativity in the idea generation process. This is a time for reflective thinking, consultation with others and accepting without judgement as many opinions and ideas as possible.

4- Evaluation, Interpretation and Inference Skills – Once you have received all the possible inputs and assessed/framed these and you have spent time looking at alternatives and potential new ideas, it is time to convert all of this into potential, actionable outcomes. Evaluation and interpretation is basically about looking at validity and relevance of ideas. You may get a lot of ideas (a good thing as we indicated in the previous paragraph) but inevitably not all will be practical or relevant. It is important to state here that relevance or validity becomes more obvious when you and others can see it alongside the other irrelevant, impractical stuff. Inference of course is about drawing some conclusions based on the evaluation.

5- Objectivity Skills – This is perhaps the most important of all and one that needs to be there at all stages from the early questioning stage to the final inference and conclusion stage. Objectivity is also the hardest because it means shedding your bias to lean every time towards your own knowledge, experience, opinion and tendency. Objectivity can be developed by listening, trying to respect the opinions of others and by an appreciation that it is simply outside mathematical possibility that you will be right every time.

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