Critical Reasoning: The Best Life Skill Ever!

critical reasoning life skillIf you really want to improve your life, it would help if you started figuring yourself out. I know…it sounds crazy, right? Each one of us is like a giant puzzle of epic proportions. Each puzzle piece is a clue to how we think and why we make the choices we make. And hidden within this mega puzzle is the map of our lives. But learning to decode yourself will also help you understand what’s behind your motivation or why you sometimes don’t have any.

All the mysteries of our own behavior can be explained and understood if we know enough about ourselves to make sense of them. And if you’re like me, making sense of yourself may seem like an impossible task. In fact, you might be better off watching the Discovery Channel–at least that entertainment is painless.

On the other hand, my life is definitely better since I’ve taken the time to learn about myself. And even though it started out seeming like a puzzle I could never put together (more like a Rubik’s Cube), it was far more difficult in my imagination than in reality. So if you’re up for this little adventure, you may need to brush up on [insert echo] the best life skill ever!

Critical Reasoning: A careful, open-minded, unbiased examination and evaluation of information through the use of orderly and rational thinking in order to arrive at a logical and sufficient conclusion to support a claim or belief.

I know that sounds sort of technical, but this is how I define critical reasoning. You could also call it critical thinking, but I lean toward the term critical reasoning because it represents more than just critical thinking.  Here are a couple of illustrations to show the difference between them.

Critical Thinking Example:  Suppose you’re at work and someone tells you that the president of your company gets some of your parts manufactured overseas and that’s why you had layoffs last fall. By applying some critical thinking, you would immediately consider the source to see if you think the information is valid. Since the guy who passed on the information is notorious for trying to stir things up, you’re immediately cautious but you don’t dismiss the information either. Instead, you keep an open mind about the possibility of it being true.

What you don’t realize is that now you could potentially have a bias where you would be more likely to believe the information if a second person tells you the same thing, especially if you feel the second person is more trust-worthy. Your defenses may weaken and you use less critical thinking because of your bias toward the second source of the information. You think he’s more credible, plus this is the second time you’ve heard the same information. Message validated…case closed.

Critical Reasoning Example: Using the same scenario, you learn about parts being manufactured overseas and that contributing to layoffs last fall. In addition to considering the source of the information, you also consider the impact of the information being true and of the information being false. I’ll represent this as a mental conversation that you might have with yourself:

 

“Hmmm, is this really true? And what’s the real issue here? I know that many companies couldn’t survive the competition in America if they couldn’t compete on price. So if our company is having parts manufactured overseas to be more competitive, especially in this tough economy, is that really a bad thing? And did it actually cause the layoffs?

“I assume that what Ted was telling me is supposed to mean that it was when the manufacturing of these parts was shipped overseas, the people who were making them were no longer needed, and that these people were the ones who were laid off. Although, I know that this particular product line, when it was introduced, put a strain on existing lines. I also know that the American crew that recently had been making these parts also makes several other parts for our company, so they’re probably still pretty busy, even after losing these parts. So I’m guessing that none of these people were laid off. But I’ll check on that.

“Aside from these points, even if the company did shift the manufacturing of the parts overseas, and some people were laid off as a result, not shifting these parts overseas could have actually caused the company to eventually shut down if we could no longer compete. Then everyone would be out of a job, not just a few. So, I’m not sure if this is exactly the way Ted says it is, or if he’s also projecting his own personal biases into the information…or just doesn’t have the full picture. I’ll dig a little deeper and see if I can arrive at a better-informed conclusion.”

 

Obviously, there are a lot of details I could cover but the main point I’m making is that critical thinking is good, but sometimes it doesn’t go far enough, though that’s only my opinion. Critical reasoning can also get tangled up in biases, but it seems more objective and less absolute. Besides, anytime you apply more reasoning, it’s a good thing.

When you use critical reasoning, you are attempting to evaluate information without allowing your current beliefs to muddy the information you’re considering. The result of critical reasoning is that you develop strong inclinations toward certain beliefs but never become attached to them, or become closed-minded to the possibility of new data changing your point of view. People tend to really struggle with this.

One of the dangers of critical reasoning is in believing that your conclusion is the only correct one (and this is especially true with critical thinking). We’ve all had different experiences in life, and we all measure new information against our past experiences and current beliefs. As time goes on, we can fall into the trap of thinking we know it all, or at least that we’ve considered all angles and points of view on a certain subject. So instead of applying critical reasoning equally, you could wind up throwing out anything that doesn’t match what you think you’ve already figured out and only pay attention to information you already agree with. This is known as confirmation bias. While there’s no way to completely eliminate bias, being aware that it’s there can keep you on track and open-minded to all information.

