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Critical thinking: the art of asking questions

In part one of a new content series on critical thinking, Emma Sue Prince discusses the importance of being able to challenge assumptions and ask the right questions at the right time. 

3rd Feb 2020
Director Unimenta
Columnist
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Rear view of casual businesswoman raising her hand to ask the question on education event in a board room.
iStock/skynesher

Asking great questions is a huge part of thinking critically, yet so often we either don’t ask enough questions or even the ‘right’ questions. This is because we don’t slow down long enough to either really listen (when asking questions of others) or really reflect (when asking questions of ourselves). Yet the more we can ask questions the more creativity, innovation, solutions and breakthroughs we encourage.

Questioning can spark change in your life, your business, or in the world around you. Questions like ‘what if we did this?’, ‘what if we tried that?’ can lead to new ideas, products and services as long as we stick with them and keep asking more questions.

Remember to look up at the stars, not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.
– Stephen Hawking 

In our lives, in general, there’s a tendency to move along on auto-pilot when it would be so much better to regularly step back and question everything—about our career choices, about our attitudes and beliefs, about the ways we choose to live. Questioning is good for us. It can help to open up new possibilities in our lives. It’s a first step in solving problems. It makes us more successful as leaders. People who ask a lot of questions tend to be more engaged in their lives, more fulfilled, and happier.

Challenging assumptions

When it comes to thinking critically, questioning our assumptions is vital. These assumptions are automatic and immediate and we need to learn how to question them more: ‘why is this image/thought/idea coming to mind?’ ‘what does this situation remind me of that is making me feel stressed right now?’ or even commenting to ourselves: ‘oops, there I go again acting on my assumptions’ – generally in any situation just asking one more question can be the difference between understanding, strong communication and great responses over reactionary, defensive behaviour because we are acting on assumptions and limiting beliefs. What would it be like if every decision you made didn’t involve your personal feelings or over-emotional reactions? What if your perspective was always balanced and decisions completely informed?

In critical thinking, whether in business, in our personal lives or education we are taught to question everything. The question behind the question, however, is: what questions should you be asking?

  • Open questions (when asking questions of others) are better: ‘how do you feel about….’, ‘what’s your take on….’ ‘where do you think this idea came from…’ ‘what makes you say that?’
     
  • Specific questions can be helpful when you are asking yourself questions to better understand your responses or to have more accurate information about a situation or something you’ve read on social media: ‘is this an opinion?’ ‘is this even news?’ (news posted on social media may not be news at all – it may be clickbait, gossip/rumours, outrage or just poorly written and evidenced), ‘who paid for this survey and how big is the sample size?’ (when it comes to ‘statistics’), ‘what do I want to stop doing/start doing/do more of/do less of?’ when it comes to making choices about your life or direction.

There are infinite questions you can ask – the most important thing is that the question you ask should give you more insight, data, information that you did not have before. It’s also important to stick with it – sometimes the answer is not immediate, in fact most of the time the answer will evolve.

Capture thoughts, ideas, and insights either together with your team at work or for yourself in a notebook. Never take things at face value – in fact in every interaction and encounter with anybody and with any information you are presented with try to insert just one question that give you more.

Interested in this topic? Read Personal development: five ways to improve your critical thinking skills.

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