What Are The 7 Critical Thinking Skills [And How To Use Them]

No one knows exactly what happens in the brain when a thought is born. But one thing is certain. Thinking, and most notably good thinking, is the most powerful weapon you can possibly provide someone with.

Yes, thinking is a weapon.

Think about it.

The deadliest events in the world’s history are not earthquakes or other natural disasters. They were wars. And wars are fought by men. And why do wars start? That’s right, because someone thought that they are not superior enough. Not rich enough. Not powerful enough.

Or as it is said, “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people!”

But we are not going to talk about how thinking produces bad things. We are going to talk about how good thinking can prevent bad things from happening.

More precisely, how thinking can help you win the battles you undertake. Worthy battles for worthy objectives.

From general things like: Spotting trends; Finding better solutions to daily problems; Creating better daily systems that can help you start a business and quit a job that is mentally harming you.

To more niche solutions like: Regaining motivation and will to live; Crushing critical thinking barriers; Changing bad habits with good ones; Overcoming materialism in society; How to produce quality work…

The branch of thinking that is most commonly associated with forging good thoughts is called critical thinking. I’ve covered the basics of this thinking type in my other article conveniently labeled: Why is Critical Thinking Important in Daily Life?

In this installment, I’m further building on the topic by presenting the best critical thinking skills. And answering a popular question: What are the 7 critical thinking skills?

Before that, let’s briefly observe the following:

What Are Critical Thinking Skills?

Critical thinking can be described as the ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking.

For example, when there is a problem. You don’t react impulsively. Rather, you sit down and have dinner with the issue. But you don’t do it alone. You invite friends. The best friends of a critical thinker – Clarity, Rationality, and also Mr. Question.

To describe this even better. Imagine a situation. A bad situation. Something that can hurt you. Kill you even.

And to make it even more vivid. Imagine someone shooting at you.

Now that’s a problem.

But don’t worry. You’re still alive.

Actually, like in the movie The Matrix. You are able to slow down time. And instead of dodging the bullet as happens in the famous “Dodge this” rooftop scene. You reach out and grab it. Then, you look at it from all sides.

That’s a movie-like explanation of critical thinking.

When someone offends you – which can be categorized as a bullet coming toward you. You don’t offend him back – shoot back – and potentially start a fight. You slow down. Breathe. Self-regulate. And digest the situation.

“What caused him to attack me? What are his reasons? How did the problem start?”

These are some of the questions that form in your head.

Unfortunately, such a calm response is not natural to us. It’s a skill that needs cultivating. A skill from a larger portfolio. The so-called critical thinking skills. Abilities that are gathered during the journey of life. Not immediately present when we emerge into the world.

In a sense, critical thinking skills can be described as the mental tools the brain uses to disassemble a situation and reach the core of the problem without causing havoc.

If we can return to the shooting example. When applying critical thinking skills. You won’t be worried only about how to avoid the bullet. You will be equally interested in who shot the bullet and why.

With that in mind, let’s look at the 7 critical thinking skills that can make you a lethal thinker.

What Are The 7 Critical Thinking Skills That Can Make You Lethal:

1. Situation Awareness

Situation awareness is your sixth sense. Your ability to slow down time, so you can build a rich and coherent picture of the current situation.

During this state, a critical thinker is not interested in either “right” or “wrong”. He just wants to get a feel of the situation.

  • What’s happening?
  • What are the moving parts?
  • What are the specific data types that will help me determine what to do about the problem?

While you can relate an event from the past that is similar to your current situation. You don’t completely copy the solution you did before. You are perfectly aware that the current problem will require a tailored solution. That’s why you are skeptical of your immediate thoughts and only initially interested in removing the fog that is dimming the problem.

For example, say you are a detective. You arrive at a crime scene. What would you do? Would you start chasing the bad guy at random only after seeing at the victim, or are you going to look around? Dig through the thick layer of evidence before you do anything. Of course, it’s the latter.

The first thing everyone who wants to arrive at the best solution should be to concentrate on the prolonged process of situation awareness.

2. Goal Orientation

After figuring out what’s happening, your second goal should be to understand what’s the core problem. What are we actually dealing with?

Skilled thinkers will spend proportionally more time analyzing the problem than individuals who are still not so mentally “gifted”.

