Critical thinking is the analysis of facts to form a judgment. The subject is complex, and several different definitions exist, which generally include the rational, skeptical, unbiased analysis, or evaluation of factual evidence.
You probably know someone or you are one of the people who question everything and everyone. Others may see this impolite or even annoying, but these people only want to fully understand the context and not always accept the status quo. That’s why they question it.
In professional jargon, this kind of behavior is called “critical thinking”. If you google this term or similar terms like “critical thinker” or “critical mind”, you will be overwhelmed by career tips, business websites and phrases like “critical thinking is a key qualification for modern business”. However, you can apply critical thinking in almost every area of life and not only at work.
In this article, we’ll explain critical thinking in detail. We’ll give you definitions, instructions, examples of critical thinking, explain why critical thinking is important and show you methods and techniques on how to improve your critical thinking. We will also show you situations in which it doesn’t make sense to think critically.
Of course, we will not only discuss critical thinking at work but also illustrate all areas of life, driven by mindfulness.
When you hear the term “critical thinking” for the first time, you may think that critical thinking has something to do with criticizing, or perhaps that you have to see things in negative. Criticism and thinking critically are two different things.
The term “critical” in this context refers to a certain ability of thinking and analytical attitude that you use when evaluating statements and assumptions.
Here you can read our article on analytical thinking.
Critical thinking is a process in which you can produce well-thought-out and reasoned arguments on a certain topic. In contrast to quick and reactive thinking, which is more a reflex or habit, critical thinking takes time. In doing so, you break down each argument and each assumption into its individual parts and connect these with other ideas.
Therefore, thinking critically is an active process and not a reflexive or rash thought that occurs passively. The “thoughtless” and reflexive thinking happens in the subconscious. As you may know, the subconscious mind is the center of many procedures in our body. It slumbers our habits and automatisms, including many mental habits.
To give you an example of a mental habit: Let’s assume you see a more successful person than you and you automatically ask why it’s not you who has the big house, the beautiful garden or the fancy car. In this example, the mental habit is negative (envy), which is triggered by a certain stimulus (you see a successful person) without actively thinking about it.
Critical Thinking Definition
The term critical thinking is more than just challenging things. It’s a process that consists of three components:
- Think carefully and in-depth
- Reason and Logic
- Judge your beliefs
Think carefully and in-depth means that you should be careful with your thoughts. Careful as in avoiding hasty conclusions or reactive actions in your considerations. Take the time to think through each argument carefully and question each assumption thoroughly.
A critical thinker focuses on the topic at hand and considers all its complexity. The goal of critical thinking should be to decide not only whether you accept or reject an argument, but also why you do so. The best way to do this is by defining a well-considered reason and explaining your opinion.
Critical thinking requires you to first break down each argument and situation into its individual parts. You have to critically question not only each “individual part”, but also the overall statement.
Important: critical thinking isn’t just a way of discussing things, it can also be applied in many everyday situations.
Reason and logic is the second component in order to think and argue critically. In order to solve problems in the best possible way, reason and logic are needed. In addition to reasoning, there are other ways to react to an event.
Many people make their decisions based on emotions, intuition, faith, common sense (or at least they think it’s common sense) or gut feeling.
The well-known gut feeling is basically nothing else than experience and intuition. We at HHC see gut instinct as a collection of experience. It’s the way you reacted to similar problems in the past. Many people trust it because it’s easier and they can stay in their comfort zone.
If you want to think critically, it’s important to use logic. However, this doesn’t mean that you should completely ignore your emotions or intuition. There are situations where it’s not always wise to question everything.
For example, in interpersonal relationships, it makes no sense to only think critically and analytically. In this case, you can and should trust your emotions and gut feeling. Whether it makes sense to think critically depends on the situation. Strictly speaking, deciding when to think in which direction (analytically, emotionally, intuitively) is already a decision based on critical thinking.
However, in situations in which it makes sense to apply critical thinking, you should rely entirely on your logic and analytical skills. The following example will show you how useful an analytical-logical way of thinking can be:
Let’s assume that you are afraid of seeing your dentist. Your feelings, in this case, fear, can be either well-founded or not. Unfounded fears are a sign of reactive behavior.
