Dan Erwin: Motivation

4 Key Attitudes of Critical Thinking

As a result of apartment renovation and moving upstairs, a number of my first floor and new second floor neighbors have been in my apartment. They wanted to see my new digs. One of the most striking features of their perusal is a seemingly profound lack of curiosity and very little ability to “notice.” “You have a beautiful apartment,” most respond. But what’s intriguing is what they don’t see unless I call attention to it. And these are not ill-educated people.

I have nearly 45 photos, sculptures, water colors, porcelains and artifacts hanging on the walls—all hung by a professional. One of the most gorgeous is an authentic Navajo rug, along with a recent painting of Indian tribeswomen. Not a single person mentioned one unique, beautiful, artistic hanging, a branch of spruce, covered with dripped copper. I have an extensive library, approximately 1500 volumes, yet no one gave it more than a glance. Not a single question was asked about any of the artifacts.

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Even more sad than not noticing my personal context is the seeming lack of awareness of how context actually impacts each of as individuals and as members of a work team. So in the weeks following their visit to my apartment there was no sense they knew me any better, no attempt to get to know me better and no inherent projections of how I would respond to their conversations. The kind of familiarity information that can surface implicitly and explicitly in conversations was completely absent. And I’ve been watching and looking for that knowledge. But it was just never there in any of the dozen neighbor’s conversations. The underlying attitude of curiosity was absent—and so they remained in their small worlds. Expressing interest—but never following through on it. Perhaps, not recognizing what they were looking at or knowing the value of asking questions.

What is critical thinking?
Critical thinking, as I use the term, is the business of identifying the complications of relevant contexts and communication, and unpacking them thoughtfully. That includes physical contexts like those I describe in the above paragraphs. Of course, it also includes all the conversation and non-conversational talk, as well as the supportive physicality seen and heard in posture. So too, movement, non-verbal, language choice, values, arguments, persuasion, written materials, and linguistic forms like small talk, narrative, questioning. Including context artifacts like book choice, pictures, paintings and architecture.

To a very high degree, success in business—and life—is tied to one’s critical thinking skills in relevant, significant situations. One of the most illuminating experiences of critical thinking about “ordinary” talk took place at one of my last executive coaching jobs. I was working with the CEO of a major East Coast mortgage firm and had finished interviewing about twenty of his colleagues in preparation for coaching. I always got to their offices much earlier than any appointment, spending time with various execs and managers in “small talk.” Uniquely, the firm insisted on paying me on an hourly basis, rather than on a project basis. I had noticed the corporate attorney, who regularly received my billings, was unhappy with my fee. Late in the process, I happened to stop by his office and after he asked me how the “project” was going, he expressed frustration with my use of time—and the large bills he was paying just for “small talk.”

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