What Can We Do to Develop and Encourage Good Thinking?

|

Continued from: Of What Value is Good Thinking?

What might have Mrs. Carson told young Bennie if he had asked, “Momma, just what is it that you want me to do when you say, “Think, Bennie!”?”  Based on Carson’s descriptions of his mother, she was a wise woman. No doubt it would have been instructive for all of us to hear what she had to say, but we’ll never know.

The first article in this series, What is Good Thinking, described good thinking. The previous article, Of What Value is Good Thinking, described some of the benefits of good thinking for individuals and the church. This third and final article in the series provides practical ideas for improving one’s thinking capabilities.

First, prepare yourself thoroughly. Success happens when preparation meets opportunity. Prepare to challenge others to think and develop their own understanding:

  • Engage in careful research using good quality resources
  • Formulate thoughts through the digestion and assimilation of the information gathered
  • Assemble a coherent argument so you can effectively connect the dots for your listeners
  • Crystalize concepts in your own mind so you can concisely articulate them in terms relevant to your audience
  • Craft focused questions to draw others into dialogue

Thorough preparation allows one to capitalize on opportunities to draw inquisitive minds into discourse and provide thoughtful answers that send them away with something to contemplate.

Second, believe that people want to be intellectually challenged. Dale Carnegie believed in “giving people a fine reputation to live up to.” Numerous studies have shown that students whose teachers believe they are intelligent excel. Do you want people to think and engage at a high level? Believe that they can, and act like they do. Don’t give them an option. Push your audience to their intellectual limit. Challenge them to the core. Expect great things and watch them flourish. J. P. Moreland encourages pastors to preach sermons that satisfy the mind as well as the heart: “After all, most practicing Christians sense deep in their hearts that they know far too little about their faith and are embarrassed about it. They want to be stretched to learn something regularly and cumulatively over the years by the sermons they hear” (emphasis original).

Third, develop vulnerability-based trust. Vulnerability-based trust is confidence that one is unconditionally accepted regardless of one’s weaknesses, failures, inadequacies, ignorance, lack of skill, and other undesirable qualities. All will be just fine when one candidly reveals his authentic self. One is accepted and valued because he is, not because of what or who he is.

Create a culture in which people can ask their questions and share their thoughts without concern. Good thinking occasionally confronts generally accepted and typically unchallenged beliefs and practices. It may also question conventional thinking by approaching an issue from a different angle, by connecting related dots in a new way that leads to a different conclusion, or by asking “What if?” and following the trail wherever it leads. The individuals who engage in these activities can do so with respectful confidence where the culture is characterized by vulnerability-based trust.

Create a culture of vulnerability-based trust in which people can ask their questions and share their thoughts without concern.

Make it known that being wrong and acknowledging “I don’t know” is okay. Allowing people to be incorrect encourages the exposure of ideas for vetting and reshaping that may otherwise remain hidden out of fear of being wrong. Knowing that pleading ignorance will not affect one’s standing makes it easier and quicker to acknowledge, which allows for conversations to expeditiously get to the real issues.

Creating a culture in which it is safe to ask “Why?”, to share ideas regardless of how contrary they run to prevailing and generally accepted thought, to be incorrect, and to admit ignorance is important. An individual who fears rejection because of what he says and thinks will likely not share freely and thus good thinking will be stifled.

Fourth, make conflict desirable. This likely requires a paradigm shift for many. One cannot lump all conflict into a single category as wrong and to be avoided at all costs. While personal conflict is wrong and should be avoided, the conflict of ideas is necessary for any individual or organization to be healthy and achieve its potential. “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17).

Allowing for and fostering the conflict of ideas spurs good thinking. One shares his thoughts on a topic. A second person points out what appear to be assumptions in the first person’s argument and questions their validity. Another identifies and clarifies the facts. And another challenges the rationale used. Finally, someone else states what she thinks about the topic and the cycle of give and take begins again. All the while, each participant listens carefully to what is being said, challenges his or her own paradigm on the matter with the new learning, and reshapes their thoughts.

Establish some rules before beginning:

  1. Everyone participates.
  2. No personal attacks are allowed.
  3. Challenge ideas, not individuals.
  4. Allow the one speaking to finish before starting.
  5. Explain yourself.

Mine for conflict. Ask direct questions that demand more than a yes or no response. Seek out participants known to have contrary views or to think about things differently. Intentionally draw them into the conversation.

Properly engaged in, conflict can be a healthy, exhilarating, constructive experience. It gives atypical thinking a platform for exposure and reasonable consideration. It provides participants perspectives on their thoughts that they otherwise may have never considered. It encourages the reshaping and maturation of one’s thoughts.

Fifth, create a safe space where vulnerability-based trust can be exercised, and conflict can occur. Take advantage of or create opportunities outside of worship service and Sunday school classes. Listen to questions raised and thoughts shared in normal conversations and engage. Courageously wade into what may be a messy conversation on a difficult topic. Allow for the sharing of thoughts and asking of questions no matter how unconventional. Consider all ideas to have merit. Pursue clarity through dialogue. Place yourself in the shoes of the other individual as best you can. Challenge assumptions, facts, and logic carefully. Permit people to be wrong gracefully. Reshape your thinking when the evidence demands it. And never take offence but be thankful they are thinking and willing to engage in dialog with you.

Sixth, celebrate those who ask “Why?”, those who insist on answers, those who probe at the core of their beliefs, those who share their thoughts, those who engage in healthy conflict. The behavior that is rewarded is what is most likely to be repeated. The church is likely to lose its most thoughtful and rational disciples if it fails to satisfy the life of the mind.

Celebrate those who ask “Why?”, those who insist on answers, those who probe at the core of their beliefs, those who share their thoughts, those who engage in healthy conflict.

Seventh and finally, develop effective communication skills—your own and those of other good thinkers. Good thinking effectively communicated is attractive. It draws people in. It’s compelling. It clearly articulates a point. It’s inspiring. It leads to movement, intellectually or physically. It’s relative. It connects to individuals on their level. It’s aspirational. It sets an example for others to aspire to. Good thinking poorly communicated is unattractive and of limited value. It leads to “I have no idea what he just said.” “He talks way over top of us.” And, “He’s boring.”

Conclusion

No doubt Mrs. Carson’s advice, “you need to think!” is occasionally applicable to all our lives. We likely all have memories we would prefer to forget of times when we simply failed to think, or at least could have done a much better job.

Good thinking — it isn’t easy. In fact, it’s work. It’s demanding. It’s stretching and often uncomfortable. But habitually practicing it can pay dividends for the Christian community by producing consistent, confident Christians; by helping Christians reach their God-intended potential, by enhancing one’s influence; and by avoiding mistakes that may have eternal consequences. And there’s a role for you. Advocate good thinking by being an example of it: by establishing a culture where good thinking can germinate, bud, and then burst into full bloom; by crafting opportunities where the healthy clash of ideas can occur; and by praising those who choose to actively participate. The fruit of your efforts will be rewarding.

Todd Arnold
Todd Arnold earned a PhD in civil engineering from Penn State University and works as General Manager of Pine Test Equipment, Inc. in Grove City, PA. He lives in northwest PA with his wife, Abby, and their children, Erin and Drew.