Critical Thinking & Communication
Critical thinking and communication are closely related. If you aren’t able to think critically about problems, information, and obstacles as they relate to your relationships, the media you consume, and the conversations you have, you are set up to fail. If you can’t think critically, communication won’t be as good as it possibly can be. Good critical thinking directly influences the quality and nature of the messages you send, the conversations you have, the decisions you make, and the overall quality of your communication interactions.
Critical thinking helps communication improve. And good communication influences critical thinking.
“Critical thinking” means getting beyond just the surface-level questions about a topic or subject during a conversation or discussion. Think of critical thinking as interrogating and investigating an idea, a current state, or potential solution on the merits of its rigor and its usefulness. If you can’t “think critically” well, you’re quite simply at a disadvantage when you communicate. There is a steamroller of disinformation out there, tricky people everywhere, and there are important decisions all over the place! Better critical thinking helps you to analyze problems more adeptly, helps to create better connections with people, and achieves more positive, productive outcomes.
Critical thinking is an active process. You have to make a willful, conscious decision to engage in it. It’s a skill that needs to be exercised and practiced. It doesn’t just happens automatically. You have to put your critical thinking hat on and leave it on, almost quite literally. It can protect and shield you from all the bad ideas that are out there.
So what does better critical thinking get us? So what?
What Does Critical Thinking Get Us?
Critical thinking, done in good faith, results in better outputs (ideas, conversations, relationships). Critical thinking leads to better communication outcomes. This goes both for you individually, for pairs of people, and for collective groups. It’s our human gift to be able to more rigorously interrogate ideas, thoroughly vet outcomes, and collaborate with people to create better outcomes. More critical thinking simply cannot be bad.
Critical thinking isn’t required only about big, obvious problems either. Of course we should think critically collectively about the large problems that face us (Police Reform, for example). That’s obvious. Similarly, of course it’s in your interest to think critically about problems and challenges, say, at your job. But we’re constantly faced with an array of problems, large and small. These problems happen at large scales with problems that are beyond any one person and they are the more simple sorts of relational problems that can be solved between two people with just slightly more close, dedicated effort.
So, how can we think critically, better?
Critical Thinking Explained
Critical thinking is essentially a purposeful process of asking questions. We can start by thinking of questions in standard categories: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. Some questions to ask yourself to stimulate critical thinking:
Who … benefits from this?
Who … is harmed?
Who … makes the decision?
Who … is directly affected? In what ways?
Who … if anyone, would be a good person to consult?
What … are the strengths/weaknesses?
What … is another perspective or good alternative?
What … would be a counter argument?
What … is most important/least important?
What … is blocking us?
What … can we do to make a positive change?
Where … could we learn from others?
Where … can we get more information?
Where … to improve?
Where … could we get help?
Where … will this idea take us?
When … will we know we’ve succeeded?
When … can we expect to see change?
When … should we ask for help?
When … could this cause a problem?
When … should we revisit this issue to assess?
Why … do we think this is a problem?
Why … is this relevant to me (or us)?
Why … is this the best solution for now?
Why … has it been this way for so long?
Why … have we allowed this to happen?
How … does this benefit me, us, or others?
How … does this harm me, us, or others?
How … does this change things?
How … do we know the truth about this?
You can ask those you’re communicating with — or yourself — any of these questions or any combination of them. You can also come up with your own similar questions! These are just a guide to help get you started. There’s no limit to the amount or quality of good questions you can ask. Sprinkle these into your conversations and discussions as appropriate.
These questions, while decent inspiration, are quite stiff. “When should we revisit this issue to assess?” sounds halting and jerky. You’re not a robot, are you? Don’t ask it like that! Try to sound human. Say something like “Hey, uh, everybody? When can we follow up on this in a week or so to uhh, you know, check we’re doing alright?” You know, how people talk.
The Shape of Critical Thinking
Good critical thinking interrogates an idea or problem purposefully, whether that is individually or together. Hopefully this is done in a spirit of making progress. In practice, what critical thinking looks like can vary. There’s no one way to perform critical thinking to be proper, thorough, or fair.
What’s more is that critical thinking isn’t just for relationships and the problems we face in them. Critical thinking is, at an even broader level, often about our human relationships with information: as we consume it, as we interact with it (and people spewing it off), and as we sift through the bombardments of information, advertisements, and messages that constantly pelt us like radioactive symbolic fallout. Critical thinking is your built-in BS detector.
Critical thinking is a tool for life. Use that brain evolution gave you! We should all strive to be better critical thinkers. Question things: authority, motive, tactics, perspective. Question it all, especially those in power and people trying to sell you things.
A Few Words About Emotions
Critical thinking isn’t a purely rational process. There is no such thing as a purely rational process. Beware those trumpeting their “rationality,” their humanity has likely been corrupted. Emotions are real and powerful. They are relevant and even central when you’re hashing out difficult problems with people. Interrogating others (and yourself) can be emotionally challenging. That’s ok. That’s exactly part of the process of communicating and part of critical thinking. Try to embrace and express authentic emotions appropriately, knowing full well that what’s “appropriate” is always shifting and political. Emotive expressions, when listened to, are evidence of systemic problems that lie beneath. Strive to be flexible to and open to the authentic expressions of others. You can’t tell people in pain to suppress emotions.
Critical thinking is hard. We don’t do it enough. It’s easy to *not* do it, because you have to actively engage in its practice. The residuals of evolution are pulling you in the other direction. Your monkey brain wants shortcuts, but you have to fight against this. Critical thinking improves communication. And good communication influences critical thinking. The relationship is reciprocal.
Hashing out an idea with someone, critical thinking with them, is bond-forming. When you are able to rigorously vet and work out an idea or problem with another person, regardless of the size or type or shape of that problem, you are forming a bond with them. You are connecting. You are making something better. Engage in it. Surrender to the process. Get in there and mix it up.