Most Important Critical Thinking Skills (With Examples)

By Chris Kolmar - Sep. 23, 2020
Skills Based Articles

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If you start reading through job postings, you’ll see that no matter what industry the job is in, hiring managers want candidates who have the ability to communicate well, remain positive, and be a good team player, whether they’re hoping to be an intern or join upper management.

These “soft skills,” as they’re commonly called, are what make you employable, no matter how many technical skills you have. They make you a pleasant person to work with and ensure that you will help the organization run smoothly instead of creating more problems. Some of the most valuable soft skills you can have, though, are critical thinking skills.

What Is Critical Thinking?

Critical thinking is the process of analyzing facts and turning them into conclusions and solutions. It’s what your elementary school teachers were trying to teach you when you did story problems in math and book reports in English, and it’s how we as humans are able to keep ourselves alive and improve the world we live in. Critical thinking takes place when you step away from the emotional aspects of a problem and methodically come up with a solution.

Why Are Critical Thinking Skills Important?

Aside from keeping you alive in your day-to-day life, good critical thinking skills make you an independent and effective employee. These skills are what allow you to solve problems, manage your time and come up with innovative ideas. You’re going to need these skills throughout your career no matter what industry you work in. Whether you use them to create a successful new product, put efficient teams together, or solve a conflict with a customer or employee, your employer wants to know that you can handle issues and make decisions without much supervision.

Critical Thinking Skills You Need To Have

Observation

The first step in critical thinking is identifying current or potential problems. After all, you can’t work to solve a problem when you don’t know it’s there. This skill will also help you spot weak spots in plans and projects, allowing you to prevent issues before they do any actual damage. Observation is also essential to finding the information you need to create effective solutions.

When you have good observational skills, you might notice:

  • Patterns

  • Unanswered questions

  • Discordant or missing data

  • Assumptions without evidence to back them

Analysis

Once you’ve observed a problem or pattern, you need to take it a step further and figure out how the information you’ve gathered is working together. This is how you find the root cause of the problem, as well as other important information you need to start finding a solution.

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Analysis can require:

  • Looking at and interpreting data and research reports

  • Asking “why” questions

  • Having a healthy skepticism of conclusions that are handed to you without evidence

Inference

Being able to draw conclusions from the evidence and information you have is vital to good problem-solving skills, as this is where the solution comes from. This can be dangerous if you have incomplete information, so it’s important that you go about this process carefully, especially when it comes to large decisions. This is also where you need to be careful about noticing and removing your own biases and emotion, as they can blind you to factors that you don’t want to see. Inviting trustworthy people into your thought-process at this stage can help bring new perspectives and point out your blind spots.

Aspects of inference include:

  • Creative thinking

  • Asking the experts

  • Following evidence to its logical conclusion

  • Checking your conclusions with others you trust

Communication

Your other critical thinking skills will do you no good if you can’t communicate effectively. Solving problems in the workplace usually involves more than one person and requires that they all be on the same page, so you need to be able to bring others into your thought process. Communication is a two way street, though, so you need to make sure you’re listening to others and supporting their conclusions when you need to as well.

Examples of good communication skills include:

  • Writing

  • Public speaking

  • Presenting

  • Active listening

  • Creating clear and concise data reports

Problem Solving

This skill is where you take all of your conclusions and put them together to create something you can act on. Simply discovering a problem and what is causing it doesn’t do anyone much good if you don’t also find a solution that actually works. Be careful that you aren’t just mitigating consequences, though. You need to fix the root issue and make sure that your solution doesn’t create additional problems.

Effective problem solving requires:

  • Creativity

  • Innovation

  • Constant evaluation

  • Practicality

  • Attention to detail

  • Teamwork

  • The ability to accept constructive criticism

How To Improve Your Critical Thinking Skills

  1. Practice Empathy. The next time you have an opportunity, no matter how small, to use your critical thinking skills, practice looking at the situation through more than one lens. Think about everyone involved and put yourself in their shoes. How will your decision impact them? What would you do if you were in their situation? Often this requires that you actually go ask for their perspectives. Getting into this habit will help you find blind spots much more quickly, avoid making decisions based on false assumptions, and create solutions that truly solve the problem on all fronts, not just yours.

