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How to Improve Critical Thinking

Mike Giorgione is a retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral and founder of LeadingLeaders. He discussed gathering information and decision making as part of the Alumni Expert Series presented by the Penn State Alumni Association, World Campus Alumni Society, World Campus Blue & White Society, and Alumni Career Services Office.

In executing the process of critical thinking, it’s important to ask yourself how a leader gets his or her information.

How does a leader obtain and employ information to make effective decisions?

Marcello Maria Perongini, Flickr
Marcello Maria Perongini, Flickr

Think about asking open-ended and thought-provoking questions, such as:

  • Where do you get your information?
  • Do you rely on secondhand reports or insist on firsthand reports?
  • Do you vet the information you hear?
  • Do you seek facts and opinions from others?
  • Do you talk to people you normally don’t talk to?
  • Can you objectively determine the things you don’t know?
  • Are you willing to look for information in places you haven’t looked before?

In making a decision, a leader must gather facts (and sometimes opinions) from people who have a view on the subject matter. An important element of decision making is diversity and inclusion. If leaders aren’t thinking about diversity and inclusion as to where they look for information and whom they talk to, they may be missing something very relevant to the mission.

In thinking about important issues and trying to make decisions, you often need to ask hard questions. Sometimes this involves sensitive topics. You also need people who can ask hard questions that you cannot.

One of the greatest skills in gathering information is learning how to ask questions. By asking questions, you open yourself up as a leader. This is probably one of the most difficult skills to master. You need to approach this in a nonthreatening, collaborative manner where you’re having a conversation with the other person.

Here are some examples of good ways to approach a conversation where you are seeking information:

  • “Hey, I don’t know something, and I’d like to get your opinion. What do you think about this?”
  • “I used to think this was the way to do this, but how do you do it?”
  • “What other approaches would you suggest?”

The Benefits of Asking Great Questions

By asking great questions, you can:

  • unleash creativity and imagination. It’s imperative that you show that you value the input and ideas of others. If you judge or cut people off, they will shut down and you’ll miss out on great ideas. By asking questions and encouraging people to share ideas, you set the stage for ingenuity and collaboration.
  • avoid disasters. Sometimes just asking the right probing questions helps you get to the root of what’s really going on. You may also get a better perspective of what the central issue is.
  • find new paths and opportunities. This encourages people to brainstorm, and gives them the opportunity to take an idea and run with it to see if it has merit.