A big part of this problem-identifying phase revolves around challenging your assumptions.

For example, a common issue businesses have is improving market share. Naturally, the question emerging from this is going to be: “How can we improve our market share?”

The obvious solutions presented by an ordinary CEO are going to be things like: acquiring smaller brands or, say, expanding to new markets.

But is this the best solution?

Not exactly.

A useful way to challenge your core problem is by asking “how else?” or “what else?”.

In our example, we can eventually realize that the core problem is sameness, not lack of business potential in the current market. In other words, usually, there is a negligible difference between what we offer and what the competitors offer. Thus, clients don’t precisely care if they will choose our product or someone else’s. So, the problem becomes: “In what ways might we differentiate our products from the others?”

By this simple twist, the problem is no longer outside the company – buying another brand or going to a new market. It’s inside – improving the positioning of the current products.

3. Pattern Recognition Skills

A major part of the critical thinking skills arsenal is the ability to recognize patterns.

Thanks to this ability, when looking at a situation, you can see the recurring tasks. What’s repeating? What are the systems within the systems?

All of this, allows a person to identify what leads to wins and what leads to bottlenecks.

But you don’t make a conclusion based only on the current data pattern. No. You take into account other patterns in different domains. This allows you to arrive at the best conclusion.

But there is more…

What makes the pattern recognition skill one of the most important leadership skills is not only identifying models of behavior. But also this: pattern recognition helps you make better predictions.

Consider the following: You are managing a staff of 20 people. Your boss handed you a task to analyze the big 3 competitors in your industry. Now, you are thinking about who is the best person for the job. Are you going to choose James, who is quite good with creative projects but gets overwhelmed with stats? Or, are you going to give the task to Sally, who handed you beautifully-presented analytics several months ago?

The answer is obvious.

But it’s obvious only because you were able to spot these occurrences beforehand. If you were blind to see how your personnel works. You’ll just hand the task to the first person you met in the office, leading to inferior results.

4. Building Rich Mental Picture

If you can spot a problem. Identify a possible solution. How would you know if the created solution is the best one?

You don’t know until you apply the proposed answers.

But this is expensive. And the cost is higher if you’re not sure what you’re doing.

Fortunately, you can get closer to the truth by engaging in a mental picture-building process.

In the book Peak, the authors describe this as developing a mental representation of the situation.

In short, you figure out what best should look like in order to arrive at this supreme condition.

Here’s an example from pastry-making.

To become a master chef, you need more things than just being good at baking and using the mixer. You need to figure out what great cake looks and tastes like.

Your first step is imagining what is the best possible cake. How does it taste? How does it look?

This is helpful for two main reasons: First, you figure out what is needed to create it. Second, you see what type of skills you are still missing so you can develop them.

If you identify that to prepare a good cake you need to create your own chocolate but you’re not good at this. You can take steps to improve in this direction. But this need becomes available to you only if you engage in the process of mental stimulation.

5. Metacognition

Above all, critical thinking allows you to analyze what is happening in your head.

Refer to as metacognition, this strange-sounding word simply means thinking about thinking.

Since ideas, decisions, and basically everything is formed in your head by the thoughts you have. By regularly describing your reasoning, you’ll have the opportunity to spot errors in your judgment and refine your thinking style.

I know, this all sounds a bit… crazy?

But trust me. It’s needed.

Metacognition is like inviting a reporter into your brain. A person who is assigned with the hard task to figure out what’s happening in the brain and why things work the way they work.

For instance, say that what you predicted about an investment turns out to be incorrect. You lose a substantial amount of cash. But will this mean that you will stop investing? Probably not. But even if you do, a healthy task will be to sit alone for a while and interrogate your brain.

“Why did I think that this is going to work? What were the main data points that influenced my decision? What would I do differently if I have to take the same decision today? How my views about investing have changed?”

The goal of this type of questioning shouldn’t be to do it only after a good or a bad decision. But daily. And for all kinds of things.

You are skeptical about your thoughts, not to diminish your mood. But to form a detailed understanding of the situation, so you can arrive at the best possible solution. And all of this happens by thinking about how you think.

