Critical thinking is the ability to analyze information objectively while evaluating all relevant information in order to reach a decision, judgment, or conclusion. It allows you to be more productive, helps you tackle complex issues, make faster decisions, approach challenges with confidence, and come up with proactive solutions.
We live in the age of information, but unfortunately, that also means we live in the age of misinformation. When answers are a click away and our search results are determined largely by algorithms, it can be easy to mistake misleading information or skewed facts as true. But when you can critically analyze information in an unemotional state, you’ll be able to find answers to any problem.
This ability to assess information is a skill that takes time and practice to hone. And it isn’t something you only use in one area of your life. Using critical thinking skills can improve your personal and professional relationships, and it can also increase your productivity at work and at home. Here are six ways to practice critical thinking and improve your skills.
It’s impossible to think critically if you go into a situation believing you already know the answer or refusing to consider all the possibilities in a problem. Being able to think critically is more than simply analyzing facts. You have to look at all possible answers—even the ones you might not know exist.
You have to be open to being wrong, to having your viewpoint challenged, and to be uncomfortable during the process. Don’t stay on one side of an argument, but rather, take both sides and try to find holes or inconsistencies. That doesn’t mean one viewpoint is right or wrong, but it can help you understand where you need to do more research.
A common mistake people make is approaching anything with the belief that they already know the answer. We all have certain biases in life. But being able to critically think means trying to be aware that these biases exist and find a way around them. By going into a situation with the eyes of a beginner, it’s easy to avoid these pitfalls and evaluate with an open mind.
Once you erase your biases and preconceived notions, the next thing you want to do is ask questions. Asking questions shouldn’t be something you do only when you don’t know an answer or the next steps. In order to assess what you don’t know, you need to first understand what you do know. And the only way you can do that is by learning not just how to ask questions, but what kind of questions.
Ask yourself, what if. And play with the possibility of everything—even the most ridiculous options. All innovation began through the lens of curiosity, and innovators are often contemplating ideas and possibilities that everyone else either told them was ridiculous or impossible.
When you get in the habit of asking questions, you’re training your brain to stop making assumptions. Do you already think you know the answer? What if you don’t? What are the options you haven’t considered? In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn, he describes how often innovation in industry occurs when people outside of the industry step in. It takes someone who doesn’t know to stop thinking in the same old ways. What are the assumptions you’re bringing into the problem? And how can you dismantle them?
Learning how to question what you actually know and challenging how confident you are in that knowledge will help you find your own innate biases. You can identify the areas to push on and explore, which can help you see the entire situation through new eyes. It can also help you identify if there are areas or pieces of information you might be overlooking.
Once you have answers to these fundamental questions, you can better understand your goals, establish the next steps you need to take to reach those goals, identify any obstacles and pitfalls you may encounter, and evaluate if there are any alternate solutions you can look at. With practice, these questions will begin to happen naturally whenever you need to analyze and evaluate a situation or piece of information.
All the questions should lead to a lot of unknowns. Now, it’s time to research. You don’t want to rely on one form of research. Utilize the internet to find resources, but read books, ask experts, and ask other people questions about what you’ve found. You’ll find that asking questions and research isn’t a before and after procedure. The more questions you ask, the more research you’ll do, which will lead to more questions.
The goal of research isn’t to uncover what you want to find, or even what you think you’ll find, but to exhaust every possibility until you have an answer—or even several answers. Rarely in life will there be one right answer. Life is often composed of shades of gray, and being able to think critically means discovering the layers in any problem, idea, or opinion.
Doing your research means that you’ll form an informed perspective on that specific topic. But you should never look at research or critical thinking as something that is ever complete. Facts change and you need to be adept at changing with them. In fact, adaptability is probably the greatest skill critical thinking unlocks for you because no matter what the situation is, or what changes in the future, you’ll always be able to approach it reasonably and find an informed, unbiased view.
In the age of the internet, developing your research skills is more necessary than ever. There is a lot of information that is easily accessible, but not all information is valued the same. Being able to sort through what is good information and discard the bad, is a skill that takes time and practice doing. And by constantly challenging your own viewpoints and researching the opposite side, you’ll be able to quickly evaluate the pros and cons, explore other points of view, determine short term and long term consequences, and discard information that isn’t useful or that you’ve discovered is flat out wrong.
In turn, being capable at research will increase your confidence in any area of life. You’ll know that no matter what is thrown at you, whether it’s a new project at work or an opinion from a close friend, you’ll be able to sort through the noise and find an unbiased, well-researched answer.
