Sunday 22 July 2018

Gina London: Five ways to boost your critical-thinking skills

'Employers are looking for problem-solvers and innovators.' Stock image
'Employers are looking for problem-solvers and innovators.' Stock image

Gina London

As I wrap up my meeting and speaking tour of Australia and New Zealand, I can assure you that the recent decision by Melania Trump to wear that jacket emblazoned with, 'I don't really care, do U?' made the headlines here in Sydney just as it did in my regular part of the world. Much has been written about what she might have (or might not have been) thinking when she made that particular fashion statement choice, so I won't repeat the exploration here. But, because I do care, I want to spend time reminding us about what it takes to become a more critical thinker.

With fake news, bots and social media trolling, we now know we can't believe everything we read. But what can we do? One thing, perhaps, is to sign up with Gleb Tsipursky, an assistant professor at Ohio State University, who has launched an initiative called 'The Pro-Truth Pledge' to fight misinformation and incivility through behavioural science and crowdsourcing.

The pledge encourages people to commit to clarifying between opinions and facts and to consistently cite sources.

You can also actively slow yourself down and make more evaluated decisions.

With AI, machine learning and robots eliminating many jobs and changing the workplace, we as professionals must diligently seek to improve our abilities to analyse assertions and arguments. Employers are looking for problem-solvers and innovators.

Yet, our brains are programmed to take the path of least resistance when making decisions and forming opinions. And sometimes that's a good thing. As Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman wrote in his famous book (which I have mentioned in this column before), Thinking, Fast and Slow, there are times when what the fast and intuitive system in our brain prefers is the perfect choice. Like when someone asks you for your address. Easy access. Got it. No problem.

But if you apply that reflexive style to a management, workplace, political or financial pronouncement, you risk a snap judgement with unintended negative effects. Kahneman writes that when an impulsive answer comes quickly to mind, it takes hard work to override your gut in favour of deliberation.

Here are ideas to help you dive deeper.

1 Check the Source

As Tsipursky urges, you should consider the source of any claim. Is a source even given? Is it reputable? What are their motivations? What do they gain if you agree?

2 Beware of Absolutes

I generally don't care for over-generalisations. (See what I did there?) But seriously, when someone starts with, "Everyone agrees that…" or "Everybody says that…" my mental alarm goes off. Really? "Everyone?" Who, specifically?

3 Guard your Emotions

We're emotional beings. Persuasive speakers and writers know that, so watch out when they play heavily to your feelings. Especially negative ones. People can get whipped into a frenzy and take action before considering what's really at hand. The angry mob with the torches and pitchforks isn't a cliche for nothing. Poor Frankenstein's monster.

4 Correlation is not Causation

Two things can appear connected when they are described in a certain way, but that does not necessarily mean that the first thing caused the second one. For instance, comedian Paul Martell, who entertained at a couple of the Irish-Australian corporate lunches I attended, joked that US President Donald Trump should follow China's 2000-year-old example of building a Great Wall. "It works," Paul quipped, "I recently visited China and didn't see a single Mexican."

I'll leave you to gauge that knee-slapper on your own time - but do remember to step back for a moment when someone links two things at work, or in the media. They may indeed be causal, but you may also need more than one supporting correlation to prove it.

5 Ask yourself questions

This all leads us to the most obvious point of today's column. To become a more careful, critical thinker, it's critical to pause and ask yourself questions before you react, respond, decide or take action.

If Melania had stopped for a moment and asked herself, "Why am I reaching for this specific jacket?" she may have eliminated the fallout. Stopping for a moment and asking, "Why?" may prevent an error in judgement.

Critical thinking, as with any learned skill, requires dedication and practice.

Today's bonus communications tip:

An executive I spoke to in Australia was frustrated by what he said was the lack of communications from his CEO. I asked for an example and he said that the last two reports he emailed the boss, asking for feedback, were returned merely with the 'thumbs up' emoji.

Come on, folks. We can do better than that. If your colleague, employee or employer is asking for a general up or down, by all means emoji away. But if you're being asked for specific feedback, at least manage expectations by first acknowledging you have received the information, setting a deadline for responding and then by actually providing the response.

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