A client requests a tight deadline on an intense project. Your childcare provider calls in sick on a day full of meetings. Payment from a contract gig is a month behind.
Your day-to-day will always have challenges, big and small. And no matter the size and urgency, they all ask you to use critical thinking to analyze the situation and arrive at the right solution.
Critical thinking includes a wide set of soft skills that encourage continuous learning, resilience, and self-reflection. The more you add to your professional toolbelt, the more equipped you’ll be to tackle whatever challenge presents itself. Here’s how to develop critical thinking, with examples explaining how to use it.
What are critical thinking skills?
Critical thinking skills are the skills you use to analyze information, imagine scenarios holistically, and create rational solutions. It’s a type of emotional intelligence that stimulates effective problem-solving and decision-making.
When you fine-tune your critical thinking skills, you seek beyond face-value observations and knee-jerk reactions. Instead, you harvest deeper insights and string together ideas and concepts in logical, sometimes out-of-the-box, ways.
Imagine a team working on a marketing strategy for a new set of services. That team might use critical thinking to balance goals and key performance indicators, like new customer acquisition costs, average monthly sales, and net profit margins. They understand the connections between overlapping factors to build a strategy that stays within budget and attracts new sales.
Looking for ways to improve critical thinking skills? Start by brushing up on the following soft skills that fall under this umbrella:
- Analytical thinking: Approaching problems with an analytical eye includes breaking down complex issues into small chunks and examining their significance. An example could be organizing customer feedback to identify trends and improve your product offerings.
- Open-mindedness: Push past cognitive biases and be receptive to different points of view and constructive feedback. Managers and team members who keep an open mind position themselves to hear new ideas that foster innovation.
- Creative thinking: With creative thinking, you can develop several ideas to address a single problem, like brainstorming more efficient workflow best practices to boost productivity and employee morale.
- Self-reflection: Self-reflection lets you examine your thinking and assumptions to stimulate healthier collaboration and thought processes. Maybe a bad first impression created a negative anchoring bias with a new coworker. Reflecting on your own behavior stirs up empathy and improves the relationship.
- Evaluation: With evaluation skills, you tackle the pros and cons of a situation based on logic rather than emotion. When prioritizing tasks, you might be tempted to do the fun or easy ones first, but evaluating their urgency and importance can help you make better decisions.
How to develop critical thinking skills: 12 tips
There’s no magic method to change your thinking processes. Improvement happens with small, intentional changes to your everyday habits until a more critical approach to thinking is automatic.
Here are 12 tips for building stronger self-awareness and learning how to improve critical thinking:
1. Be cautious
There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of skepticism. One of the core principles of critical thinking is asking questions and dissecting the available information. You might surprise yourself at what you find when you stop to think before taking action.
Before making a decision, use evidence, logic, and deductive reasoning to support your own opinions or challenge ideas. It helps you and your team avoid falling prey to bad information or resistance to change.
2. Ask open-ended questions
“Yes” or “no” questions invite agreement rather than reflection. Instead, ask open-ended questions that force you to engage in analysis and rumination. Digging deeper can help you identify potential biases, uncover assumptions, and arrive at new hypotheses and possible solutions.
3. Do your research
No matter your proficiency, you can always learn more. Turning to different points of view and information is a great way to develop a comprehensive understanding of a topic and make informed decisions. You’ll prioritize reliable information rather than fall into emotional or automatic decision-making.
4. Consider several opinions
You might spend so much time on your work that it’s easy to get stuck in your own perspective, especially if you work independently on a remote team. Make an effort to reach out to colleagues to hear different ideas and thought patterns. Their input might surprise you.
If or when you disagree, remember that you and your team share a common goal. Divergent opinions are constructive, so shift the focus to finding solutions rather than defending disagreements.
5. Learn to be quiet
Active listening is the intentional practice of concentrating on a conversation partner instead of your own thoughts. It’s about paying attention to detail and letting people know you value their opinions, which can open your mind to new perspectives and thought processes.
If you’re brainstorming with your team or having a 1:1 with a coworker, listen, ask clarifying questions, and work to understand other peoples’ viewpoints. Listening to your team will help you find fallacies in arguments to improve possible solutions.
6. Schedule reflection
Whether waking up at 5 am or using a procrastination hack, scheduling time to think puts you in a growth mindset. Your mind has natural cognitive biases to help you simplify decision-making, but squashing them is key to thinking critically and finding new solutions besides the ones you might gravitate toward. Creating time and calm space in your day gives you the chance to step back and visualize the biases that impact your decision-making.
7. Cultivate curiosity
With so many demands and job responsibilities, it’s easy to seek solace in routine. But getting out of your comfort zone helps spark critical thinking and find more solutions than you usually might.
If curiosity doesn’t come naturally to you, cultivate a thirst for knowledge by reskilling and upskilling. Not only will you add a new skill to your resume, but expanding the limits of your professional knowledge might motivate you to ask more questions.