This might seem like it’s the same thing as being open, but self-awareness is being aware of the habits and thought patterns that will keep you from being open. You brain is programmed to create shortcuts, and your thoughts aren’t immune to this process. It’s a useful tactic in establishing behavior patterns that ensures you aren’t putting too much brainpower into mundane tasks, or always having to actively think of answers to things you already know. But it can hold you back when it comes to trying to evaluate situations and ideas.
Behavior patterns and thought biases run deep, and it takes active self-awareness to stop them from influencing how you think and what you do. this might mean tackling a deeply engrained belief or facing a situation you believe is immoral. Before you’ll be able to think critically about that, you’ll have to face those beliefs within yourself, and be aware of how they might influence your research and questions.
This requires constant check-ins with yourself. You’ll want to take time away from your research and reflect on how you’re feeling. If something makes you angry or sad, you’ll want to walk away and deal with those emotions before moving forward as those reactions will affect how you proceed. It can be difficult to challenge yourself without emotions rising up. That’s okay. You’re human. You simply want to have the awareness of what you’re feeling and work through those emotions so they aren’t impacting the process.
Self-awareness also goes into making sure you’re taking care of your body and brain. Are you exercising and moving throughout the day. Some problems might require a lot of focus, but your brain needs breaks and rest in order to function properly. Be aware of your physical state as well as your emotional and mental states.
Critical thinking doesn’t mean you have to get rid of your values, morals, or principles. In fact, they should deepen them once you approach them from an objective stance. But you do have to be aware of how they might influence your thinking. Understand what your limits are and be honest with yourself and others about what those limits are.
No one can see into the future. That’s not what we mean by foresight. In this instance, it’s the ability to infer a probably outcome based on your research. Part of thinking critically is being able to find an answer and then applying that answer to a potential future. And then apply the critical thinking steps to playing out that potential future by asking questions like who will this affect and how will they react.
This is also when you would analyze and evaluate what potential obstacles and challenges could stand in our way. These can often be more problematic than they initially appear and applying your conclusions to these potential futures can help you figure out major snags in your plan before you begin. Being able to do more research in the beginning can save you time, energy, and resources than having to stop and backtrack. Without foresight, it’s difficult to figure out what your next steps should be, and even more difficult to assess what might stand in your way.
One way you can practice foresight is by making a pro and con list. You’ll want to ask questions and map potential outcomes as far in the future as possible. This might require several lists with all possible outcomes mapped out, but this chart will help you visualize your analysis and the process will get more streamlined the more you apply it. And remember to be as detailed as possible, particularly in areas, ideas, and problems that are new to you.
While this might seem incredibly cumbersome, the good news is that the better you get at foresight, the better you get at applying it to other situations throughout your life. It will become second nature, and will help you figure out how to research multiple problems and ideas at once. You’ll notice that you’re making more objective decisions faster and with more confidence than ever before.
Practice active listening
Being able to actively listen is one of the most important skills in critical thinking. It’s also one of the most difficult. Most people listen so they can respond rather than taking in the entirety of what the other person is saying. And this is especially true when it comes to disagreements, being presented with information you believe you already know or have the answer to, or listening to something that makes you uncomfortable.
When you practice active listening, you’re concentrating wholly on what the speaker is saying. You aren’t thinking about rebuttals or ways to prove them right or wrong, you’re focus is entirely on paying attention to what they’re saying.
By being open and taking the information in, you break down defenses the other person might have and open the door for a deeper conversation. This might present information you wouldn’t have received before and strengthen your understanding by signaling to the other person that your questions are genuine rather than argumentative. It’s about taking the time to understand what is being said, and then responding carefully by referencing details you just heard.
Even if you aren’t actively solving a problem or needing to make a decision, active listening will enhance your critical thinking skills. You’ll be more present when difficult situations or conflicts arrive and your communication skills will break down barriers that will lead to faster resolutions.
You’ll also develop better relationships with the people around you, which can lead to more opportunities. The people around you will be able to help you with research and many uncover options and possibilities that you wouldn’t have been able to uncover on your own, or at least, perhaps not as quickly. These relationships, knowledge, and skills will then transfer to other areas of your life to broaden your perspective and enrich your experiences.
Active listening also develops empathy. You’ll have a deeper understanding of how people think and why. This will help you become responsive instead of reactive, and you’ll find that personal conflicts will decrease or be easily resolved. When you actively listen, you heighten your focus and concentration, increase your retention, learn how to reflect and evaluate, and improve your ability to interpret what’s being said. All of those skills are important and necessary in critical thinking.
Critical thinking is a skill you can use in every facet of your lives. It shifts your brain into higher executive functioning, so you can process problems objectively and make decisions based on a wide array of information. It helps you avoid your own biases so we can find solutions quickly and effectively.