  2. Evaluate Yourself. Everyone has blind spots, so try to find yours before you make an important decision by asking someone you trust to point them out. Prepare yourself for future problems by checking yourself for biases and noting how your thought processes usually work. Do you typically jump to conclusions? Are you too easily swung by other people’s opinions? By knowing where your strengths and weaknesses are, you can better avoid making a mistake when it’s time to use your critical thinking skills.

  3. Engage in Healthy Skepticism. Practice noticing and questioning assumptions you and others are making. For example, if you work for a bakery, you may think that because chocolate chip cookies were your top seller in your flagship location, they’ll be the top seller at every location. This assumes that everyone in every town has the same tastes, however, which isn’t necessarily true. By recognizing this, your company can save itself a lot of money on chocolate chips and research what is actually selling well instead.

  4. Think Through All Consequences. Strong critical thinking skills aren’t just used for solving problems, but to prevent them in the first place. Practice spotting issues in advance by envisioning how the decisions you make throughout the day will play out. For example, if you’re trying to decide if you’re going to get another cup of coffee before your meeting or not, think through how successfully you’ll be able to get it there without spilling, if you’ll fall asleep without it, or if you’ll need to leave the meeting to use the restroom after drinking it. This helps train your mind to do this for bigger decisions such as restructuring teams, implementing a new workflow strategy or creating a new product.

  5. Learn From the Experts. Because critical thinking skills are in such high demand, there are quite a few seminars available that can help with this. Whether they’re at your local college or university, at a conference, or online, consider taking one of these to help boost your skills, no matter how developed you think they are. Or, if you know someone whose critical thinking skills you respect and admire, reach out and ask them if they’d be willing to share the thought processes they use when they have to make a decision.

Resume

So, how do you show potential employers that you have good critical thinking skills? Show them, and don’t put them in the “special skills” section of your resume. Think through times you’ve used critical thinking in your career and make sure you incorporate them into your experience sections. Use words like “analyzed,” “identified,” “developed,” and “managed.” Share the steps that you took to complete a project and include as many specifics about the results as possible. If you took any classes or seminars, be sure to include those as well. And, as always, if the job description you’re applying for lists some attributes that they want you to have, be sure to incorporate those keywords. Here are some examples of how to do this:

  • Developed project management system that increased number of projects completed by my team by 10%

  • Identified and fixed design flaws in four building projects before construction began, saving $25,000

  • Implemented budgeting strategy that cut costs by 5% while maintaining quality standards

  • Analyzed past marketing campaigns to create best practices for department to follow

  • Negotiated contracts with vendors in order to stay within the project budget while maintaining quality standards

  • Resolved 10+ customer questions and complaints each day

Cover Letter

While it’s important to include as much as you can on your resume, your cover letter is where your critical thinking skills can really start to shine. Think of one or two situations where you put these skills to good use and then work them into your letter, still remembering to point out your qualifications that match the job description. You can do this by saying something like:

By surveying parents about their communication preferences and the concerns they had about their children, I was able to implement new systems that allowed me to communicate with them more effectively. Because I was able to work more closely with parents, the class’s average grades and test scores went up by about 6%. I also received praise from seventh grade English instructors for thoroughly preparing my students for their courses and was asked by the school board to share my methods with the rest of the teachers.

Interview

When it comes time for your interview, make sure you’re prepared with several anecdotes that highlight your critical thinking skills. These can be longer versions of the examples you put in your cover letter, but you should also have one or two additional ones at the ready, whether they’re as simple as customer service problems you solved or as complex as new systems you created. Potential employers want to see how you have put these skills into action in the past and how you will do the same for them in the future.

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Chris Kolmar

Author

Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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