Critical Thinking: Asking the "Right" Questions

Originally posted by Chris Jones, a TalentCulture contributing writer. He is an IT Strategy & Change Management consultant, with a passion for driving new levels of engagement and learning in the modern organization. His research areas include the dynamics of organization culture, and more recently, the importance and implications of critical thinking. Check out his blog, Driving Innovation in a Complex World, for more

We’ve all been assured there’s no such thing as a stupid question.  If you’ve taken the time to ask, the story goes, you must have wanted to learn something.  That’s certainly a step in the right direction.

In the hyper accelerated world of social media, of course, you better keep those questions coming.  Contacts are made and broken in a matter of minutes.  Exchanges in chats or online work groups can be fleeting.  Sometimes the conversation seems to end just after its started, though hours may have ticked off the clock.  The prize, it seems, goes to those with the fastest keystrokes and the greatest brevity, the true masters of online multi-tasking.

I agree with the conventional wisdom. Those skills are helpful.  And I’d like to add to those dynamics a completely different one.

Quite simply, it comes down to critical thinking.

I’m not mandating academic degrees or journalistic analysis here, though we’ll borrow a page or two from those spaces.

What we’re talking about is putting careful thought into the deeper questions behind the points that are being broadcast so rapidly in front of you.  Challenging the ‘why?’, or the ‘how?’, and importantly, ‘under what cirumstances?’.

All of these thought processes have introduced the notion of ‘critical thinking’, an increasingly important aspect of our virtual society.  Its the very fuel of the ideas that are generated when we have a conversation.  Sadly, in our modern world, critical thinking gives way to the mechanical communication of our personal and professional lives. “Have you taken out the trash?”  “What’s the weather tomorrow?”  “Did you get the report out on time?”  We become almost robotic in our actions and in our relationships, with devastating results.  Without focus or reinforcement of an active mind, the knack and appetite for creativity can literally drain from our lives.  And our most important relationships – those with family, close friends, and immediate coworkers – are jeopardized, all due to lack of focused energy and interest.

We talked a few posts back about engagement and how to connect with those around us.  Those themes and steps remain critical.

We’ve also talked about culture, where a bias for learning and connecting in our world helps shape our attitudes.  Bringing this discussion forward, Carol Dweck, PhD, in her book, Mindset (2006), talks about “growth mindset” as a way to approach the world that brings critical thinking front and center.  I suggest you track down this book, and read it.  If you’re behind in your reading, I plan to summarize it’s main points in a future post.

Cultures of learning and a knack for engagement are a critical combination.  These initial conditions create the opportunity – if we choose to take it – to ask the right questions.  And there are dividends to those who take the time and make the effort.

So what are the right questions?  At the risk of generalizing, I’d hazard a definition that they are:

Open-ended queries that challenge the listener’s knowledge base, exposing root causes or unseen problems, and providing alternative contexts that create a spark for the inception of a new (or enhanced) idea.

The ability to change frame of reference is important.  Some of the magic in challenging our preconceived notions comes from changes in point of view.  Here are some examples.

  1. You’ve just met a person online that seems to share your perspectives, but your domain expertise is different from theirs; what introductory tweet is most likely to gain their interest and prompt a response?
  2. A well known figure is tweeting in a chat session.  Many will simply RT or respond with “love your book.”  How else might you engage them in genuine way, as a means to expand the conversation?
  3. You’re embroiled in a dispute with a coworker that is impacting your team and your relationship with this person. Do you vent to anyone who will listen, escalate to the boss, or get quality time with the person to get to the core of the problem?  If the latter, how would you approach it?

Are these the right questions?  Well these 3 certainly won’t change the world.  But they may help you get that gray matter into gear again.  In the end, perhaps there is no such thing as a stupid question or a “right” question.  But the excellent, thought-provoking questions are out there, and they take a little work.  Challenge yourself to come up with a few, and try them out on the folks who seem to care about the topics that you care about.

If you do this often, especially via twitter or blog comments (as both seem to bring higher than average appetites for engagement), I think you’ll be surprised how quickly you’ll be in conversations on topics that matter, often with people who can help make a difference.

Learning. Personal development. Progress. Who knew? Aren’t those some of the main reasons we engage with others in the first place?

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