Seek first to understand

Whilst mooching through social media this weekend I came across a fascinating thread. Someone within my network had posted a rather generic request for help on a pretty generic topic. It was one of those moments that we’ve all had where we ask, “does anyone know anyone who can xxx”.

What fascinated me was that despite the very generic nature, the thread was filled with responses, “I can” or “I recommend x”. It was only after about forty or so responses that someone answered, “I think I might be able to help, but I need a little bit more detail. What specifically are you looking for, who are the people you’re looking for this for and where and when would you need it?”

It reminded me of many of the conversations that we have at work. A problem is generically stated and immediately we all pile in with attempts to fix it. Suggestion after suggestion is made in the attempt to solve a problem that we haven’t even fully understood. From the limited data that’s presented we all form our own individual interpretation and yet we rarely take time to check that our understanding is the same.

The impact on the original requestor can be overwhelming as they are inundated with solutions that can often be contradictory to one another meanwhile the other participants can get frustrated as their “obvious” answer to the problem goes unheard. But what if instead of being at the end of the thread, those questions had been at the beginning? Would that have led to a better quality of response?

It would be easy to say that the originator of the question should have thought it through, but I disagree. The nature of collaboration is that we work together to try to find a solution and that is particularly true in the workplace. If we all take responsibility to ask questions and seek to understand all the aspects of a problem, rather than making assumptions, we not only help to achieve better answers, we save everyone time and effort in the process.

 

The value of critical thinking

Human beings are beautifully imperfect creatures – that’s what makes us interesting and frustrating in equal measure. We have the ability to process the most complex information and draw sense and understanding from it. And at the same time, we have the ability to lose total sight of the information and arguments in a decision, because of the lens through which we personally see the world.

Sometimes that’s ok. You ask a room full of football supporters who the best team is and you’ll have numerous impassioned arguments. Most of them are probably factually incorrect, but it doesn’t really matter – the opinion, the belief, the fundamental and overwhelming support is the characteristic that we treasure. We could probably, factually, work out which is the best team – but what’s the fun in that?

Other times, it prevents us from running our businesses and our lives successfully. We eschew the opportunity to explore multiple perspectives, to recognise our own assumptions and we choose to make decisions based on a limited set of information – often because not doing so would directly challenge our status, our beliefs or our previous decisions.

It’s a curious one.

One of the nicest, simplest models I’ve seen for this is Pearson’s RED:

Recognise assumptions

  • How can you help separate opinion from fact?
  • What assumptions are you bringing in to the decision-making process?
  • What are the different view points that exist?
  • What data exists to help explore the question at hand?

Evaluate arguments

  • What are the pros and cons of different viewpoints?
  • Can you make the opposite argument to your natural positions?
  • How does the data stack up against the various perspectives?
  • What will be the impact and how do you know?

Draw conclusions

  • Given all the information and arguments, what’s the best way forward?
  • How do you know?
  • What data/information supports your decision?
  • Is there something that you don’t know that would be helpful?

There is and will always be room for impassioned arguments and beliefs in business as there is in life. Critical thinking is about curiosity, it is about wanting to explore difference, wanting to understand views, wanting to learn and inform – not beating everyone around the head with demands for rationality and data – that’s another type of closed mindedness.

Seeking first to understand and explore, checking ourselves for out own assumptions and weighing up possibilities can only help us to be both more confident of our views and more rational in our arguments and better in our conclusions. We should, after all, be interested in making the best decisions that we can.