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The ability to remove emotion from an issue and look at it from all angles (clearly and rationally) to come to a decision by applying questions is known as critical thinking. It’s a valuable skill – and one that can be exceptionally useful in all kinds of environments. Improving critical thinking skills can be a great way to deal with challenges faster, with less angst and with potentially better outcomes.
Critical thinking involves seven individual skills: analysis, creative thinking, problem solving, logic assessment, interpretation and evaluation. It also allows for the ability to not simply accept the first argument presented, but to review it, consider it, question it and establish whether that argument applies or is valid to the situation or problem.
While the understanding of “what is critical thinking?” is relatively easy, how to do it is not so easy. There are no cut and dry methods because each person is unique and different and brains work in a number of different ways in each individual at different times.
One model for critical thinking is quite basic and easy to grasp and apply:
Start by looking at the situation you want to find the best answer to and describe it – you can use the who, what, where, when, why and how approach here. Once you are clear on what the issue is and how it looks, analyse it from all possible angles. This includes determining if the situation actually needs resolution, how it could be resolved, what the pros and cons are for each potential resolutions and determining is information is available to support the options. Finally, you will evaluate the success or failure of the outcome by using “what if”, “and then”, as prompts, applying odds and using the information that supports each option.
Using the above model, consider the situation where your teenage daughter has asked to borrow the car on Friday night to drive friends to a movie. In describing the scenario, you know your teen, Mandy, wants to take her friends Elise and Beth to a movie at 7 p.m. on Friday at the theatre about 15 minutes from your home. She will be home by 10 p.m. after dropping her friends off at their homes. It’s a social outing that helps Mandy gain greater esteem with her friends while having fun and taking the bus or being driven by a parent is not the optimal option now that Mandy has moved passed her learners licence to her new driver license.
In analyzing the situation factually, you know that Mandy is a good driver without any incidents. Her friends are also responsible girls that you have not known to be in serious trouble. It’s a school night and Mandy has promised to have everyone home before 10 p.m. The car is insured for Mandy to drive it and is complete with all the standard safety devices like seatbelts, airbags, etc.
If you let Mandy take the car and she is home by 10, she will build her – and your – confidence in her ability to drive with her friends. If she isn’t home by 10, you will worry and likely have to field questions from the other girls’ parents leading to a potential discipline issue at home. If Mandy has an accident the car is insured, but there could be injuries. If you don’t let her use the car, there will be a fight and you risk holding back Mandy’s independence and possibly harming the fragile balance of a parent-teen relationship.
By working through each of the options, you can then apply the likelihood of each scenario playing out by using the “what if”, “and then” question and answer process. Unfortunately, in this example, it’s almost impossible to completely remove emotion from the scenario since it is your daughter and this is a parenting milestone. However, by using critical thinking, you can come to a solution that feels logical and allows you to work through each possible scenario (no matter how slight it’s likelihood) to avoid the “what if” game being played out emotionally.
Anyone who wants to fully-assess as situation on any level can use critical thinking. It takes time to build up the skills so that they come naturally and flow quickly, but the outcomes are positive. Critical thinkers are able to solve problems faster and with a greater level of comfort, with limited emotional interference once a decision has been made. This is because the problem has been fully reviewed from all possible angles and there is no proverbial stone left unturned.
In the workplace, critical thinking can help you address issues preventing you from doing your best work and enjoying what you do to its fullest. Another example of a critical thinking situation might be whether to stay with a current job or take a different one. Here too, the steps of describe, analyse and evaluate will allow you to move through the situation and look at it from all possible angles with as little emotional interference as possible.
When dealing with life’s everyday issues, like a daughter who wants to borrow the car, working through the model can help build skills when they are applied in a way that works best for you. This is where acceptance of each person’s different way of thinking comes into play.
For some, tackling the issue as it arises may be the best way to deal with it, but for most of us, that’s not possible due to everyday life. Thus, the first strategy is to use the “found time” in a day. This means working through an issue when waiting at the doctor’s office, sitting in traffic or before flipping the TV on.
Most mental health experts suggest only focusing on one problem at a time rather than trying to manage critical thinking on simultaneous issues. So, if Mandy wants to borrow the car at the same time you’ve been offered another job, it’s best to tackle the most urgent issue first.
Another strategy is to push your boundaries by looking at things differently. This means taking the “what ifs” to places you might not normally consider.
Critical thinking is an important life skill and is easy to learn and develop by applying it to everyday issues before moving on to more complex challenges.