How to Think Critically: Part 2 of 3

How asking ourselves one Master Question can help us with critical thinking

Posted Jan 24, 2013

In my last "Beyond Blame" blog entry, I proposed that anxiety propels much of our behavior, most of which is dysfunctional. Anxiety in all its forms—fear, distress, unease, dread and so on—interferes with our ability to make rational decisions.

Anger (resentment, frustration, annoyance) is the second powerful motivator. Working separately or together, anger and fear trigger the famous fight/flight syndrome, which releases adrenaline and primes us for fighting or fleeing-not for thinking.

Our society works as well as it does because, during the long process of growing up, we learn how to suppress our impulses to either fight or flee. And even, sometimes, how to refrain from acting on our distress or annoyance.

Yet many or our behaviors are still decidedly negative, especially in the area of intimate relationships. We continue to make bad decisions that cause us pain and disrupt our lives.

Last week I used this example: You're driving to a party and your spouse says she suspects that she’d left the stove on. You need to return home, and will be late to the party. Obviously irritated, you say, "How could you be so careless?"

Is that a functional/helpful thing to ask? Clearly, it's not. In fact, your spouse is bound to get upset, you’ll get into an argument, and that will ruin the evening.

So how can you tell if what you're about to say is helpful?

You can take a few seconds to ask yourself the following question. I call it the Master Question because asking it and demanding a thoughtful response from yourself will avoid numerous conflicts.

Here's the question: "What do I want to see happen?" Parallel forms of the questions are: "What's my goal?” Or “How will this behavior help the situation?"

Being able to ask yourself these questions requires a serious dedication to being thoughtful. Which brings us back to the beginning of this discussion: If your decisions are powered by fear/anxiety and anger/frustration, you will not be able to take the time to be thoughtful.

Even a small amount of thinking will tell you that asking your spouse "How could you be so careless?" is a bad idea. You can’t possibly expect her to respond: "Oh, honey, thank you for reminding me that I was careless. I needed that."

Then what should you say? If your goal is to have a good time together, then you say absolutely nothing. Your silence demonstrates generosity toward her error. Don't you want her to be equally generous toward your mistakes?

But even if you're able to slow down and ask yourself the Master Question, there remains a major complication. Namely, your belief system: your network of beliefs, assumptions and principles that tell you how the world functions and how you're supposed to behave within it.

For instance, if you believe (or assume) that your spouse must behave perfectly at all times and that you have the right to criticize her every error, then you'll have already given yourself permission to criticize her.

Your beliefs run your life. So before significant change can happen, you must discard erroneous and dysfunctional beliefs.

More on how beliefs determine happiness in the next entry.

About the Author

Carl Alasko

Carl Alasko, Ph.D. is the author of Beyond Blame (Tarcher Penguin), and like his first book Emotional Bullshit, it has been published in five languages.

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