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Creating a space for critical thinking

I continue to reflect and consider how we can bring critical thinking into our organizations. As I discussed in my last post, one of the challenges with critical thinking is not allowing the questions to derail the process. Questions are only part of an environment that encourages critical thinking.

When a situation calls for critical thinking, people are often already stuck and anxious. When a situation is tense or stressful, people’s brains can shut down the thinking process and shift to fight, flight, or freeze mode. In other research done by Dr. Stellan Ohlsson on impasses, he experimented with helping people solve problems by suggesting what the solution is not and alternatively by giving clues to move people toward the solution. In both cases, only 5% of people eventually reach a resolution. His next strategy was to dive deeply into the problem and look for the root cause. This too was only marginally effective.

With insight and ideas on the line, seeking ways to improve the environment and allow people to move from stress to a reflective state of mind is most important. Here’s a short list of ideas on how to do this (these ideas come from the IPNB research):

  • Encourage the person by showing appreciation or recognizing their status and role in the organization
  • Increase confidence and certainty by clarifying the objectives
  • Assure the person that they will be making the decisions and discovering the needed ideas
  • Ask the person to simply the question to a sentence or a few words

Once the environment is calmed, and people are in a better frame of mind (brought about by reducing the load on the limbic system and frontal cortex), questions may be used to encourage the person to focus on their own process. You can begin by encouraging them, “You have good ideas. Let’s explore what your ideas are rather than think about mind.”  David Rock in Your Brain at Work (p. 213) suggests the following four questions to stimulate reflection:

  • If you stop and think more deeply here, do you think you know what you need to do to resolve this?
  • What quiet hunches do you have about a solution, deeper inside?
  • How close to a solution are you?
  • Which pathway to a solution would be best to follow here?

By shifting the environment from one of stress, blame, or argument, the brain research shows that people can be more effective. As the leader or coach, you have to be willing to allow and encourage people to find their own solutions. Real change and progress are then possible.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. I support this approach. In my experience, the client has the solution within. Our job as business advisors, I believe, is to clear the mind’s pathway of obstacles and gently guide it toward the solution. Improving the environment is helpful.

    March 6, 2010
    • friesengroup #

      Thank you for your comment. I agree that “the client has the solution within”. I would add that I believe the environment includes both internal and external factors. In my experience, if I can lead along the pathway to modify the internal/mind-based factors, approaching the external factors can be simpler or in some cases the external obstacles become irrelevant.

      March 6, 2010

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