Critical thinking skills affect us at every level of our lives; everyone uses them to some degree. The thought processes involved in critical thinking inform our beliefs and our actions. Whether or not we are consciously aware of them, these skills affect our decision-making abilities. When we make the effort to use these skills with more controlled intentions they can reap rewards in our personal and professional lives. When we use critical thinking to our advantage it allows us to incorporate information that we have acquired through many different sources and apply that information to different scenarios in the process of using reasoning to come to the best possible outcome for our particular situations.
What is critical thinking?
Critical thinking is a mode of thought that requires the continuous challenging of our own ideals. It entails being open to new and updated information for the purpose of expanding our thought catalogue, and therefore, our ability to apply that new and updated information to different scenarios with intentions of allowing them to guide us towards the most reasonable, ethical, and empathetic choices in the appropriate situations.
According to the comprehensive definitions of critical thinking provided by The Foundation for Critical Thinking, (yes, it's a real thing) it is defined as having two components. The first component is the ability to acquire information as well as generate and process beliefs. The second is the ability to form the habit of using the first to guide your behavior. The collaborative skills involved in the process of critical thinking all work together to help us evolve into increasingly well informed, open-minded and logical individuals who make well informed, open-minded and logical decisions.
Why is critical thinking important in the workplace?
Now that you have a bit of context for what critical thinking is and how it works, we can talk a bit about how these particular skills are used in professional spaces. Possessing good critical thinking skills can positively affect your efficiency in the day to day tasks that you take on in the workplace.
For example, critical thinking in the workplace can take the form of effective observational and problem-solving skills. Each day when we walk into the workplace no matter the function of our positions, we are faced with problems or tasks that we must find solutions for. Being able to identify problems to be solved is the first step in our critical thinking process and involves using our ability to analyze information to identify what needs to be achieved —which is also the first step in completing any work-related project.
Once we have an objective in mind, we then move to phase two of the critical thinking process which involves identifying all possible angles to attack the problem or objective from and then choosing the solution that garners the best outcome. No matter where we work, this order of operations is likely the formula that keeps our workplace running smoothly and efficiently.
The next most important critical thinking skill in our day to day operations at work is the communication factor. Communication is the heart and soul of maintaining smooth operations in all professional spaces. When people can express thoughts, feelings and information to one another in a concise way this means that everyone has the appropriate information needed to make decisions that put that information to its best use. Beyond being able to communicate with others, it is necessary that individuals in the workplace are able to understand and synthesize the information that others are communicating to them. This is necessary to the process of accurately and appropriately implement the information that they are receiving towards solving the identified problem. Good verbal and nonverbal communication skills are necessary in using critical thinking at work because it ensures that there is a constant flow of information and ideas. Verbal communication serves the purpose of ensuring that information reaches the appropriate channels, while nonverbal communication (observational study) serves to provide individuals with opportunities to generate ideas for the purpose of communicating with others for problems and tasks that may arise later.
Examples of critical thinking skills.
There are a lot of everyday tasks that we participate in that require critical thinking skills, sometimes even on a subconscious level where we don't even realize that we're doing it! Below are a few examples of how critical thinking finds its way into our everyday lives.
Detail-oriented thought processing.
Few people dive into a situation without first asking for details. When faced with a situation like choosing a career or educational path, for example, we generate lots of questions to identify the finer details of our options, like "What's the average salary? Will you accept my transfer credits? " While we do have the bigger picture in mind in many of these cases, the smaller details are what ultimately informs our final decision.
Prioritizing information is an important part of utilizing our critical thinking skills. Everyday activities like scheduling responsibilities and listing daily or weekly tasks/goals means recognizing which tasks are the most time sensitive. This requires considering the risks or consequences associated with not performing a task by a certain deadline, the type of task it is (personal or professional), and what your motivation for completing the task is. A lot of thought goes into prioritizing our daily, weekly and monthly responsibilities.
When we are in search of information, half the battle is recognizing which information is relevant to our ultimate goal. We wouldn't write a research paper or prepare a presentation without first asking ourselves what kind of information is most accurate, relevant and up to date, right? Using critical thinking skills to determine whether or not our research is credible requires asking verifying questions and finding connections and congruencies between the information that you come across.
Collaborative problem solving.
Collaborative problem solving exercises the open-mindedness and communication aspects of our critical thinking skills. When working collaboratively with others we are put in a position where we must actively listen to the thoughts and ideas of others in order to achieve a common goal. In these scenarios it's necessary to consider all parts and make decisions collectively about the effectiveness of a particular idea before moving forward. Group projects are a good example of collaborative problem solving in action because in these scenarios the group is able to account for the blind spots in each other's thinking and provide perspective based on the different kinds of information that each individual is entering the group with.
If you've ever been in an argument then chances are, you've been in a situation where you've convinced yourself that you were in the right and the person was wrong. This is understandable, everyone's a little biased towards themselves and their beliefs. Situations like this can be a good opportunity to practice the critical thinking skill of self reflection. By becoming more aware of what your own intentions, motivations and reasoning for certain actions and decisions you make, you can better extend that courtesy to others by analyzing and synthesizing the information that they communicated to you. It's all about being open to perspective.
How to improve your critical thinking skills.
1. Observe your surroundings.
Being observant and taking mental notes of environmental stimuli helps strengthen your analysis and inference skills. Being in tune with your surroundings allows you to learn to notice information and cues quickly with enough practice, which will comes in handy in situations where you may have to use your critical thinking skills to make a split second decision.
2. Ask more questions.
Asking questions means being intentional about the kind of information that you're seeking out. When working on your critical thinking skills, being able to ask the right questions means gaining information from multiple points of view to wholly address all angles of a problem or situation. When you ask the right questions you can adequately inform yourself to make the best decision.
3. Practice active listening.
Being an active listener means that you can acquire more insight and information from others. When you're an active listener you're not just listening to respond, rather, you're listening to understand the information that others are giving to you and broadening your world view by genuinely engaging with the ideas and input of others. This then means that you may have gained perspective to apply to your next critical thinking endeavor.
4. Acknowledge your biases.
Sometimes the decisions we make are influenced by our personal biases towards a situation. When we have the self-awareness to acknowledge the biases that we have, we can choose to no longer allow them to influence our actions and decisions. Biases inhibit our ability to be open-minded and receptive to all possibilities that should be considered to come to the best outcome. Having the self-awareness to do this allows us to acknowledge when we're wrong or when our beliefs and ideas are limited.
Whether you're trying to decide on your next career move or if you should schedule lunch with a co-worker this week, implementing our critical thinking skills ensures that we're making decisions with the best of intentions. It's always a good idea to make smart, well-informed choices!