Thinking is hard. It’s even harder when you’re under pressure. Stress lowers your IQ. When your boss is yelling at you, and your ears are pinned back, it’s hard to remember to think rationally. It’s hard to think at all – mainly you just react.
So, I always encourage my students to keep several go-to questions in their heads. These are simple, memorable questions that are always available. You can go to them quickly in an emergency. Why would you go to them? Perhaps you want to clarify the situation. Maybe you need more information. Or maybe, just maybe, you need to buy a little time.
In class the other night, I asked my students to write down their best go-to questions. They had been thinking about critical thinking for seven weeks so I assumed that they had some pretty good questions on the tips of their tongues. I was right.
I looked over the questions and realized that they fell naturally into five categories. Here are the categories with the most frequently asked questions. You might want to carry some of them around with you.
1) Gaining Self-Control – first things first: you can’t manage a situation if you can’t manage yourself. My students focused first on assessing their own situation, with questions like these:
Am I breathing effectively?
What’s my posture like? How can I change my posture to present myself more effectively?
What am I feeling right now? Are my feelings rational?
How can I engage my thinking function?
What is the other person’s purpose? Why is he behaving this way?
2) Clarifying the facts – once you’ve calmed yourself and cleared your head, you’ll want to establish what’s actually happening, with questions like these:
What are the facts? How do we know they’re facts? How were they verified?
Where did the information come from? Was the source credible?
What are our assumptions? Are they reasonable?
How did we get from the facts to the conclusions? Were there any logical fallacies along the way?
Why is this important? How does it compare in importance to Topic X or Topic Y?
Who wants to know? What is her purpose?
3) Clarifying the other person’s position – the information you have may be accurate but you also need to make sure you understand the other person’s position regarding the information. Here are some useful questions:
What’s your take on this? How do you see this?
Why do you say that? What makes you believe that?
Can you explain it in a different way?
What does “xyz” mean to you? How do you define it?
Can you paint me a picture of what you’re seeing?
Why are you so upset?
4) Clarifying the decision – you now know the “facts” and the other person’s interpretation of the facts, but you still need to figure out what decision you’re trying to make.
What outcome do we want? What’s our goal? Why?
What outcomes are possible? Which one(s) seem most fair?
Is there more than one solution? Are we trapping ourselves in a whether-or-not decision?
What if the outcome we want is not possible? Then what will we do? Is there another outcome that we might aim for?
What’s the timeframe? Are we thinking short-term or long-term?
Who else do we need to include?
How will we know when/if we need to re-visit the decision?
5) Fixing the process – when a problem arises, most organizations aim to fix the problem. They often forget to investigate the process that created the problem. Don’t forget these questions. They may well be the most important. But don’t aim for blame; this is a good time for appreciative inquiry.
How did we get here?
How can we improve our decision-making process to avoid this in the future?
What were the root causes?
How could we make a better decision in the future?