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Think You’re Entitled to Your Opinion? Think Again

How critical thinking skills boost your power and influence.

Key points

  • When expressing opinions about subjects that you don’t have education, training, or deep knowledge in, you may face not being taken seriously.
  • Critical thinking is the skill that, among many things, enables you to tell a truly informed and researched opinion apart from an uninformed one.
  • Employees with critical thinking skills benefit an organization because it makes them better able to develop better solutions.

Last month, I wrote about what it means to really win an argument—how sometimes “winning” can actually be losing and how “losing” can actually be winning. What there wasn’t room in that article for was to discuss how a lot of arguments are completely unnecessary or ridiculous due to the fact that many of the so-called opinions thrown around these days are quite frankly illegitimate. But as a quick glance through any popular social media platform reveals, this doesn’t stop people from arguing over those illegitimate opinions anyway.

A popular saying, widely accepted in our culture, is that “everyone is entitled to their opinions.” But Professor Patrick Stokes, a professor of philosophy at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, would disagree with that statement. According to Stokes, “You are not entitled to your opinion. You are only entitled to what you can legitimately argue for.”

I’m inclined to agree, and I would also say that what he’s really getting at is the importance of critical thinking. I would also add that critical thinking skills can significantly boost your influence and persuasiveness, while not having such ability will significantly lower those qualities and make you more vulnerable to buying into illegitimate opinions.

What It Means to Argue an Opinion Legitimately

First, let’s clarify what Professor Stokes means. When he says that you’re not entitled to your opinion, he doesn’t mean that you’re not allowed to have tastes and preferences. Maybe you prefer the mystery genre over the science fiction genre or vanilla ice cream over chocolate ice cream. That’s totally fine. He is also not saying that you’re not allowed to say whatever you want about any topic you choose, nor that someone will stop you if you try. You’re free to hop on Twitter, for example, and insist that the world is flat if you feel like doing so.

What Professor Stokes is saying, however, is that when you express opinions about subjects for which you don’t have the requisite education, training, or deep knowledge in, you shouldn’t expect to be taken seriously, at least not by anyone who genuinely understands those subjects. That’s what he means when he states that you’re not “entitled” to those opinions—you are not entitled to those opinions to be taken seriously.

That is not an elitist position. That is simply a position that recognizes that no one can be an expert on everything, and like it or not, certain subject matters do require many years of study and training. If, for example, someone didn’t read a book but told you that book was bad, would you take that opinion seriously?

But the real heart of the matter isn’t just training and education in specialized topics. It’s critical thinking, which is both a broader and deeper issue. Critical thinking is the skill that, among many things, enables you to tell a truly informed and researched opinion apart from an uninformed one (or one that’s informed only by Google, Facebook memes, or talk show radio hosts).

Critical thinking is also the skill that enables you to realize which subject areas are ones that you may not be qualified to speak about with credible authority. Since many people seem to think they are qualified to opine about just about every topic under the sun, this suggests that there is a current shortage of critical thinking skills in society at large.

Why Critical Thinking Skills Increase Your Power and Influence

So much of this column is about helping ordinary people thrive in organizational settings, so let’s bring this to the realm of work. Organizations widely share the sense that critical thinking skills are in short supply. In an American Management Association survey, 75.7 percent of employers believe that critical thinking skills are crucial, yet only about half of them feel that their employees actually have those skills. It naturally stands to reason that if you have critical thinking skills and you’re looking for a job (or currently have a job and want a promotion), those critical thinking skills will help you stand out in a typical pool of candidates.

Employers feel so strongly about critical thinking skills because having employees with these skills benefit organizations in numerous ways, not least of which is being better able to come up with creative solutions and approaches for challenges that businesses face. But that’s from the employers’ perspective.

What’s the benefit of having critical thinking skills in the workplace from your perspective? The benefit is that critical thinking skills increase the very things you read this blog for, i.e., the scope and reach of your power and your ability to influence others. How? Well, just take a look at the list of topics I’ve discussed in this blog.

Critical thinking applies to the majority of them. It helps you determine which rule for political skill applies in a given situation. It enables you to figure out the most persuasive argument for someone. It leads you to question and be skeptical so that you don’t fall under the spell of persuasive psychopaths who talk a good game. And it helps you discern which arguments are ones where it’d be better to just lose in the short run so that you can win in the long run.

Spotting the Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing

In case the reasons above are not enough, there’s another reason why having critical thinking skills strengthens your personal power. It makes you less susceptible to those who would try to exploit the lack of critical thinking skills in an organization or society at large. This is why even charlatans and hucksters can get ahead, and even if it seems like they aren’t very bright, I’d argue that many of them know exactly what they’re doing. They know that where critical thinking skills are lacking, bombast and theatrics are often all that’s needed. Or, as P.T. Barnum once said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

As I argued in my article about psychopaths, the charlatans and hucksters of the world aren’t going to stop exploiting the public’s lack of critical thinking skills anytime soon. Because of this, whether you want to actively fight them or just protect yourself and others from them, there are two things you absolutely must do.

The first is to increase your level of personal power and influence overall to draw from the sources of power that you would need to fight them (if you’re reading this blog, you’re already halfway there). The second thing is to cultivate critical thinking skills, which will enable you to protect yourself and others from their deceptions. And as I’ve stated, the second thing is basically a prerequisite for the first.

And so there you have it. For all of the reasons mentioned above, one of the most important things you can do if you hope to increase your level of personal power and influence is to keep sharpening your critical thinking skills (though exactly how to do so is a separate topic). And likewise, failing to sharpen your critical thinking is a surefire way to squander your power. Now, of course, this is just my opinion.

But I’m entitled to it.

Craig Barkacs, professor of business law and ethics in the Master’s in Executive Leadership and MBA Programs at The Knauss School of Business at the University of San Diego.