Dr. Lee Kang Yam
Chief Learning Curator | Flame Centre
3 Tips to be a Critical Thinker
I find that critical thinking skills and the ability to share difficult truths are important competencies at the workplace. Albert Einstein said that, "Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly and rationally, understanding the logical connection between ideas." Critical thinking skill is the ability to interpret, observe and assess facts and observations in a situation and process them into information which can be used to make a decision or judgement. While people may be able to analyse and interpret the key issues, the courage to raise these issues is also important.
Let me use a story to illustrate critical thinking and ability to share difficult truths. Long time ago, in a faraway land, there was a place who had just gone through a revolution. The place was in a turmoil and people were frequently publicly executed as part of purges. One day, a group of three persons were to be guillotined, one priest, one magician and a consultant. The three persons were brought in front of the guillotine and before the execution, the chief presiding officer of the tribunal asked whether the three persons have any last words before they die.
The first person to be executed was the priest and he said, “God save me.” The priest’s head was placed under the blade and it was released but the priest was not beheaded. The people exclaimed, “His God has saved him!” The tribunal had no choice but to release the priest.
Next was the magician and his last words were, “Abracadabra, my magic will save me.” The blade was released and again the magician was not beheaded. The people went wild and shouted, “His magic has saved him.” The magician was released.
The third person, the consultant was brought under the blade and his last words were, “Actually if you examine the situation closely, the rope which pulls the blade up is too short, if you had lengthened the rope, you would have beheaded the two men,” It was a brilliant observation and the tribunal adopted the recommendation. The consultant was beheaded!
What a tragedy! Carl Jung once said, “Thinking is difficult. Therefore, let the herd pronounce judgment!” I think this quote sums up the above situation.
Thinking is hard because we need to take a moment to assess the situation and ask difficult questions or go against conventional wisdom. That’s why some people may subscribe to herd mentality or groupthink and jump to judgment quickly. It is easier to go with what the group believes rather than to question the status quo or challenge assumptions. People seem to have no time to think but have the time to fight the same fire repeatedly.
Here are three tips to become a critical thinker:
1. All man-made rules can be changed.
I remembered how hard we fought for alternate Saturdays off back in the nineties and the fear was that this would lead to a loss in productivity and cause people to become lazy. Now, we have 5-day work week or even remote work arrangements. Similarly, “all training must be conducted face-to-face” was the conventional wisdom until a pandemic forced us to rethink our assumptions about learning and working.
2. Take a time to pause and observe the situation.
Don’t jump to solutioning but ask questions such as:
• What is the situation right now? Is this a problem?
• Where is this happening? Where is this not happening?
• When is this happening?
• What changed and what remained the same?
• What outcomes do we want?
• Where are we right now? Diagnosing, solutioning or making a decision?
• What do we know so far and what do we not know?
• What do we need to move forward to our desired outcome?
• What is holding us back from this outcome?
There are many more questions we can ask in our quest to be a critical thinker.
3. Carefully observe how different people respond to situations and difficult questions.
Do they like to use the words like, ‘Yes, but’ to shut down discussions? Or do they pause and think? We need to guard against our mental models and preferred thinking process. We need to ‘clean’ our thought process first by removing quick discussion killer words like ‘but..’ Avoid using ‘buts’ in your replies to others, try using ‘how’ or rephrase the ‘buts’ to a ‘how’ sentence. For example, we can use phrases such as ‘how might we do this differently’ or ‘how might we make this work this time?’ Give it a try and see what happens.
In a world that demands constant adaptation and innovation, honing critical thinking skills and the ability to share difficult truths is not only a professional asset but also a path toward meaningful progress and improvement.
By embracing these competencies, we can navigate challenges more effectively and contribute to positive change in our workplaces and beyond. Critical thinking is the compass that guides us through the maze of conformity, and the courage to speak truth is the beacon that lights our path to progress.
As Winston Churchill once said, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen."
Learn more about market-proven applied critical thinking processes.