Critical Thinking

For the CITCOM project, Isabell Schulz and me wrote a tutorial about critical thinking. It’s part of a series of workshops for this project and worth to share, we think.


To a certain extent we all know what critical thinking means – in short, good thinking, almost the opposite of irrational, illogical thinking.
Our societies are increasingly faced with multi-complex interconnected problems, which we are not able to recognise or solve with a reductionist approach. The ability to do so is much higher by emphasizing contextual understanding and critical thinking to then successfully tackle them.
Applying critical thinking techniques is a pre-requisite for being able to think complex scenarios, discuss them with open outcomes collaboratively.
According to Kant: Critical Thinking is the way out of self-imposed immaturity.

What is critical thinking?

Probably most of us think, that we are critical thinkers but somehow we are also quite often on the wrong way, are misled by our prejudices or are just too lazy to reflect and analyze.
Critical thinking and listening is not just a technique, it’s more the mindset of how to approach ordinary events, statements, problems.
Critical thinking is a form of self-development as it implies the necessity to scrutinize and know yourself and thus develop autonomy, being able to work in teams and being able to apply and classify knowledge.
There are several definitions, just to quote the one from the critical thinking community:
“Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.”
Critical thinking means not taking everything at face value.

How to become a critical thinker and listener?

Critical thinkers analyze and evaluate the content of a message. They inspect the reasoning process, weigh the value of evidence, decide whether points are really supported and determine whether the overall message is coherent. They are less influenced by the speakers title and status, his/her charisma and reputation and are aware of their own emotional triggers. They have cultivated a healthy skepticism.
So is it just clever questioning, investigative approaches, discussing different opinions in collaborative settings or is it just thinking the contrary?

Critical listening

Critical thinking starts with critical listening.
How we talk and the words we use influence our actions and behaviour. Our choice of words guides our attention and our thinking. Therefore, one must carefully and critically deal with any language. Only those who are not parroting others in the way of speaking, think for themselves and are mature. We need to carefully choose our words just as we need to carefully listen to how others talk.

The same applies, of course, when reading articles or news, but we will focus on listening as a key element of communication.

The process of listening

Listening is a process that extends from the most primitive kind of auditory awareness to the most sophisticated forms of reception. When talking to strangers, in bigger groups, or about unknown subjects, we tend to build invisible walls of protection. Speakers and listeners must somehow climb these walls to be heard, seen, and understood.
As you listen, you react to more than just to the objective meanings of a message (read more on that topic here).
Some words trigger positive reactions (those aligned with your values and convictions) but can make you blind to flawed or dangerous messages.

The war on terror will take many turns, and the enemy must be defeated on many — on every battlefield, from the streets of Western cities to the mountains of Afghanistan, to the tribal regions of Pakistan, to the islands of Southeast Asia and to the Horn of Africa.

Some words are negatively occupied and trigger extreme emotional reactions, and quite often we are aware of these words.

I think Assange should be assassinated. President Obama should put a contract out on Assange’s life or send out a drone to kill him. I would not be unhappy if Assange disappeared.

It’s necessary to observe your own behaviour to lessen the influence of words triggering certain feelings. Train yourself to listen to the message and analyse it.
Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do these words affect my responses to the message?
  2. Are the message meant to manipulate me?
  3. What can I do to gain control over my reactions?

listeningListening is more than being aware of sounds, but before we can listen, we need to hear. Insofar, hearing is an automatic, involuntary process in which sounds stimulate nerve impulses to the brain. You hear something without listening.
The transition between being aware of sounds and finding a meaning in them is the stage of comprehensive listening. It’s voluntary and involves understanding of the verbal and non verbal language as well as interpreting the message with our own knowledge.
When listening with empathy, we take the point of the speaker and we try to see it from his perspective even though we might not agree with him. This excludes judgment and gives the speaker the possibility to be heard.
Appreciative listening involves responding to the intrinsic content of the message, the beauty of the language, the story, etc.
Critical listening is the major goal and the very sophisticated phase of the listening process. Listeners analyse and evaluate the content of the message, weigh the evidence and decide about the success of the message.
Constructive listening is the final rung of the ladder and involves an active search for the value the message has for us. It is an active process were the listener enters into communication and participates fully in the construction of meaning.
As mentioned above, there are some barriers which arise in ourselves and some are based on the situations and speakers.
How can we overcome our listening walls and develop critical listening skills?

