Critical Thinking. Analytical Thinking. Criticism. Oh My!
“… I can pick apart any argument and, by the end, you’ll be feeling just like me …“
I recently overheard someone talking about what a “great critical thinker” they have become. Their evidence? “Oh, I can pick apart any argument and, by the end, you’ll be feeling just like me” was the response.
Unfortunately, being critical of a topic has become very easy through our instant communication across the Internet while the art and skill of true critical thinking and analytical thinking have, arguably, become less utilized and perhaps even less understood.
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In this article, let’s take a look at the subjects of critical thinking and analytical thinking; how they differ and compliment each other; how they differ from pure criticism; and what questions we can ask ourselves in order to grow our critical thinking skills.
What is critical thinking? What role does analytical thinking play?
“… some team members would conflate critical thinking with analytical thinking – especially when evaluating readiness to advance their leadership within the team or organization …”
Critical thinking may be defined as “disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence.” We all make hundreds of decisions every day, many without a great deal of thought regarding the impact. Whether you are a formal leader or want to provide the best outcomes for yourself and those you care about, critical thinking is an incredibly valuable skill.
In my corporate life, it is one of the key skills I valued most in my staff members. I did find that some team members would conflate critical thinking with analytical thinking – especially when evaluating readiness to advance their leadership within the team or organization.
Analytical thinking is the process of analyzing a problem with the intent of solving that problem. Many of the engineers, analysts, testers, and other roles on my teams developed very strong analytical though, problem solving, abilities and were very valued for these talents.
So how do analytical thinking (AT) and critical thinking (CT) relate? In some sources, the difference is described as AT being linear (going methodically from step to step) versus CT being circular (drawing from disparate sources to come to a conclusion). From a personal perspective, analytical thought can provide necessary, critical, factual information that can feed into one’s critical thought process.
For example, let’s say that your manager asks you to create a report that shows the number of widgets your team produced over the past year. You may use an analytical thought process to determine the appropriate data, how to present the data in a logical way, and how to deliver the report to your manager in a timely fashion. Additional value can be realized by thinking (critically) about the data and identifying questions on trends, impacts, etc. that may lead to more productive analysis of the data.
Understanding the differences between the thought processes, how they compliment each other, and the need to cultivate critical thought skills needed for more advanced roles can be challenging. This can be even more challenging when someone interprets their ability to “criticize” as being skilled at “critical thought”.
To help distinguish between Critical Thought and Criticism I offer the following characteristics for comparison:
- Ability to modify position based on new information.
- Questions to learn and understand. Questioning is encouraged. Curious.
- Identifies personal biases and leverages facts and data to remain objective.
- Acknowledges impacts of decisions and actions or inaction on others as well as self. Acknowledges emotions involved while working to maintain objectivity.
- Welcomes and considers multiple perspectives. Takes into account that different people may have unique motivators while having a common objective.
- Requires some effort to think about topics from different perspectives. May be even more difficult to support a position that does not directly impact you (or may negatively impact you) because of its benefit to the company, society, others, etc. as a whole.
- Inflexibility to modify positing even in the face of new data.
- Questions to embarrass, belittle, and create doubt.
- Questions others while deflecting or refusing to be questioned. Shuns any perspective that differs from their own.
- Self-focused decision making. Feigns selflessness while ignoring impacts on others.
- Uses all means available to support position regardless of data. May have large gaps in logic that they “have proof” but refuse to provide the information and source(s). Embraces biases.
- Leverages emotional subjects or triggers to support position especially where evidence and factual support is lacking. May dismiss factual support from opposing views.
- Uses false-equivalents, personal attacks, and other techniques to divert attention from the subject to justify decisions or actions.
- Much less effort than CT as it requires little thought and taps strong emotions.
You may notice that some of the themes of the CT are curiosity, objectivity, and continual evaluation and evolution where those for criticizing are largely in opposition – close-minded, support of position regardless of logic or opposing views, leveraging fear, doubt, and other emotions in the absence of facts.
Unfortunately there are far too many people willing to embrace criticizing others rather than thinking critically about subjects. It’s likely that you’ve observed this in person online and may even be dealing with it at your workplace.
Train your brain!
What steps can I take to think more critically (avoiding “criticizing”)?
Use these 10 questions to help improve your critical thought processes.
So you’d like to start thinking more critically and avoid “criticizing”? I recommend the following 10 questions to help you think more critically and develop your skills:
- What am I trying to accomplish with this decision? Who, beyond myself, is impacted and how are they impacted?
- What do I know about the subject?
- What more do I need to know to make an informed decision?
- How can I get the information I need?
- What sources should I trust more than others? Why do I trust them (logical vs emotional)?
- Does the source information have supporting data? If so, how much support? Do opposing views make logical arguments or appeal to emotional or personal biases?
- Who will benefit from my support of the position? Note that the size of the benefitting group does not necessarily dictate a thought direction but may help you think about potential personal biases to be aware of during your thought process.
- Does this align with my personal values? This may not dictate a “right” or “wrong” answer overall but it does help you identify how you may feel about the decision long term. In some cases it may be worthwhile to investigate your personal beliefs as an opportunity for personal growth. In others, it may suggest that the environment in which you are making the decisions may not be a good, long-term fit for you if you are consistently being asked to work against your personal values.
- Does this decision provide me benefit at the expense of others?
- Test your decision. Does my decision hold up to logical challenge? What are potential unexpected/unintended consequences of this decision? Who benefits and is negatively impacted by these unintended consequences? Why are others drawn to the opposing view?
Being able to leverage information from a variety of sources and draw an objective opinion and make decisions based on that information is an important skill especially if you’re leading or influencing others. Since this skill is one of continuous growth you shouldn’t expect to become a “master” but rather seek incremental self-improvement with time. The best way to improve is to start working on your critical thinking skills today and practicing every day.
Making improvement in critical thought can be difficult without talking through ideas with others. Having those discussions can make you feel pretty vulnerable and uncomfortable. That may be a great reason to talk with me as a career coach. I can be the confidential, objective sounding board to help you with this and other difficult skills in a safe, non-judgmental space. I’m here to help you when you are ready – reach out to me through this link and I’ll be glad to discuss options with you.
What do you think about this topic? What do you think about Finite and Infinite Games? Would you like to hear more about them and how they relate to critical thinking? I’d love to get your thoughts and feedback on this and other blog posts. Drop me a line at email@example.com or comment on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Instagram. And sign up for my newsletter below to be notified about upcoming articles and events from Mindring Consulting!
Resources and Attributions
- Definition – Critical Thinking – https://www.dictionary.com/browse/critical-thinking
- Definition – Analytical vs Critical Thinking – Indeed.com – https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/career-development/analytical-thinking-vs-critical-thinking
- Simon Sinek: Applying the Infinite Games Mindset to Business – Forbes.com – Simon Sinek: Applying The Infinite Game Mindset To Business (forbes.com)
- Critical Thinking Vs Analytical Thinking – criticalthinkingsecrets.com – https://criticalthinkingsecrets.com/critical-thinking-vs-analytical-thinking/
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- Licensed Images from Envanto