The quality of your thinking is demonstrated numerous times throughout your day, whether it be the questions you ask and the responses you give to colleagues’ questions or how you tackle execution of deep work. Your ability to think critically in small and big moments is directly linked to your professional—and personal—success.
Yet, it can be an underutilized and, therefore, an underdeveloped skillset. Like a muscle, critical thinking skills need to be trained in order to be strengthened.
“A problem with critical thinking is that we engage in thinking all of the time. We take it for granted and think that we’re good at it,” said Gerald Nosich, Ph.D., Senior Fellow, at The Foundation for Critical Thinking. “We’re often not.”
Among critical thinking’s numerous definitions, Dr. Nosich likes this one: The act of thinking about your thinking in order to improve your thinking.
I met Dr. Nosich when I attended The Foundation for Critical Thinking conference in 2018. What I found through his teaching was that critical thinking can be applied to nearly any situation and that even the scholars on the topic are still trying to master the skill. As daunting as that may sound, you can apply a quick set of questions to your thoughts—small and big.
Dr. Nosich and his colleagues at the foundation advise you to consider answering a set of questions that explore whether your process is reasonable and reflective—or a thorough and quality process—in order to from a better thought.
The Foundation for Critical Thinking offers a checklist of elements like purpose, assumptions and points of views to pursue in order to arrive at a reasonable thought. The elements are listed below with examples of a question that you might apply during thought.
- Purpose: What am I trying to accomplish?
- Question at Issue: What question am I trying to answer?
- Information: What do I need to answer my questions?
- Interpretation and Inference: What are my dominant conclusions?
- Concepts: What is the main idea?
- Assumptions: What am I taking for granted?
- Implications: What are the consequences of my reasoning?
- Point of View: Is there another point of view I should consider?
“If I’m making a decision or engaging in R&D on a device, I need to be asking myself: What question haven’t I asked? What problems am I likely to run into?” Dr. Nosich said. “In thinking about your thinking, you’re thinking about elements of reasoning.”
To enhance the quality of your thinking, the foundation has developed a set of intellectual standards that can be applied to your thought process. These include concepts like clarity, accuracy and logic. The list of standards are outlined below with practical questions that get to the root of their meaning.
- Clarity: Could you give me an example?
- Accuracy: How could we check whether that is true?
- Precision: Could you be more specific?
- Relevance: How does that relate to the problem?
- Depth: What are some of the complexities of this question?
- Breadth: Do we need to consider a different point of view?
- Logic: Does all of this make sense together?
- Significance: Which of these facts are the most important?
- Fairness: Am I representing all viewpoints?
Dr. Nosich uses depth as an example of why to engage in this sort of questioning. “If I’m making decisions about how to market or perform research on an orthopedic device, questions I’m going to ask myself are, What are some of the complexities of doing this? What are some of the complications that will inevitably arise?” he said. “When things go wrong, it’s often because there are complexities that were available for me to see ahead of time, but I didn’t look for them.”
Practice Makes Perfect (sort of)
Hundreds of times a day, you can sneak in an additional question or two or 12 to improve your thought. That behavior is really what it takes to improve your thinking skills.
Dr. Nosich compares critical thinking to sports. If your goal is to run faster, it’s not enough to watch people run. You need to consistently run. You need to seek advice on how to increase your speed. You need to ask for feedback on your technique.
Translated into your work life, pause before you speak and run your thought through an additional filter question. Share your goal with a colleague and ask for their feedback.
You’re making informative and vital decisions to drive your and your company’s success every day. The quality of your thought is reliant upon your ability to raise the right questions and overcome your biases in order to arrive at a well-developed conclusion.
Just like there’s no end to innovation in orthopedics, Dr. Nosich said, there’s no end to perfecting your thinking.