The Best Way to Develop the Top Two Success Skills: Critical Thinking and Communication
by C.S. Clarke, Ph.D.
You might work for yourself or someone else. You might have a trade or a profession. You might have burning ambition to achieve or just want steady, reliable employment. But no matter what you want in the working world, you have to have certain skills beyond the basics needed to do any specific job. They are often called "soft skills." You can't fully learn them in a classroom or training hall. You can't fully learn them through books. You must develop them through practice and experience. I'm recommending here a method of developing two of the most essential soft skills: critical thinking and communication.
Critical thinking is the ability to analyze and make good judgments. When you have it, you can use what you already know and know what to find out to make your thinking and judgment better. The skill of communication includes listening, information processing, informative speaking and persuasive speaking. (Note too, that when you have both of those skills, you have the basis for the skill of leadership.)
The method I recommend to acquire or advance critical thinking and communication skills is: join Toastmasters® International and work its program. Now, wait. Before you make the erroneous judgement that Toastmasters is about public speaking, let me tell you that it is actually one of the most effective leadership training programs available. While you do learn to speak comfortably in front of a group, the primary use most Toastmasters® make of the program is not to become public speakers. Rather, they learn to organize and run effective meetings, listen well, give and take feedback, think out and explain a point of view, recognize faulty logic in others' points of view and "think on their feet" to respond quickly and effectively in a variety of situations. Doesn't that sound like exactly what you need to function well in business and your community?
I'll outline briefly how it works: Every Toastmaster® meeting has a formal agenda and everyone there has a role, even if the unassigned one of "audience." By gradually cycling through the minor roles, like timer or "ah" counter, the newbie learns the value of every participant in a meeting, as well as how the meeting is organized and why. And starts looking at the purpose, organization and running of all kinds of meetings in a whole new way. Back at the office, he starts running his own meetings more effectively.
Of course, he will start to do what most folks think of as "the hard part" -- make formal presentations. Mercifully, the typical Toastmaster® speech or presentation is about five to seven minutes. The real "hard part" is the time taken to choose a subject, think it through, write a clear and concise essay on it, translate that essay into a spoken presentation and practice it for hours in front of family, friends and mirrors. (Maybe even in front of a camera, for playback and self-criticism.) So, he is learning to think logically, think about how to present the idea, get preliminary feedback, hone the effectiveness of "selling" the idea and appreciate the value of practice and preparation. Eventually the presentation before the whole group becomes almost anti-climatic. He has learned how to make presentations that work regardless of the place or audience.
But what about the "thinking on your feet" skill? Equally as valuable as making formal presentations is the practice of what Toastmasters calls "table topics." I've been told that the name comes from the practice of "throwing an idea out on the table and seeing what everyone has to say about it." In Toastmaster meetings, one of the roles is "Table Topics Master." The Table Topics Master considers the theme of the meeting (every meeting has a theme, unconnected to the topics of the formal presentations) and composes a series of questions, statements or instructions that relate to the theme. He or she randomly calls upon meeting participants (excluding those scheduled for formal presentations) to speak for one to three minutes in response to one of those questions, statements or instructions. No preparation. Just instant reaction time. For example, if the theme of the meeting were "The Office Environment," a table topics assignment might be: "Explain to your boss why you came to work in your pajamas." Not only will you learn to be quickly responsive, even in fairly strange situations, over time, you will come to find this quite fun.
And if all that were not enough training for critical thinking and communication, there's the role of evaluator. Every speaker has another Toastmaster assigned to him as an evaluator.
Before I explain the role of evaluator, I must put it in the context of the speakers' manuals. In order to ensure that its members get both breadth and depth in training, Toastmasters® International provides manuals with formal speech assignments. Each speech is a particular kind, has a specific purpose and sometimes, a specific methodology. The manual is to help structure and guide the speaker, not inhibit him. (And speakers are not forced to use the manual, they can make any kind of speeches they like.)
Along with the speech instruction comes an evaluation guide. The evaluator uses that guide to make notes about the speech and how well the speaker did. Later, the evaluator gives an oral evaluation from those notes. An evaluator is usually selected on the basis of having some experience in speaking and receiving feedback before giving feedback. Just imagine the skills learned from giving and receiving evaluations publicly: listening with attention, clarity about goals and purposes, compassion and careful wording of criticism. If you haven't figured it out by now, being an evaluator in a Toastmasters meeting is great training for giving and receiving performance appraisals.
There are many organizations that offer training in soft skills. Usually such training is designed to be delivered in one- or two-week-long, classroom-like sessions. Such training can give you the basic ideas and get you started, but skills of any kind are seldom learned in compact, intensive periods. I recommend Toastmasters® because the training is continuous over well-spaced intervals. It repeats with variation -- the best known method for mastery training. And it is very inexpensive. Basic membership is, at the time of this writing, $20 to become a new member and $27 every six months. Some clubs have additional dues, some don't. Of those that do, most are very nominal. There are thousands of clubs across the U.S. and elsewhere. They meet at various convenient times of day every day of the week. You can find one that works for you.