Critical Thinking, Rule 1 – Identify the situation
Critical Thinking, Rule 1 – Identify the situation

Critical Thinking, Rule 1 – Identify the situation

In the last Critical Thinking article, I jumped around from discussing what I believe my strongest skill is, to discussing critical thinking and being able to learn it. I’d like to go into more detail about the connection that exists between being a “middleman” (my strongest skill) and the steps for critical thinking. As mentioned there, the first rule to negotiating a successful resolution between two or more parties is to identify the point of contention and listen to the needs of everyone involved.

When it comes to critical thinking, this step is equally important. You may not have the traditional “parties involved” like you would in a negotiation, but you do have more than one side, in fact, usually more than two or three facets to the situation that is calling upon your analytical skills. Identifying the exact aspects of the situation, and mapping out all the various sides is a requirement in order for you to be even semi successful with your analysis.

Lets demonstrate with one of my favorite topics, troubleshooting. Troubleshooting is something that is a universal process used everywhere. When your car isn’t working, when your phone call won’t connect, your computer stops working, the lights won’t turn on, or even your body starts acting up. It is the name used to refer to a process that involves moving through a series of methodical checks, determining at each step if a condition is true or false, and using that information to find what is going on behind the scenes. It is a process used by electricians, mechanics, scientists’, and even medical doctors to help them in their field of expertise.

For example if the lights are not working, the troubleshooting process may look like the following

Q1. Is the light switch being turned on? Is it the right light switch for this light?
A1. Yes, I’ve turned it on before and the light has worked in the past

Q2. Is there power going to the light switch, maybe the breaker has been tripped?
A2. Checking the breaker confirms that it is in the on position, without calling an electrician this is as far as I can go

Q3. Is there power going to the breaker? Perhaps there is a power issue with the house or area.
A3. Power is off in the entire house ,now that I’ve gone to check other lights and outlets.

Q4. Do other people in the area have power? Is there a known outage from the utility company or an unpaid bill?
A4. The bill was left unpaid by accident, paying the bill restores the power to the house and now the light is working.

It’s important to note that each step takes you closer to the answer, although in a complex scenario with more moving parts the process can get tedious and repetitive (especially if the support representative you are dealing with is constantly being changed and you end up repeating yourself often), the reality is that the person you call for help, or even if you are the one helping someone, will NEVER have all the answers. They are using simple math to determine logically where the issue MAY be and then performing steps to check if its right. Essentially it’s guesswork, backed by knowledge and experience they’ve acquired helping others in similar situations.

“Wait a minute” you say, “Simple math??”. Yes, if you can add 1 + 1 and get to 2 then you’ve performed critical thinking.

I’m going to stress this point for a minute.

This does not mean that since you’ve memorized 1+1=2 that you are doing critical thinking. There is a big difference between rote memorization and actually doing the work. If you can specifically say “here is one and here is another one, therefore I must have two” then you’ve performed critical thinking. This is a skill everyone has but does not always exercise, and as the saying goes “Use it or lose it”.

In the case of the Troubleshooter, referring back to the non-working light scenario, they are starting from 1 (light not working) and following the math, they do not need to have a degree in electrical engineering or even be an electrician. The light is controlled by the light switch, therefore in order for the light to work the light switch must work. It is possible that either light or light switch is actually broken, but that falls out of our scope since the troubleshooter is either NOT an electrician, and/or not physically on site to help. The key to troubleshooting is to maintain a scope of focus, narrowing the field of vision to the data points that can be tested and answered by the person troubleshooting, so as much information as possible can be collected.

Just because it COULD be broken doesn’t mean it is, if the answer to Q3 was yes (the house and breaker have power as far as you can tell) then you would revisit the possibility of just the switch or light being broken and call an electrician then. You can jump straight to calling the electrician, but they’re going to perform the exact same troubleshooting method first to confirm if there’s an issue in the house, area, breaker, switch or light, before they “fix it”. If you perform the first 2 (or 5 or 6 or however many steps are involved in your situation) first and then present the data to the person you go to for help, you will save them time and allow them to troubleshoot faster. They will likely do the same steps anyways to confirm your findings but they will already have an idea based on what you did that will help them narrow down the problem faster, potentially saving you time and even money.

By focusing on the data points you CAN answer and keeping the unanswerable data points to the back burner until you have exhausted your options, or uncovered information that brings them back into scope, you are able to logically step through “here’s one” (the light that needs to work) and “here’s another making two” (the light switch controls the light). You then work the other way; assuming 1 + 1 = 2 you would then want to verify that you have 2 at the end, and that you did add one on each side. Math is touted as a science that will always provide the same answer when valid, no matter how many different ways you run the numbers. “Here’s the light that is supposed to work, here’s the light switch that’s supposed to control the light. The light isn’t working”. You want to confirm that the light switch you’re looking at is the one that really does control that light, think of how you can confirm that, the question may appear stupid, and the answer obvious but in reality there are no stupid questions.

Everything you are told or think as you go through the critical thinking phases should be considered an ASSUMPTION until you are able to convert this to an IMMUTABLE FACT. These are key words that I’m going to be using all over the place, in this series and other areas of the website. The critical thinking process requires you to determine assumptions, and then test them to convert them into immutable facts, or disproven assumptions. Ideally you’re able to provide at least two or three supporting data points that will allow you to move an assumption into the immutable fact side. Someone familiar with the house, having used that switch every day until now, and who can confirm it controls the light you’re looking at, will provide that data verification for you, turning it into an immutable fact in this scenario.

With the light switch confirmed as fact, the next step is to follow through the basics that you can. An electrician may crack open the box with a tester to confirm power, a home owner who doesn’t have that ability should go looking at the breaker next. Most electricians would go check the breakers first anyway because it’s more common and a faster step then pulling tools out. The lights need power to work, power flows from the breaker to and through the switch; is the switch getting power would be the next logical question to ask and confirm.

One of the underrated rules to success in the world is iteration. “Practice makes perfect” they say, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. What happens when you reached the end? You do it again, the next time, better. What happens when you’ve finished a project? You iterate on it, introduce additional depths to the concept of the project and expand its reach. Complexity comes from iteration as well but only stands up with a good foundation. The scientific process is completely based on running tests over and over again, iterating over the data until you’ve turned assumptions (hypothesis) into immutable fact (theorem). In this case we’ll be iterating over the same steps, does the breaker have power, does the house have power, until you’ve reached the conclusion of the solution.

As an electrician one you’ve confirmed the breaker is getting power but the switch isn’t working, you’d perform the same steps again but more localized. Testing for power within the switch box, testing the wire, testing the switch, testing power by the light, until you find the issue which would then tell you how to fix it (more on this later).

To summarize, the first rule of negotiation, and the first rule of critical thinking is the same. You want to gather information around what the situation is and understand what is and what isn’t. You’ll want to pay close attention because the smallest detail can provide clues that are needed for the next step. Remember if you miss one side, the entire equation becomes unbalanced and will throw you off into an entirely different direction (either from where the negotiations need to go, or on where the problem is you are trying to fix).

In the next article I’ll continue to expand on what is involved with critical thinking, iterating over the concept as well as ways you can improve your own analytical skills with some exercises.

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