To counteract this reactive behavior, all you have to do is ask yourself if there is a reason for you to feel the way you feel. Has anything bad happened to you at the dentist in the past? Isn’t your dentist the best in the area or does he/she make you feel you can’t trust him/her?
This kind of analysis allows you to figure out if you are acting reactive, based on feelings and automatisms, or if your fear is justified. By the way, this is one way of learning how to think positively, because critical thinking lets you question your negative thoughts.
Judge your beliefs: The third component is particularly important for decision-making. Ultimately, when judging your beliefs, you need to find out whether your judgment is clearly biased or not. This may sound difficult at first, but it isn’t.
To judge your beliefs, simply ask yourself the following question: “Have I formed my own opinion or have I inherited the opinion of someone else?”
If in certain situations, you simply accept things without questioning them, you may inherit others’ opinions.
For example, imagine that you are on holiday at a beach town with your friend and you are discussing how to get from the hotel to the beach as fast as possible. Your friend argues that he was already there several times and knows his way around. He also says that the bus is the fastest way to get to the beach.
If you agree with your buddy without questioning faster ways to the beach, you will inherit the opinion of your friend. You’ll adopt his thoughts and believe that the bus in this town is the fastest way from the hotel to the beach.
These “inherited opinions” are about you believing things just because someone told you so. In our little example, you will always take the bus to the beach in Crete just because your friend told you it was the fastest way.
You can also see from this example when it makes sense to use critical thinking and when it doesn’t. Let’s say you question your friend’s decision to take the bus. He could take it personally and interpret it as a breach of trust, although you only wish to find the quickest way to the beach.
Many of us have inherited opinions on many topics. Especially when it comes to politics, there are a lot of opinions circulating that are blindly accepted or rejected by people.
Moral and ethical values, for example, are opinions that you inherited from your families, friends, and communities. You may don’t question these subjects and you don’t have to live your life completely analytically and logically.
If you look at these three components and put them together into a unified definition, then critical thinking can be defined as follows:
“Critical thinking is a way of thinking in which you, through logic and mindfulness towards your own thoughts, form your opinion on a subject and make the best decision based on your knowledge and understanding.”
Why Is Critical Thinking Important?
Critical thinking means reflecting and questioning things in a critical way in order to find the best possible solution. In fact, the importance of critical thinking is often underestimated.
Why critical thinking is important is shown in the following example:
Imagine that you are a seasoned designer in a design agency. The big projects in that agency are always given to other colleagues because they are exclusively given to employees who hold the position “Design Project Manager”. One day you see that there is an open position for this role which is the exact position you want to get promoted for.
At this point, you ask yourself: “How can I attract the attention of my supervisor in order to get promoted?”
Fortunately, there is an opportunity. Your supervisor asked both you and your colleague (who is also a designer) what the company should focus on in the next several years. Should the company invest more resources in the traditional design such as TV, print, and posters, or should it move towards digital media design?
You reply to the email to your manager the same day and declare that you would definitely do traditional design. Your other colleague takes a little more time, answers the next day and suggests moving into the digital direction by showing your manager a detailed report of how he/she came to this result.
Who is more likely to get the promotion in this situation is obvious, isn’t it?
Critical thinking skills are extremely useful at work, but it’s not the only situation where critical thoughts are advantageous.
For example, critical thinkers experience a number of advantages:
- Interdisciplinary knowledge and connecting different ideas easier
- Better prioritization of ideas and arguments
- Improved time management
- Faster recognition of false reasoning, both for you and for others
- Improved problem-solving skills as you can approach things more systematically
- Good opportunity for personal development, because you can not only question the thoughts of your colleagues and friends but also your own
- Supports your analytical abilities
- Increased self-confidence
- Improved perseverance through better arguments
- Critical Thinking Examples
- Man is sketching diagrams on whiteboard
Here are some examples of critical thinking in everyday life:
- A manager looks at questionnaires from his customers and uses this information to better train his customer service team
- After a car accident, the first responder has to analyze the situation in no time and make the best decision who to help first
- A creative writer organizes her ideas for an article she is writing. This increases the overall quality of the article and the reader has more fun reading it
- The examples show why critical thinking is so important. In some situations, it can even save lives.
