The Art of Critical Thinking: Asking Precise Questions and Giving Precise Answers Can Help US Make Better Decisions and Reduce the Conflicts That Often Arise When Resolving Issues

By Kennedy, Mary Lee | Information Outlook, June 2010 | Go to article overview

The Art of Critical Thinking: Asking Precise Questions and Giving Precise Answers Can Help US Make Better Decisions and Reduce the Conflicts That Often Arise When Resolving Issues


Kennedy, Mary Lee, Information Outlook


Each of us makes decisions that turn out to be incorrect or that we later regret, though we may not understand how or why we make them. John Hammond, Ralph Keeney and Howard Raiffa (2006) summarized the inherent difficulty in decision making very well by stating that" ... in making decisions, you may be at the mercy of your mind's strange workings."

A formal critical thinking process removes the likelihood of errors we are prone to make in decision making based on our previous experience, our conscious and unconscious biases, and the mode in which we interact with people. Good critical thinking means that we take a disciplined approach to decision making and problem solving, that we are open-minded and review an issue from all angles, and that we conduct productive discussions, taking into account our own and others' behaviors in dealing with conflict.

Critical thinking is defined as "the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action" (National Council 1987). In 2007, the Foundation for Critical Thinking published its "Online Model for Learning the Elements and Standards of Critical Thinking." This model is worth reviewing to understand the basics of critical thinking and to consult examples of behaviors that are useful in any decision-making process (regardless of the scope of the decision to be made).

This article does not propose to walk you through a step-by-step critical thinking exercise; rather, it focuses on two key components of critical thinking that require engaging stakeholders from your organization--either those to whom you report directly or those that involve partner and customer groups that depend on your services--and that are likely to have significant impacts on the choices you make regarding your work. These two very important components of critical thinking, which all good critical thinkers need to master, are decision making and conflict management.

Framing the Issue

Decision making requires you to do several things, as follows:

* Decide what the issue is and define it clearly;

* Determine whether this issue is the most important one for you to address;

* Define the questions related to the issue;

* Gather information and assess its relevance and accuracy;

* Develop well-reasoned conclusions, making sure to check for inferences;

* Develop solutions (note the plural here) and test them against relevant concepts, criteria and standards;

* Check your assumptions;

* Think through the implications and consequences of potential solutions;

* Engage key stakeholders in the decision-making process and in selecting the solution; and

* Choose a solution.

Framing an issue--in other words, deciding what the issue really is and scoping it out--is critical to focusing on the core of the problem or challenge. It ensures that the right questions are formulated to address the issue, the right people are involved in its resolution, and the subsequent steps follow logically. Framing is the first step in good critical thinking.

To better understand how to frame an issue, think of it as answering these basic questions:

* What is the real issue that needs to be addressed?

* How is the issue best made explicit in terms of subject(s), object(s), verb(s), and noun(s)?

* Which issues are related and should be addressed at the same time?

* Who is and needs to be involved in discussing and implementing the solution?

* How important is this issue's resolution in terms of other priorities?

* Are there constraints on resources (money, time or people) that will affect the decision?

* Are there political concerns that will affect the decision? …

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