How to Think Critically
A few years ago, I was teaching English Composition classes at a small university in Albuquerque. It quickly became apparent that while this class was technically about writing essays, in reality it needed to be about learning how to think critically. No matter how thoroughly I taught basic essay concepts like developing a thesis, creating an outline, or citing sources, if the student’s argument had massive gaps in logic then their essay failed as a whole. And it wasn’t just one or two students who struggled with this; frequently it was most of the class.
While the ability to think critically is necessary in any profession, speakers and trainers have an additional responsibility because we’re in front of audiences, sharing information, and actively working to persuade others. We must carefully consider how and why we’re informing our audiences, and critical thinking is a key component of that process.
After much trial and error, I broke down the critical thinking components of the curriculum into a few key exercises that the students could repeat over and over again, throughout their academic career and beyond.
If you want to improve your critical thinking skills in order to deliver more logical, polished, and effective messages, consider incorporating these exercises into your mental routine.
Ask Yourself How You Could Be Wrong
Humans beings looooove being right. We love it so much that even when faced with overwhelming evidence that we could be wrong, many of us double-down on our point of view because we’ve developed an emotional attachment to it (I’m looking at you, Flat-Earthers). Part of this stems from how we think about our point of view: rather than consider where we could be wrong, we devote all of our energy into proving ourselves right. But focusing on all the ways you’re right creates a significant blind spot in your ability to think critically. There’s even a cool term for this phenomenon: Confirmation Bias.
When I began challenging my students to prove themselves wrong, extraordinary things happened. They were forced to go out and find credible evidence (more on that later) that contradicted their stances on particular subjects, which made them question why they believed what they did, and what else could they be wrong about? In some cases there wasn’t good evidence to the contrary, and it both affirmed their point of view and gave it credibility. But in many cases, they changed their minds when challenged to deeply consider the evidence supporting the other side.
Know Your Logical Fallacies
Have you ever been in a heated debate with someone and they said something to defend their point of view that just felt off? Maybe it was a distraction from the topic at hand (a red herring), or perhaps a hyperbolic statement about a whole group of people (hasty generalization), or even just straight up name calling (ad hominem). When you know your logical fallacies, you can immediately pick out a flawed argument and prevent yourself from being distracted or swayed by illogical points. Heads up, the people who most egregiously use logical fallacies are cable news pundits and politicians.
You can check out one of my favorite resources for learning all about logical fallacies here.
Verify Your Sources – Do They Have an Agenda?
Speaking of cable news pundits, what do you think is their main motivation? Do you think it’s to give you truthful, unbiased accounts of what is happening in the world? Or could it possibly be about saying things that get more clicks, views, etc. and therefore generates more revenue through ads? Where you get your information from matters, and if the people delivering the information to you know that saying incendiary and often untrue things gets a profitable reaction from the audience, then they will do it.
Beyond that, if the media outlet is catering to a specific base, they will also say things to keep their base happy (because we love being right, remember?), so Huffington Post will say things that would inflame a conservative mindset, and Fox News will say things that would enrage a progressive mindset. These days finding news sources that are relatively unbiased can be challenging, but they’re out there. And it’s worth it to develop your own, well-thought-out point of view about what’s going on in the world.
Listen More Than You Talk
All of the above exercises culminate in this: stop talking, start listening. Listening gives you a chance to gather important information, ponder what it means and whether any of it is illogical, form your own thoughts and opinions, and the ability to present them clearly. Listening is the true key to understanding.
We’re living in an unprecedented time in history, where anyone can access almost any information about anything they want. While this means that more people have the opportunity to become educated about this incredible world we live in, it also means there is more opportunity to manipulate and skew information in a specific way. And each of gets to choose what we want to do with it.