Critical thinking is about asking better questions


Critical thinking is the ability to analyze a problem and break it down effectively to make a decision or find a solution. The core of critical thinking is the ability to formulate profound, different and effective questions. For an effective questioning, start by holding your hypotheses loosely. Be prepared to fundamentally rethink your initial conclusions – and do so without being defensive. Second, listen more than you talk by actively listening. Third, leave your questions open and avoid yes-or-no questions. Fourth, consider the counter-intuitive to avoid falling into groupthink. Fifth, take the time to solve a problem, instead of making decisions unnecessarily quickly. Finally, ask for thoughtful, even difficult, follow-ups.

Are you tackling a new and difficult problem at work? Have you recently been promoted and are you trying to both understand your new role and offer a new perspective? Or are you new to the workforce and looking for ways to make a meaningful contribution along with your more experienced colleagues? If so, critical thinking — the ability to analyze a problem and break it down effectively to make a decision or find a solution — will be at the heart of your success. And at the heart of critical thinking is the ability to formulate profound, different, and effective questions.

Think about this: Clayton M. Christensen was arguably the greatest management thinker of the past 30 years. His “How Will You Measure Your Life” is a Harvard Business Review bestseller and one of the top five personal development articles I’ve read, and his theories about innovation and disruption have changed business. But my most memorable encounter with Christensen was a lecture at Harvard Business School, where he discussed his own approach to his time as an MBA student decades earlier.

He said HBS was the place where he learned to ask good questions. Impressed by his classmates, he took a notebook to class and wrote down the most enlightening questions other students were asking. He would then go home and think about how and why the students formulated them. Always curious, Christensen laid the foundation for his future insights by first studying the process by which people formulated their best questions.

You can approach curiosity just as rigorously — and use that process to get a better sense of a new situation or solve some of your toughest problems. Here are a few ways to improve your ability to interrogate even the most difficult subjects:

Hold your hypothesis loosely.

As a former analyst at McKinsey & Company, one of the first things I learned was ‘hypothesis-driven thinking’. This process, based on the scientific method, enables McKinsey teams to solve problems quickly and efficiently. It involves formulating an early answer to a problem and then digging into the data to improve and refine it. The core of this approach, however, is to hold your hypothesis loosely. If you’re too attached to your first answer, you can refuse to let it go, no matter where the data leads. But if you treat your own answer like a straw man and hold your assumptions loosely, you’re willing to let it go completely if the situation calls for it.

In critical thinking exercises, we often quickly fall into an intuitive and collectively supported “answer” or hypothesis – especially in groups – and we ask questions that our thoughts seek to prove rather than disprove. Critical questions, however, can force us to fundamentally rethink our initial conclusions, and we must be willing to do so freely without being defensive.

Listen more than you talk.

This sounds simple, but the key to good questions is active listening. Active listening is the process of understanding what another is saying – both explicitly and implicitly – while showing that you are engaged and interested. Successful active listening allows you to fully understand an argument, making it easier to question its logic.

Active listening also helps to ignore your brain’s “prediction engine” to ask better questions. Our brains are wired to generate efficient, intuitive answers, but that can limit your point of view. Deep listening is a way of ignoring that feature and opening up to a wider range of answers. It also allows you to show your counterpart that you care about what they say and take their perspective seriously, keeping them engaged in the conversation and more open to your perspective.

Leave your questions open.

Avoid asking yes-or-no questions when you begin your research. Instead, ask questions that force the respondent to open up and post extensively. Instead of asking, “Is this business stable?” question: “If this company were unstable, how or why would it be?” Instead of asking someone, “Are you happy at work?” question: “What do you like about your job and what could be improved?” or “Talk to me about a time when you found joy in your job and a time when you felt unmotivated.” Then follow the dialogue that arises with more questions. Open-ended questions encourage critical thinking in a group, allow an individual to expand their points of view, and allow people the space to actively solve problems.

Consider the counterintuitive.

When solving problems, we often quickly fall into groupthink: the group converges too quickly on a path, and instead of periodically making sure they’re going in the right direction, they keep moving forward – even if it’s going in the wrong direction. Be the person who asks the counter-intuitive question, the one who challenges the conventional thinking of the group and rethinks the first principles. Chances are that your question is not on the right track and that the group is on the right track. And yes, chances are your colleagues who want to move quickly will get annoyed. But every group has a duty to consider the counter-intuitive and needs someone who isn’t afraid to pose it, in case you need to change course.

Stew in a problem.

In today’s fast-paced world, we try to make decisions too quickly. But the best questions often arise after consultation and a good night’s sleep. Sleep can help your brain pick up on a problem and see it more clearly. And a well-considered process often leads to better conclusions. Research also shows that when we rush decisions, we often regret them, even if they are ultimately right.

What I like about Christensen’s approach to learning from his classmates’ questions is that he doesn’t diagnose them right away, but takes them home and carefully reviews them in his mind. I had a boss who referred to this as “stewing” into a problem. Just as a good stew takes time to simmer, a thoughtful conclusion or question may need space. Resist unnecessary urgency. Map out a process that can solve a problem over several days or more. Do your research first and then think about what you learned and what you should have asked. The questions you formulate in silent reflection can be more powerful than those in the moment.

Ask the hard follow-up questions.

It can be easy to put our brains on cruise control, accept easy answers, or give in to social pressures that push us not to question others. But the kinds of in-depth questions that enable critical thinking are often delivered in chains of deeper and deeper follow-up research. Every parent is familiar with the way children (nature’s most inquisitive people) will ask “why” dozens of times when given an answer. And we parents often get stuck or rethink our own answers at the end of this series of questions.

While we don’t have to pose a litany of “why” to get to the heart of critical thinking, we need to ask thoughtful, even hard, follow-up questions. It takes energy to listen carefully and formulate those follow-ups, and that is often the only way to deepen your critical understanding of a topic.

Critical thinking is at the heart of solving complex problems in new and exciting ways. Developing this important skill will help you navigate new roles, settle into your organization, or simply be baffled. Learn to formulate and ask questions, rather than simply answering them.

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