You don’t have to develop critical thinking skills exclusively in the office. Whether on your break or finding a hobby to do after work, playing strategic games or filling out crosswords can prime your brain for problem-solving.
9. Write it down
Recording your thoughts with pen and paper can lead to stronger brain activity than typing them out on a keyboard. If you’re stuck and want to think more critically about a problem, writing your ideas can help you process information more deeply.
The act of recording ideas on paper can also improve your memory. Ideas are more likely to linger in the background of your mind, leading to deeper thinking that informs your decision-making process.
10. Speak up
Take opportunities to share your opinion, even if it intimidates you. Whether at a networking event with new people or a meeting with close colleagues, try to engage with people who challenge or help you develop your ideas. Having conversations that force you to support your position encourages you to refine your argument and think critically.
11. Stay humble
Ideas and concepts aren’t the same as real-life actions. There may be such a thing as negative outcomes, but there’s no such thing as a bad idea. At the brainstorming stage, don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
Sometimes the best solutions come from off-the-wall, unorthodox decisions. Sit in your creativity, let ideas flow, and don’t be afraid to share them with your colleagues. Putting yourself in a creative mindset helps you see situations from new perspectives and arrive at innovative conclusions.
12. Embrace discomfort
Get comfortable feeling uncomfortable. It isn’t easy when others challenge your ideas, but sometimes, it’s the only way to see new perspectives and think critically.
By willingly stepping into unfamiliar territory, you foster the resilience and flexibility you need to become a better thinker. You’ll learn how to pick yourself up from failure and approach problems from fresh angles.
How to practice critical thinking skills at work
Thinking critically is easier said than done. To help you understand its impact (and how to use it), here are two scenarios that require critical thinking skills and provide teachable moments.
Scenario #1: Unexpected delays and budget
Imagine your team is working on producing an event. Unexpectedly, a vendor explains they’ll be a week behind on delivering materials. Then another vendor sends a quote that’s more than you can afford. Unless you develop a creative solution, the team will have to push back deadlines and go over budget, potentially costing the client’s trust.
Here’s how you could approach the situation with creative thinking:
- Analyze the situation holistically: Determine how the delayed materials and over-budget quote will impact the rest of your timeline and financial resources. That way, you can identify whether you need to build an entirely new plan with new vendors, or if it’s worth it to readjust time and resources.
- Identify your alternative options: With careful assessment, your team decides that another vendor can’t provide the same materials in a quicker time frame. You’ll need to rearrange assignment schedules to complete everything on time.
- Collaborate and adapt: Your team has an emergency meeting to rearrange your project schedule. You write down each deliverable and determine which ones you can and can’t complete by the deadline. To compensate for lost time, you rearrange your task schedule to complete everything that doesn’t need the delayed materials first, then advance as far as you can on the tasks that do.
- Check different resources: In the meantime, you scour through your contact sheet to find alternative vendors that fit your budget. Accounting helps by providing old invoices to determine which vendors have quoted less for previous jobs. After pulling all your sources, you find a vendor that fits your budget.
- Maintain open communication: You create a special Slack channel to keep everyone up to date on changes, challenges, and additional delays. Keeping an open line encourages transparency on the team’s progress and boosts everyone’s confidence.
Scenario #2: Differing opinions
A conflict arises between two team members on the best approach for a new strategy for a gaming app. One believes that small tweaks to the current content are necessary to maintain user engagement and stay within budget. The other believes a bold revamp is needed to encourage new followers and stronger sales revenue.
Here’s how critical thinking could help this conflict:
- Listen actively: Give both team members the opportunity to present their ideas free of interruption. Encourage the entire team to ask open-ended questions to more fully understand and develop each argument.
- Flex your analytical skills: After learning more about both ideas, everyone should objectively assess the benefits and drawbacks of each approach. Analyze each idea’s risk, merits, and feasibility based on available data and the app’s goals and objectives.
- Identify common ground: The team discusses similarities between each approach and brainstorms ways to integrate both ideas, like making small but eye-catching modifications to existing content or using the same visual design in new media formats.
- Test new strategy: To test out the potential of a bolder strategy, the team decides to A/B test both approaches. You create a set of criteria to evenly distribute users by different demographics to analyze engagement, revenue, and customer turnover.
- Monitor and adapt: After implementing the A/B test, the team closely monitors the results of each strategy. You regroup and optimize the changes that provide stronger results after the testing. That way, all team members understand why you’re making the changes you decide to make.
Become your own best critic
You can’t think your problems away. But you can equip yourself with skills that help you move through your biggest challenges and find innovative solutions. Learning how to develop critical thinking is the start of honing an adaptable growth mindset.
Now that you have resources to increase critical thinking skills in your professional development, you can identify whether you embrace change or routine, are open or resistant to feedback, or turn to research or emotion will build self-awareness. From there, tweak and incorporate techniques to be a critical thinker when life presents you with a problem.