The art of critical thinking: 7 questions to ask yourself to get to the root cause of any issue

We tend to think of problems happening to us rather than through us. 

We play the blame game and we’re very good at it. 

I was late for work because I had to stop and watch a train go by for half an hour. It’s always something. I don’t understand why it’s so difficult for me to be on time.

We see the problem as something that occurs outside of us. We also never stop to look at the common denominator: us. 

Or, if we do see our part in the problem, we put pressure on ourselves to do better. We might set our alarm an hour earlier, for example. 

This might get us to work on time, but we are also sacrificing sleep and that’s causing its own set of problems. While this may work once or twice, it isn’t sustainable in the long run. 

Thinking critically and getting to the root issue might bring us to the conclusion that we take on too much in the evenings—we do things for other people and don’t get a chance to properly unwind. No matter how early we go to bed, we can’t settle into a good sleep and be properly rested. 

The root issue could be something else entirely: maybe we really hate our jobs and are subconsciously looking for a way to get fired because we’re too scared to quit. 

At least being let go would give us the “out” we’re looking for. So we  “allow” ourselves to push the snooze button, or get sidetracked into having a conversation with our retired neighbor when he calls out to say hello. 

But how do you put that critical thinking cap on and get to the root of the issues in our lives? Here are a number of steps to get to the core of the problem, identify any patterns, and ultimately come up with a solution that is sustainable.

1) What is the problem?

This might sound simplistic but there can be different layers involved to a problem that is complicated by nature.

Critical thinking involves asking questions, defining a problem, examining evidence,  and analyzing assumptions and biases, says The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. “It avoids emotional reasoning, avoiding oversimplification, considering other interpretations, and tolerating ambiguity.”

What is the problem? Why is it a problem? Do you have tangible proof that it’s actually an issue? 

To get out of your head and get some distance from any emotions, we suggest writing this down in a notebook. Seeing it laid out in front of you can get your analytical skills working. 

Here are some things to think about?

Is it an issue that comes up once in a while? How long has the problem been happening? Has it been coming up more frequently lately? Who are the people involved, if any? 

If it’s something that has never happened before, it could be a one-off thing. If it’s coming up a lot, it might be getting serious or worse.

2) How is this problem affecting my life?

Next, write down all the ways this issue is impacting your life. Is it taking away your sense of peace and calm? Is it something that needs to be dealt with right away? Is it hurting you and anyone you care about?

Understanding how the issue is affecting your life—and writing this down—will propel you to get thinking in solution mode. 

Perhaps up until now you were avoiding or ignoring the problem hoping that it would go away or resolve itself. Or you were resigned to living with it. 

Deciding you don’t want the issue to affect your life any longer can make you more intentional about getting to the root of it. 

3) Why is this happening?

Asking yourself why this problem is happening is a good way to brainstorm what can be done about it. 

Probing yourself on this question more than once so that you’re covering all the angles. There may be something you haven’t considered. 

Keep asking yourself why something is happening will get you to the source of the issue, say the Mind Tools Content Team on “Root Cause Analysis: Tracing A Problem To Its Origins”. 

“Ask yourself why it is occurring. Make sure your answer is grounded in fact, and then ask the question again. Continue the process until you reach the root cause of the problem, and you can identify a countermeasure that will prevent it from recurring.”

This doesn’t mean that you have to have an immediate answer, say experts. 

If you go through this process and still don’t know why, that’s okay, the experts say that dealing with ambiguity is part of the analytical process. Keep asking and the answer will eventually come—even if it comes in bits and pieces at first. 

Critical thinking is about having the ability to think on your feet, assess the problem, and come up with multiple solutions. 

4) What would another person do if they were in my shoes?

If youve overcome these challenges youre stronger than you think 1 The art of critical thinking: 7 questions to ask yourself to get to the root cause of any issue

Analyzing the issue from a more objective point of view can help get your emotions out of the equation. 

Part of looking objectively at a problem is to gather information that might have opposing views to your own. 

After all, you can’t have the same mindset that created the issue in the first place. 

“Put yourself in the shoes of someone else and see things as they would. You may still be right in your conclusions, but it will do no harm to check out your assumptions,” says the team at Spearhead Training

Or think of it this way.

If this was your best friend’s problem, what would you advise them to do? 

What are some first steps you can take? Is there an expert who you could call for information? Someone who specializes in the issue?

Perhaps talking to a trusted friend can also help the situation. You’re not asking them to tell you what to do, but they could confirm something you already feel you have to do. The added support might give you the clarity you’re looking for. 

5) Is there a pattern here that I can see?

Are there any discernible patterns surrounding the problem?

Does the issue tend to come up at certain times? If you can predict when it’s about to come up again, are there any steps you can take to make it far less bothersome?

Is there something you can do to reduce the likelihood of it happening more frequently if you’re unable to solve it altogether at least at the moment? 

For example, if the problem tends to be that you’ve been short on your rent for the third month in a row because unexpected expenses keep coming up, then it’s not a good idea to just hope that next month will be different. 

It’s time to look into cutting expenses throughout the month, or looking into a side job to make ends meet. 

You might know what you have to do but you’re afraid of inconveniencing loved ones, for example. The root issue to this could be that you’ve always been somewhat of a people-pleaser and have a habit of saying “yes” to things you can’t quite afford. 

In this case, it would be worth looking into where this need comes from. 

6) What is a potential solution? Also: Is there more than one possible solution?

A sensible idea is to explore more than one solution to the problem. 

At its core, getting to the root cause of an issue is simply a process of identifying and addressing a challenge or an obstacle that is standing in the way of achieving a goal, says personal development site Iienstitu.  

“First, I would try to narrow the problem down as much as possible. Then, I would research the problem and try to find potential solutions.”

After that it’s wise to test the solutions to see if they help. If not, then it’s a good idea to start from scratch and develop a new plan of action. 

7) Is there a likelihood that it will happen again?

All of the above critical thinking skills will help you to identify, analyze, and understand the issue and come up with more than one solution to the problem. 

Just as doctors and health experts often tout that “prevention is worth twice the cure,” it’s important to anticipate if and when the problem can come up again and what you would do to stop it from happening next time. 

Or at the very least, what better way could you handle the problem so as to to mitigate any fallout? 

One last thing to consider…

We’ll never be able to predict or plan for every potential problem on the horizon—such is life. 

Critical thinking is about asking yourself all the right questions

Doing your best to identify the issue, getting to the tool of it and being ready for it the next time it comes up can work wonders. Also, taking measured steps in preventing it as best you can, can go a long way in bringing about a sense of emotional balance and calm. 

Picture of Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur is a Toronto-based journalist whose work has been published by The Globe & Mail, ELLE USA, ELLE Canada, British Vogue, Town & Country, and others.

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