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Advice / Career Paths / Training & Development

What Critical Thinking Is—And 7 Ways to Improve Yours

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Making a hire. Debugging a website glitch. Deciding how to tell your boss they have a stain on their shirt.

All of these tasks, and more, require critical thinking skills. And whether you think you have them or not, they’re critical (see what we did there?) for your career—here’s why.

What is critical thinking and why is it so important?

Critical thinking “requires us to give a second thought to our own interpretations” as we’re making a decision or trying to understand a given situation, Constance Dierickx, a clinical psychologist and decision-making coach for CEOs and executives, told The Muse.

There are three steps to critical thinking, according to Lily Drabkin, a graduate student specializing in organizational psychology who facilitates a class called “Developing Critical Thinkers” at Columbia University:

  1. Becoming aware of our assumptions: This is the process of tuning into what we’re believing or thinking, otherwise known as metacognition.
  2. Researching our assumptions: This is the process of checking our assumptions using a wide range of sources. “Generally, it can be helpful to involve other people who can help us see ourselves in our actions from unfamiliar perspectives,” Drabkin said.
  3. Testing our analysis: This step involves putting our research into action to see if it’s accurate, as well as being open to our initial assumptions being wrong and ready to change our perspective.

Critical thinking is beneficial for building relationships, starting or pivoting your career, or even just doing your everyday job. It’s also a highly-sought-after skill in job seekers. “You want someone who has good critical thinking skills because they're not going to be an attention sponge,” Muse career coach Yolanda Owens said. “They're going to be able to figure things out and…be more resourceful.”

Here are two other ways it’s helpful to be good at critical thinking:

Critical thinking leads to better decision-making

Owens pointed out that good critical thinkers always seek to understand the “why.” “When they can do that, they're better problem solvers,” she said. “It really helps people analyze situations and viewpoints.”

Critical thinking can also prevent you from having knee-jerk reactions that backfire in the long run, Dierickx said. “Decisions based on critical thinking are more likely to be ones that we feel confident about,” Drabkin added.

Critical thinking makes you look smart

Dierickx said when we use critical thinking, we have more proof to back up our statements or decisions, making it easier to influence and earn the respect of others.

“You build up a reputation as somebody who's a reliable thinker,” Dierickx said. “It makes you stand out because in most organizations, a lot of people say the same things.”

7 ways to improve your critical thinking skills

The following habits are worth incorporating into your daily routine—that is, if you want to impress your colleagues and avoid falling into a spiral of poor choices.

1. Ask questions

Good critical thinkers, Owens said, aren’t afraid to ask others when they’re unsure about something. This allows them to have as much information in front of them as possible before making a decision. It also ensures they’re never so confident in their assumptions that they ignore better options.

2. Practice reflection

Dierickx advised baking time for reflection into your day, particularly after an emotional situation is resolved or a big project is completed. Consider:

  • What was the context?
  • What was I thinking and feeling in the moment?
  • What were other people thinking and feeling in the moment?
  • What could I have done differently knowing what I know now?

It can be helpful, too, to loop in someone you trust or admire for feedback on how you handled it and what they would have done differently.

3. Be open to change

Owens and Dierickx agreed that people who are open minded have more success when it comes to critical thinking. “My biggest pet peeve is when people say, ‘Well, we've always done it that way.’ Don't become that person,” Owens said. “There's always an alternate way to do something, and understanding that your way is not always the only way or the right way to do something.”

Dierickx advised being “willing to let go of what you believed was true yesterday in the face of new evidence.”

“We need to be certain and uncertain,” she added. “You can't be so certain that you never question. That's not critical thinking. That's blind ignorance.”

4. Build a diverse network

You’ll never learn to think critically if you’re only faced with perspectives that mimic your own. So make the effort to surround yourself with people of different backgrounds, expertise, interests, and viewpoints and actively seek out their advice, feedback, and ideas on a regular basis.

“Learning from peers is one of the most important ways that adults learn something, which is great actually for critical thinking, because critical thinking skills are often learned in conversation,” Drabkin said.

“Even if there might be somebody whose views you disagree with, it's still helpful to hear them out,” she added.

5. Get good at active listening

When you’ve developed a diverse network of friends, colleagues, and mentors, it’s important that you’re really engaged with what they’re saying to you so you can leverage those insights for your own critical thinking.

Here’s our guide to becoming an active listener, or someone who listens with intent and strategy (and most definitely doesn’t scroll on their phone while chatting with others).

6. Read and study widely

Just as it’s important to interact with different types of people to get better at critical thinking, Dierickx said, it’s also important to take in new information outside your profession or area of expertise.

She suggested setting aside time in your schedule to read scholarly articles or books on topics you’re not as familiar with or even ideas you disagree with.

Similarly, she said, it can be helpful to take on new hobbies or study up on activities that are unfamiliar.

7. Take on stretch assignments

Critical thinking can come into play when you put yourself outside your comfort zone, and there’s no better way to do that than to tackle something new and different in your job.

That isn’t to say that you should raise your hand to lead an important project without understanding what it requires or flagging to your boss where your knowledge gaps are. But you should be open to being the dumbest person in the room or having your skill set and confidence questioned by other people and new ideas.

How to show off your critical thinking skills in the job search

Employers value critical thinkers because they’re often autonomous, innovative, and enjoyable to work with, so it’s key to incorporate examples of your critical thinking in action at several points in your job search process.

In a resume or cover letter

Job search wisdom states your resume bullets and cover letter should focus on your accomplishments instead of your duties. Owens added this is a great way to imply you’re a good critical thinker on paper.

She suggested including not just ways that you moved the needle or added value but “how you made those types of decisions, or what it was that influenced you to do things the way that you've done them.”

In a job interview

Critical thinking skills are frequently assessed by employers through behavioral questions, skills tests, and case studies. Owens said when approaching any job assessment, think out loud—“not just necessarily telling them your answer, but helping them understand how you got to the answer.”

And don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions before providing a response. “Ask for some context as to why they're asking you that question so you can understand the type of example you need to give them in order to frame your answers,” Owens said. “And that's all part of critical thinking—knowing what questions to ask or knowing that you have to ask a question in order to be able to come up with a solution.”

Drabkin noted that part of critical thinking is seeing beyond what’s in front of you. In an interview, this could mean looking for and pointing out gaps in a job or team where you could be a unique asset. “Finding that and demonstrating that will show your interviewer and show the company that you have these critical thinking skills because you're able to analyze the role in a way that maybe they haven't,” she said.