6. Adore The Field

A common phrase that gets quoted repeatedly in relation to work is this: “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

The interpretation, I think, it’s obvious. When you do something you’re interested in, it doesn’t feel like work. Thus, thoughts related to setting the office on fire are not even remotely passing.

But there is one more thing…

If you’re a “lover” of your domain, you’ll do something else besides waking up with a smile. You’ll continue to improve. Since the subject tinkers your curiosity, you’ll read, watch, and talk with other people about this subject to gain more knowledge.

People who love what they do are comfortable when improvising. Tasks that are difficult for them seem impossible for others. And they also have extensive experience with diverse situations and scenarios.

All of these things hugely impact your critical thinking skills and thought-generation.

It’s one thing to solve problems related to problems that interest you. It’s quite another to try to do the same things forcefully.

If you happen to do work that it’s not exactly aligned with your core interests. There are two solutions. One easy and one hard:

  1. Regulate your thoughts. Set aside how you feel about the field and act professionally.
  2. Move to a domain that is close to what you love. When this happens, you’ll see how you’ll naturally generate more and better solutions to arising problems.

7. Lifelong Learning

Lifelong learning reinforces critical thinking. Critical thinking, on the other hand, inspires lifelong learning. It’s something like a loop.

As Albert Einstein once said: “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.”

The more terrain you uncover, the more you see how little you’ve revealed and how much more there is.

But you don’t feel discouraged. Quite the contrary, you feel even more motivated.

Wikipedia described lifelong learning in the following way: “the ongoing, voluntary, and self-motivated pursuit of knowledge for either personal or professional reasons.”

This skill, or should we call it drive, is invaluable for good thinkers.

Intelligence and natural talents can get you only to a certain place. To advance and stand out from the apocalyptic horde, you need to consistently bath with new ideas.

Lifelong learners are not so interested in degrees and certificates. You’ll rarely see them arguing online or updating their LinkedIn profile.

No, they invest time and money into learning not only because they are intellectually curious. But also because they can adequately assess how the world is advancing. They see that if they don’t read books and engage in the process of thinking. They’ll one day wake up doing something they hate with people who are not their preferred people.

And to answer the question that’s probably forming in your mind… No, you don’t get to become a lifelong learner. You either are a lifelong learner or you are not. It’s an ongoing process. There is never an end date.

Are There Other Critical Thinking Skills?

My title might seem flawed.

“What are the 7 critical thinking skills? Do you mean that there are no more?”

Search online for critical thinking skills. Go on, try it.

Type something like “what are the 5 critical thinking skills”, or “the 8 steps of critical thinking”.

You’ll regret it.

A massive flood of articles will submerge the indoors of your attention and leave you paralyzed for hours.

Sadly, not only the information is a lot. But it’s quite fragmented and incomplete.

For instance, things that get commonly cited as critical thinking skills are problem-solving, analytical thinking, and open-mindedness. But I don’t think that these are skills. I consider them outcomes of other meta-skills – the ones I shared above.

For instance, lifelong learning is the critical thinking skill that leads to open-mindedness. And, problem-solving is based on your ability to recognize patterns and form a good mental picture.

So, when you see articles that tell you that you need to be a good problem solver Ask, what is the skill needed that leads to problem-solving?

Some Closing Thoughts

When you hear scientists talk about critical thinking and list critical thinking skills, you’ll find obscure definitions like “applying problem-solving and decision-making more effectively.” Or “thinking clearly and rationally”.

But what do these mean?

At its core, critical thinking is giving yourself time and space to consider the situation. Then, testing the different options in your head – what are the possible outcomes? – and picking the most sound solution.

It’s a difficult skill not only because it requires emotional stability – you recognize that your emotions can sabotage you, thus you learn to tame them. But primarily because you need experience. Not only in one field. But in many fields.

What I mean is that people who know a lot about a lot of things tend to make better decisions. Their exposure to different ideas from different domains allows them to connect dots and thus arrive at what can be called a “groundbreaking” solution.

Furthermore, such people are usually the guys/girls on top of the corporation. For instance, if you are good at say, programming. You can be the best programmer in your company. But to be the boss of all programmers. You also need planning skills, people skills, negotiation skills, etc.

So, to expand your portfolio of critical thinking skills, don’t only become good at your domain. Become the last step – good at many different fields.

How can you do it?

Master the above and continue with:

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