The Art of Critical Reasoning

Too many people never question how they acquired their beliefs and whether they are based on solid reasoning or are more related to magical thinking. If you never examine how you developed your belief system, then how can you evaluate anything in an unbiased manner? In one of my favorite self-development books, How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day, Michael J. Gelb explores this topic in a section entitled, “Check Your Beliefs and Sources”:

“Many of us are unaware of the sources we use to obtain and verify information. We know that we have opinions, assumptions, and beliefs about a wide variety of topics: human nature, ethics, politics, ethnic groups, scientific truth, sexuality, religion, medicine, the meaning of life, art, marriage, parenting, history, other cultures, etc. But do you know how you found those beliefs? Or where you got the information on which they’re based?”

Gelb suggests picking three areas to examine and then asking yourself questions relating to your beliefs in each area. This method of self-examination can help you to recognize your own biases and beliefs that may be unfounded or not really provable.

Let’s face it, in some cases, there are beliefs which ultimately may not be provable. But in those cases, you may still find a way to validate your beliefs only to yourself. And that’s just fine, as long as you remain open to the possibility that you could learn new information that may prompt you to modify your belief. You have to be somewhat fearless to be this open-minded. But if you’re okay with that, you won’t be putting limits on what you can learn about yourself and about life.

Therefore, if you’re going to use critical reasoning, it’s important to accept the possibility that perfectly valid proof may exist that could support the opposite of your current belief or stance on any viewpoint or subject. Besides, it’s never a good idea to evaluate any new data with the preconceived idea that it’s wrong. If you’re unwilling to honestly consider an opposite point of view, no matter what subject or belief it challenges, then you are not truly open-minded. What value can come from that?

Practice Critical Reasoning With Your Beliefs

If you would like to check your beliefs and sources, you may want to try using these prompts:

  • How did I arrive at this belief?
  • How strongly do I believe this?
  • If I were born in another part of the world, would I likely hold the same belief today?
  • Do I have strong emotions tied to this belief that may blind me to opposing data?
  • Would I be willing to change this belief if new evidence prompts me to do so?
  • Do I feel obligated to maintain this belief?
  • Am I willing to accept, allow, and honestly consider opposing points of view?
  • Is this belief my own or have I accepted someone else’s belief?
  • Have I honestly considered all perspective and possibilities about this belief?
  • Do I have any biases that may interfere with this belief?

Once you make it a habit to apply critical reasoning to your beliefs and biases, you can also begin using it to examine your choices and motivations, as well as the behaviors you witness from other people. When you find yourself getting emotional or making a decision that you later regret, you can question what’s really going on in your head. And when you see people doing things that don’t make sense, you can look more deeply into that as well. Below are some sample questions you can ask yourself to get your critical reasoning started.

Practice Critical Reasoning With All Behaviors and Motivations You Observe

Consider using prompts like these to explore your thinking, examine your behaviors and motivations, or understand the behaviors and actions you observe in other people.

  • “Why did he do that?”
  • “What might be going on in her life that caused her reaction?”
  • “Why didn’t I just speak up?”
  • “What am I afraid of?”
  • “What’s not being said that needs to be said?”
  • “Why are they really fighting?”
  • “How can I get myself to….?”
  • “What’s holding me back?”
  • “Why do people do it that way?”
  • “If I were in his shoes, how would I want me to react?”
  • “What’s the core issue here?”
  • “Is there a better way to say it?”
  • “Why am I feeling shy?”
  • “What’s causing the resistance that I’m feeling?”
  • “Am I overreacting?”
  • “Why did I believe that?”
  • “Is that really how I’m supposed to think or is there a better way?”
  • “Did she really mean to hurt my feelings or is she just upset?”
  • “Why am I really complaining?”
  • “Why did I hesitate?”
  • “Do I believe that because it’s really true or because everyone else believes it too?”

These are powerful questions. They allow you to probe deeper into any topic by looking past the obvious answers and knee-jerk reactions. Critical Reasoning is, by far, the most important skill I have ever adopted for self-improvement and self-development. And it’s a skill that anyone can cultivate. You can develop critical reasoning skills by trying to always remain open to new ideas while respecting the views of others, regardless of whether or not they match your own.

Always remain objectively curious. Attempt to safely engage (in a non-confrontational manner) people with opposing points of view with the intention of learning from them, NOT with the intention of changing their minds. They may have additional ideas or information that you have not yet considered. If you find yourself getting emotional or worked up, ask yourself what your motivation is or why you feel so strongly for/against the situation. Don’t treat people who differ with your “informed” point of view as idiots, lunatics or self-deluded nuts. And most importantly, respect all points of view!

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