How to Think Critically?
You now know what critical thinking is and how to define it. In this chapter, we would like to show you a method with which you can apply critical thinking in your everyday life.
Start by realize the following: You cannot apply critical thinking all the time and continuously question everything.
Actually, there are many times you think and feel everything but critical. For example, when you lose self-control and give in to feelings of anger, grief or joy. Then you’ll make decisions based on emotional thought processes.
As mentioned before, having emotional decisions and thoughts is perfectly fine. Emotions and character traits are the things that define us as humans.
Furthermore, it is our subconscious mind that often controls our thoughts and behaviors. If you are aware of this you can reprogram your subconscious and teach yourself how to improve your critical thinking skills. The way how you do this is to develop a routine and apply it to all future situations and problems. Let’s go ahead and have a look of this routine.
To improve your critical thinking, ask yourself the following questions when facing a situation you want to think through critically:
Learn Critical Thinking – Question 1: WHO?
Who is the talking that speaks? Do you know the person? How well do you actually know him or her? Has that person authority and power over you? Does the statement affect you or not?
In this step, you want to find out who the person is. In doing so, we mean not only the name and appearance but also background information about that person. This step is important because you need this information to further analyze the situation.
Learn Critical Thinking – Question 2: WHAT?
The second question on critical thinking refers to the statement itself: What was said?
In this step, you question the statement and break it down. Were facts given or are they personal opinions? If it’s a personal opinion, ask yourself: Have I already heard this opinion? Is it repeated from somebody else or the person’s own opinion?
If facts were given, you should question whether they were taken out of context and whether all important points were covered so that the statement makes sense or if something is missing.
Learn Critical Thinking – Question 3: WHERE?
Question the premises and the audience: Where was the statement made?
Was there an audience involved or was it said in private? If there was an audience: How did it look like?
Collect all the information and try to combine it with the other questions. Maybe there is a profound reason why this person said something in front of an audience.
Learn Critical Thinking – Question 4: WHEN?
Another important question, when it comes to improving critical thinking, is: When was the statement made? Is the timing important?
Let’s say a friend wants to discuss something with you and points out something he or she thinks you’ve been doing wrong for weeks. In this case, timing is especially important, as it provides more information about the background to his/her statements. Maybe he/she wants to protect you from further mistakes and that’s why he or she tells you at this point.
Learn Critical Thinking – Question 5: WHY?
Ask yourself why the person said what he or she said. Connect the information you gathered from the WHO question and try to find out more about the background of the statement.
Empathy and other soft skills can be very helpful for that.
Learn Critical Thinking – Question 6: HOW?
Look at the gestures and facial expressions of the person who is talking. Is the person angry, emotional, happy or quiet?
HOW is an important part of the critical thinking processes, allowing you to find out how the person feels and whether they care about it or not.
With this questioning techniques, you can become really good at developing critical thinking skills and apply them in everyday life. Just ask these six questions as often as possible in everyday situations to get the best results.
You don’t have to apply the questions chronologically, though. You can also start with the WHY, continue with the WHAT and stop with the WHO.
Much more important is that you first look at the information from the questions separately and neutrally (mindful if you like). The next step is then to combine the information from the individual questions and allow more context to flow in.
If you really want to improve your critical thinking fast, we recommend that you first learn to listen actively, as this skill will allow you to absorb more information, which you can then disassemble later.
Critical thinking is not a quick or easy process, even for advanced learners. To learn it properly you must invest time and practice frequently.
Keep in mind that you can’t and shouldn’t always think critically. It’s not possible to think critical-logically and analytically all the time, and that’s perfectly fine. Actually, there are times when critical thinking skills may do more damage than good. It’s okay to be emotional and you decide in what situations you want to be a critical thinker.
One of the biggest advantages of critical thinking is the fact that you can express your opinions and arguments logically and easy to understand. In fact, thinking critically goes so far that you can and should question your point of view, not only in front of others but also for yourself. Questioning your own viewpoints is an important technique for developing your personality and improving your self-reflection.