By Lou Quinto, Executive Coach and Speaker
I’ve spent a significant part of my career teaching and coaching executives in the area of critical thinking. A large portion of my work involves introducing formal processes – tools – such as SWOT Analysis, Deviation Analysis, Force Field Analysis, Fish Bone Diagrams and Affinity Diagrams to name a few. But just like the tools in a mechanic’s tool box, if you don’t use them properly you won’t get the job done correctly.
What I’ve discovered is that when it comes to solving problems, making decisions or creating strategic plans the processes you use require one important ingredient – an open mind. Without maintaining an open mind any formal process you use will amplify the old adage “garbage in, garbage out.”
What do I mean by that? Every critical thinking process is only as good as the facts that you put into it. And those facts, must include information and data that not only supports the perceived decision your gut tells you to make – or the cause of a problem you assume to be the root of your troubles – it must also include data which contradicts your assumptions.
Most people, however, suffer from a common critical thinking malady called “information bias.” Information bias is seeking and selecting information or data that only supports your assumptions. Simply put, we avoid facts that go against our beliefs and experiences. To be good critical thinkers we must maintain an open mind. Being open minded means that we must not just hear, but listen, to facts that are opposite from our established beliefs.
At work, this would include listening to people in other departments who may not look at a decision or a problem through the same glasses as you do. For example, if you work in accounting you might only see a solution from a dollars and cents, or profit and loss perspective because that it what you have been educated and trained to do. It’s your job! Therefore, you could easily dismiss information and data from sales, marketing, operations or IT because those opinions may be more cavalier toward budgets and spending money to accomplish their goals. That’s their job!
At home, this might mean listening to your spouse, or your children more carefully to understand their frame of reference even though your gut may be screaming at you that what they are saying is wrong. Or, in this election year it may mean mean not relying on that cable news station that only reinforces your political views and watch another cable news show that you believe presents information and points-of-views that only represents “the other side.”
The root cause of “information bias” tends to come from our egos. Face it, nobody likes to think our beliefs and opinions are wrong. In these instances, human nature dictates that we take the “fight” response when what we believe to be true – or right – is challenged.
When I coach people on critical thinking I use the analogy that our minds are like attics, garages or basements – places we tend to store stuff of which we can’t or don’t want to let go. But just like our attic, garage or basement every now and then we need to purge our mind of information, experiences and beliefs that no longer fit; don’t work; is obsolete or outdated in order to make room for new information, new experiences and new beliefs.
So how do we become more open minded and begin the process of purging our brains of outdated or obsolete information and beliefs to make room for this new information? Here are some suggestions on ways to begin the process:
- Read more books or watch documentaries on subjects that you know nothing about. When we are introduced to subjects of which we know nothing about our brain tends to draw correlations to that new information with that which we already know. It helps us grasp a better understanding. It’s like standing in front of a mirror, holding up a piece of clothing, and asking yourself; “Does this fit or how do I look in it today?”
- Expand the nucleus of people with whom you associate. We tend to surround ourselves with like-minded people. Introduce yourself to new people of different backgrounds and beliefs. Our natural temptation to “be part of the group” will cause us take in new information and listen to different perspectives in a “safe environment.”
- Enroll in class that challenges your natural talents and curiosity. For example, take a pottery or painting class – something you have never done. Performing the techniques to accomplish the art form will force you to think and act differently. In addition, there is a strong possibility you will interact with people that don’t share your knowledge and beliefs. This again will provide you with a “safe environment” to challenge your way of thinking. It may also spark an idea which might help you solve a pressing problem at work or at home.
- Focus on how you accept feedback, especially that which is intended to be constructive. Do you adapt the natural “fight” response? This means that you always want to justify why you did what you did regardless of other people’s suggestions on doing something a different way. If you do, then this might indicate a low level of mental willingness to accept new information or different points-of-view.
Information, technology and circumstances are constantly changing. Your ability – and willingness – to regularly consider new data and changing perspectives will help you become a better critical thinker.
Lou Quinto has been working with companies and their associates internationally for over the past 25 years primarily in the area of critical thinking and communication skills. He is a Master Coach and Keynote Speaker for Action Management Associates in Plano, TX and a Senior Consultant on the Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness team for Executive Development Associates in Oklahoma City, OK. You can read more of his insights on his blog Metacognition or you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Originally from New Jersey, today Lou resides in Indianapolis, IN.