No one acts entirely rational. Our decisions, statements, behaviors, and even our thoughts are all products of personal assumptions about ourselves and the basic nature of people and the world.
The implications of this statement are profound: How we perceive and interpret everything we read, hear, and observe is affected by these assumptions. This link between assumption and interpretation drives the direction of your every interaction with others and is the root of your ability to think critically.
The power of assumptions to control your interpretations leads to your ability, or inability, to engage in critical thinking. Critical thinking is essentially the ability to peel away your own and others’ assumptions and uncover the truth of the matter. To engage in effective critical thinking you must develop three skills:
- Self-awareness: You must have the ability to detect and understand your own assumptions and how they influence your interpretation of people, information, and events.
- Learning: To think critically you need to be able to learn about pertinent issues.
- Curiosity: An essential skill is the ability to ask “Why?” and “How do we know that?” and similar questions.
Self-awareness is the starting point of your ability to think critically. It is vital that you develop a conscious understanding of your most basic assumptions about people and the world. Your own assumptions are the first and strongest “filters” you use when evaluating information and making decisions. Whether you think about it or not, you experience others’ assumptions as well as your own every day, all day long.
I once had a client who was a classic theory X manager. His assumption was that his employees were essentially lazy and would take the easiest route to getting the job done. In his mind, employees were selfish and needed authoritarian management because they didn’t have the ability to achieve results without clear controls and consequences. His view of people and the world is that there were a precious few in the world who had the ability to rise above and improve their position in life.
I know another man who is an effective blend of servant and authentic leader. His assumption is that in the right conditions, equipped with the right resources, and with visionary leadership, people can achieve most anything. He assumes that people are created with talents and desires and that we can all improve our position in life.
As you can imagine, how these people provided leadership (such as it was for the theory X manager) for others was profoundly different. Their basic assumptions about others and the world drove how they perceived and interpreted all forms of information at work. It is interesting to note that both of these individuals have a high degree of self-awareness and are excellent critical thinkers. Only one of the two, though, was effective in the next critical thinking skill: learning.
To be a critical thinker you need to go well beyond understanding your own assumptions. You must also develop a growing knowledge of pertinent subject matters. You ask, What subjects? In what discipline do you want to be a critical thinker? My PhD and Master’s learners at Capella University are studying management and leadership. Their specific degree programs are designed to equip them with knowledge appropriate for their discipline. In this case, the body of knowledge is essentially defined for the learner (although the best learners always supplement this with study of additional topics at the same time).
Those not in a formal program of study must be more proactive in determining what subjects to explore. Business leaders and managers need to consider their responsibilities as well as the challenges they face to identify subjects of study. The possibilities are endless: finance, strategy, marketing, communication, negotiation and conflict resolution, manufacturing, supply chain management, labor relations, human motivation, and so on.
It goes without saying that critical thinkers must develop knowledge of subjects that inform their work and about which they need to make mission-critical decisions. Leaders who do not understand the basics facts of their area of responsibility quickly lose respect and very quickly cease to be leaders!
Once you have determined what you need to study, don’t stop there! Whether you are in a formal program of study or you are a self-directed learner, study other, unrelated topics. For example, some of the topics I have explored that are not directly related to my profession include mathematics, the history and principles of Bible translation, and the history of risk. Studying “off-topic” helps keep your perspective of people and the world well rounded and inevitably leads to insights that inform your professional endeavors.
Studying off-topic is also closely related to the third discipline required for critical thinking: curiosity.
Put plain and simple, effective critical thinkers are curious. Critical thinkers must develop the ability to ask questions that reveal others’ most basic assumptions about people and the world (and discover if they are self-aware in the process) and obtain more knowledge from others to enhance learning.
Imagine a person who is self-aware and engaged in learning, but that person is not curious. For this individual, the self-awareness and learning are dead. The self-awareness and learning have no direction or application. Critical thinking without curiosity is much like leadership without vision – pointless.
How do you practice curiosity? Ask questions:
- Why is that?
- How do we know that?
- Are there other explanations?
- What are the assumptions that lead to that conclusion?
- What are the opposing viewpoints?
- How can I get more information?
- What factors will change this?
- What is your connection to this subject?
- What are my own assumptions that influence my interpretation?
The question list could go on endlessly. The most important task in developing curiosity is to practice. Try this: Without telling the other person what you are doing, the next time you engage in a conversation about a subject of importance, do nothing but ask questions. Don’t interrogate! Be conversational: “That’s an interesting point, Terry. Are there other ways of looking at that point? Would others offer alternative views?” After the conversation, take notes and explore two things: What did you learn about the subject that you wouldn’t otherwise know? Does this information help you be a better critical thinker on that subject?
Self-awareness, learning, and curiosity are three keys to becoming a critical thinker. It is difficult to work on all three disciplines at the same time. Pick one for each day. Keep notes, too. Do this for three weeks. As you rotate through this list several times (seven over the course of three weeks), you will quickly identify where you need the most work to becoming a critical thinker.
I would very much like to hear your experience with these disciplines and other approaches to developing critical thinking skills. Please post your ideas and share your reflections from your three week journey with practicing self-awareness, learning, and curiosity.
Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at]LeadStrategic.com with your questions.