What are the tips for critical thinking

How to use critical thinking to improve your work

originally published: 08/30/2016

Perhaps this situation sounds familiar to you: You have just discussed with your new team how you want to approach your first project. Since you have recorded the results, you have also agreed to develop a "plan" from them and send them to your colleagues. You are motivated to do your job and you are convinced that you have done a very good job. Unfortunately, your “plan” is met with little enthusiasm: you had expected something completely different, “you can't work in a goal-oriented way” and “why aren't there any milestones?” Obviously you had very different ideas about what this “plan” should look like in concrete terms.

Such misunderstandings often arise, especially when people work together who do not yet know each other well and - as I would say - do not yet speak a common language. A “plan” can be thought of as very different things, so it's a vague term with different meanings. We use vague terms very often, even if we usually don't even notice them. Ask three of your friends or colleagues to write a "lock" and look at the results. Or look for three different projects that promote equity and ask employees what an equal opportunity society would look like. You will certainly get impressive, but also very different answers. Often it even works if you ask three different employees from the same organization.

Is that bad? No, in many cases not. There are good reasons to be vague. Often it is not necessary to specify what you mean. For example, when I ask my colleague to call me back, the context often makes it clear which number to dial. Sometimes you don't want to commit yourself further, for example in a conversation with a potential donor, in which you are happy to have found a common denominator with all the trouble. But there are also situations in which we stumble over vague terms because we unintentionally create misunderstandings or misunderstandings. What kind of situations are these? And how can you be dealt with?

Conceptual work in critical thinking

Vague terms are problematic when it is important to have a concrete common idea of ​​the concept that is being described with this term. For example, when tasks such as creating a plan are delegated. But also in strategic planning processes. Let us take the example of equal opportunities: Here it is essential to have a concrete common idea of ​​the desired goal in order to develop and assess various paths that could lead to this goal. Or even in the even more fundamental case: When such visions or models, i.e. the values ​​of an organization on which all work is based, are to be developed together. Then you should deal with both the ideas and the words that are supposed to communicate these ideas.

Method tips: word fields and situational examples

These are situations in which critical thinking helps, since it involves, among other things, conceptual work, i.e. the more detailed definition of vague concepts. I have had good experience in advising organizations with word fields and situational examples. In the first method, you blow up the term or let it explode: In a joint brainstorming session, all synonyms and adjacent words are collected. Then all antonyms, i.e. words with opposite meanings or associations. This is how the differences and limits can be explored: In a subsequent reflection, it quickly becomes clear that some of the suggested expressions are not associated with the term by others. For example, the last time I did this with the term “efficiency”, the group disagreed as to whether “deceleration” and “productivity” are adjacent or opposite words to “efficiency”. Situational examples are less tied to language. Here one collects pictures or situations that illustrate the term, paints them or recreates them. In this way, the bare words are placed in a context that appeals to the participants more holistically. When it came to “efficiency”, some participants had to think of a container port, for example.

If a team takes the time to define its most important terms in more detail, it not only works on the strategy element that is currently being developed, but also lays the foundations of a common language that will accompany you through the entire day-to-day work. At the same time, it develops very useful material for communication: The collected term clouds can be used again and again, for example, when it comes to developing texts, pitches or even guiding principles that expressively describe in a few words what the organization is about in its work .

Why critical thinking is important today - for your (future) organization and our society

Critical thinking, however, has much more to offer than conceptual work. Those who think critically explore how they perceive and why they believe or do something. Critical thinkers thus have certain skills and a certain attitude.

You can, among other things:

  • Recognize crucial questions and problems and formulate them clearly

  • Find and evaluate relevant information

  • Draw well-founded conclusions and make decisions

  • take their own perspectives as well as those of their fellow human beings, understanding their concepts and assumptions

In short: They are usually the ones who make connections, bring perspectives together, get a grip on complexity, uncover blind spots and consider and examine alternatives that have not yet been considered. In doing so, they always strive to understand and develop their own patterns of thought and action.

In this way, critical thinkers learn a lot about themselves and their fellow human beings, can develop solutions for acute challenges as well as sustainably strengthen the ability of their organization to act. In a world in which more and more information is available and in which people think, communicate and act faster and more superficially and in which it is also becoming increasingly difficult to understand the complex relationships in which we move on a daily basis, critical thinking is - as long as it is not one-sidedly fixated on rationality, but is thought holistically - one of the most important basic skills.

How to become a critical thinker

Reflecting on your own thought and action patterns is not something you do overnight. You can train your perception, analysis and decision-making mechanisms as persistently as professional athletes. As a first step, you can undertake to track down the vague terms that you use frequently and do more research to see if what you mean by a vague term such as “plan”, “equity” or “efficiency” corresponds to what your interlocutor means. You can do this without word fields on a whiteboard. Often it is enough to ask for an example or an analogy. In the case of the plan to be developed, for example, you could have made sure that you envision something similar under this term by asking your colleagues if they could show you an example of a plan that they normally work with. Or by first making a rough suggestion yourself and asking whether it corresponds to what you need. Often the speaker is not quite clear himself about what exactly he means and is grateful to be stimulated by you to a process of reflection.

If you find these questions exciting or if you have come up with challenges while reading the text that you would like to tackle for yourself or your organization with critical thinking, you are cordially invited to take part in one of my day training sessions. Here we cover a selection of the methods that I have found particularly helpful in my work with organizations over the past few years. In addition to the conceptual work, in the first part, which is dedicated to the topic of communication, we practice formulating precise questions and answers, which can significantly reduce the communication effort in a team. In the second part we go into strategy work and deal with various ways of evaluating information, drawing conclusions and making decisions. In particular, you will learn how to uncover hidden assumptions and thus think more impartially. In doing so, we apply what we have learned together again and again to the current challenges of the participants. So please bring your own questions and problems with you.

About Maren Drewes

Maren is a consultant, moderator and trainer who, with approaches from critical thinking, supports and accompanies organizations in developing their values, models and strategies in order to be able to have a long-term and sustainable effect. You can find out more about Maren's work at www.marendrewes.com