The checklist below might help you to determine the reasons for your listening barriers:

Screen Shot 2015-09-15 at 12.29.48To summarize the above, paying attention to these points makes you a good listener:

  • Focus attention on the message
  • Control reactions to triggers
  • Set aside personal problems and don’t let biases interfere
  • Provide honest feedback
  • Listen for things you can use

Critical thinking

The process of gaining critical knowledge and applying gained insights to our own actions and thinking is achieved by reflecting on assumed perspectives and impacts of facts on the one hand and having active, communicative exchanges with the relevant environment, on the other.
Critical thinking is the basis for well-grounded and mature decisions for sustainable learning and solving practical problems, especially when dealing with media, technology and daily issues.
Critical thinking is not just about solving problems, but also about questioning whether the alleged problem really needs to be solved or whether it is relevant at all. Furthermore, critical thinking can unhide hidden problems and certain insights won’t be uncovered without it.
Example: The checklist (in Annex 2 of the matrix) aims to help you improve your action plan for a community event.
Critical thinking takes place in two complementary processes:

Screen Shot 2015-09-15 at 12.37.29


Both processes need to be balanced.
Critical thinking can be conceptualized in different levels of thinking:





Identifying implicit and explicit assumptions Searching for alternatives Examine the role and the effect of power Look for possibilities to check unverified assumptions
Analysis of assumptions: logic, accuracy Finding commonalities and contradictions Identifying & exploring overt & covert power structures Formulate solutions to identified problems
Verifying validity and limits Formulate own perspectives & standards Apply discoveries in own practice (thinking, feeling, behaviour)


Methods of critical thinking

I guess we made it clear that critical thinking is a means to an end to achieve a new level of knowledge as well as the purpose itself for an autonomic life. Critical thinking is an ongoing process.
You can start with these two simple questions, to be applied in daily situations:

  1. For whom is it good?
  2. Who has something to gain from this?

By applying the following methods you should be able to develop and improve your critical thinking abilities:

First phase

  1. Recognize an issue/subject/matter/problem. Name deficiencies, barriers, assumptions, contradictions and their reasons. Evaluate used language, the meaning of words and source of information. Learn to question.
  2. Define the issue/subject/matter/problem. Analyse the cause-effect-chain, differ symptoms and reasons. Investigate the history of the problem and determine who is affected by the problem. Consider consequences of solving or not solving the problem.
  3. Analyse the issue/subject/matter/problem. Interpret data, evaluate evidences, identify relevant facts and dependencies.
  4. Adjust your perspective, conclude and generalize the issue/subject/matter/problem.
  5. Generate potential solutions for the issue/subject/matter/problem.
  6. Evaluate solution options regarding costs, time, probability, difficulties, benefits, additional problems. Think several steps ahead
  7. Change your way of thinking.

Second phase

  1. Clarify. State one point at a time. Elaborate. Give examples. Ask others to clarify or give examples. If you’re not sure what you’re talking about, you can’t address it.
  2. Be accurate. Check your facts.
  3. Be precise, so you are able to check accuracy. Avoid generalizations, euphemisms, and other ambiguity.
  4. Be relevant. Stick to the main point. Pay attention to how each idea is connected to the main idea.
  5. Know your purpose. What are you trying to accomplish? What’s the most important thing here? Distinguish your purpose from related purposes.
  6. Identify assumptions. All thinking is based on assumptions, however basic.
  7. Check your emotions. Emotions only confuse critical thinking. Notice how your emotions may be pushing your thinking in a certain direction.
  8. Empathize. Try to see things from your opponent’s perspective. Imagine how they feel. Imagine how you sound to them. Sympathize with the logic, emotion, and experience of their perspective.
  9. Know your own ignorance. Even if you know more about relevant issues than your opponent, you still might be wrong. Educate yourself as much as possible, but still: be humble.
  10. Be independent. Think critically about important issues for yourself. Don’t believe everything you read. Don’t conform to the priorities, values, and perspectives of others.
  11. Think through implications. Consider the consequences of your viewpoint.
  12. Know your own biases. Your biases muddle your thinking. Notice how they might be pushing your thought toward a particular end, regardless of the logical steps it took to get there.
  13. Suspend judgment. Critical thinking should produce judgments, not the other way around. Don’t make a decision and then use critical thinking to back it up. If anything, use the method of science: take a guess about how things are and then try to disprove it.
  14. Consider the opposition. Listen to other viewpoints in their own words. Seriously consider their most persuasive arguments. Don’t dismiss them.
  15. Recognize cultural and religious assumptions. People from different times and cultures thought much differently than you do.
  16. Be fair, not selfish. Each person’s most basic bias is for themselves.

Practical application

Learning about the basics of communication helps to understand the complexity of our reactions to trigger words, resulting in our underlying attitudes, fears and prejudices. They influence how we listen, speak, react and can block comprehension and activities.
For working with groups, communities and teams, we have to define the envisaged impact of our activities and how to reach our target groups. It is necessary to analyze and profile it with these basic categories:

  • demographic,
  • geographic,
  • behavioural,
  • lifestyle.

To better communicate your key goals, you need to reflect on specific words and terms that define your message. You will eventually end up with simple, specific, authentic and persuasive statements. This process goes along with a continuous evaluation and analysis of the message content.


You need to inspect the reasoning, weigh the value of evidences, decide whether points are really supported and determine whether your overall message/activity is successful. It goes along with a healthy skepticism towards your own presentations/messages/activities and towards others. That means, you are less influenced by titles, reputations, emotional appeals or charisma.

Be aware that your target audience is also a critical thinker and listener!


  • Dirk Jahn: Was es heißt, kritisches Denken zu fördern, mediamanual Nr. 28 aus 2013
  • Osborn& Osborne Public Speaking, Houghton Mifflin Company Boston



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