Developing the Right Mindset and Skills
We make hundreds of decisions every day and, whether we realize it or not, we're all critical thinkers.
We're thinking critically whenever we weigh up our options, prioritize our responsibilities, or think ahead to the likely effects of our actions. The trouble is, research shows that we're not always very good at it. Yet more and more employers are naming critical thinking as a required skill in their job advertisements.
This article introduces you to a wide range of tools that you can start using straight away to develop your critical thinking skills.
What Is Critical Thinking?
Critical thinking is the discipline of rigorously and skillfully using information, experience, observation, and reasoning to guide your decisions, actions and beliefs. You'll need to actively question every step of your thinking process to do it well.
Developing the Right Mindset for Critical Thinking
Prime yourself for success by adopting an appropriate mindset before you work on developing specific skills.
Being willing and able to explore alternative approaches and experimental ideas is crucial. Can you think through "what if" scenarios, create plausible options, and test out your theories? If not, you'll tend to write off ideas and options too soon, so you may miss the best answer to your situation. Our article on Opening Closed Minds can help you to stay receptive.
You'll overlook important information if you allow yourself to become "blinkered," so stay up to date with facts and trends (SWOT and PEST analyses can be useful here), and seek clarification when things are unclear.
It's also important to emphasize logic over emotion. Emotion can be motivating but it can also lead you to take hasty and unwise action, so try to control your emotions and to be cautious in your judgments. Know when a conclusion is "fact" and when it is not. "Could-be-true" conclusions are based on assumptions and must be tested further. Read our article, Logical Fallacies, for help with this.
One particularly useful tool for critical thinking is the Ladder of Inference. It allows you to test and validate your thinking process, rather than jumping to poorly supported conclusions. (It's also known as the Process of Abstraction but don't confuse it with the Ladder of Abstraction.)
14 Key Critical Thinking Skills
Focus on the following areas to develop your critical thinking skills:
- Gather Information – Do you know how to gather information that's relevant to the task at hand? Check out our article on Overcoming Information Overload to help you to manage large amounts of data.
- Observe – You'll need to be curious and notice the details within the mass of information. Work on practicing your powers of observation.
- Infer – You must be skilled at reasoning and extending logic to come up with plausible options or outcomes. Inductive Reasoning and Appreciation can all help you to do this.
- Rationalize – This is about applying the laws of reason (induction, deduction, analogy) to judge an argument and determine its merits. Take a look at our article, Rational Thinking, for information about how to do this.
- Reflect – Regularly step back from the detail of your decision or problem, and look at the bigger picture. Consider what you've learned from your observations and experience. Gibbs' Reflective Cycle can be a useful tool here.
- Create – Use creative thinking tools, including The Simplex Process and Hurson's Productive Thinking Model, to balance cold logic.
- Classify and Sequence – Group and order items or ideas according to their characteristics, to help you to sift through the data. Affinity Diagrams, Chunking and Mind Maps® are useful for classifying items in this way.
- Compare and Contrast – Once you've determined how similar or different things are from one another, Paired Comparison Analysis can help you to choose between them.
- Analyze Cause and Effect – How does the motive or reason for an action or event (the cause) relate to its result or outcome (the effect)? Cause and Effect Diagrams and Interrelationship Diagrams can help you to work this out, along with 5 Whys, CATWOE and Root Cause Analysis.
- Synthesize – Identify new possible outcomes by using pieces of information that you already have. Try out Scenario Analysis and Brainstorming.
- Evaluate – Our article on Quantitative Pros and Cons can help you to weigh up a decision, while Decision Matrix Analysis and Decision Trees will help you to make your final choice.
- Predict – You'll need to find, analyze and extend trends to make sensible predictions about the future. Impact Analysis, Monte Carlo Analysis, Systems Diagrams, Cash Flow Forecasting, and The Futures Wheel are all useful tools here.
- Prioritize – It's essential that you can determine the importance of an event or situation and put it in the correct perspective. Our articles, Prioritization and The Action Priority Matrix, can help you to make the best use of your personal time and resources, while Practical Business Planning and Lafley and Martin’s Five-Step Strategy Model are useful when you're thinking about your whole organization.
- Summarize – You'll likely want to write a report of what happened or what you have learned, and you might be asked to turn your findings into a Mission or Vision Statement.
Combine these skills with the appropriate mindset so that you can make better decisions and adopt more effective courses of action.
Critical thinking involves rigorously and skilfully using information, experience, observation, and reasoning to guide your decisions, actions and beliefs.
You'll need to be open-minded to explore alternative possibilities, have a desire to stay informed and accurate, and manage your emotions so that they don't interfere with your decisions or actions.
There are 14 practical skill areas that you can add to this mindset to ensure that you demonstrate a high level of critical thinking.
Click on the thumbnail image below to see Critical Thinking represented in an infographic: