the six thinking hats technique

The Six Thinking Hats: Elevate Your Critical Thinker Game

If you’re arguing with someone for more than five hours and yet cannot solve your problem, don’t get desperate: calm down, drink a glass of water, and try the Six Thinking Hats method. Simple and enjoyable, it will help you see different aspects of the situation, staying on the same wavelength with the person you’ve already started hating silently. 

The Six Hats method is a great instrument of thinking – constructively, quickly, and in a conflict-free way. It’s similar to playing a game: you take a role, you follow the rules, with the only difference that to win means to find the best solution.

In this article we’ll explain the main principles of the Six Thinking Hats concept.

What Are the Six Thinking Hats?

Thinking is our natural ability, but we don’t really know how to use it wisely. Making a decision or a judgment, we get overwhelmed with the kaleidoscope of facts, emotions, intuition, and ideas, which confuse and exhaust us. This makes the thinking process harder and lowers the quality of our decisions. But what if we start thinking differently?

The Six Thinking Hats method gives us this chance. It consists in focusing on a specific thinking type, one at a time. Like you can put a hat on (and then take it off), you can apply a specific thinking type, and then easily switch to another one.

The colors of the hats are not random – they symbolically represent the types of thinking, and these symbols are obvious and memorable. We’ll describe them a little later.

Who Created the Six Thinking Hats Method?

The concept of Six Thinking Hats was created by Edward de Bono, a Maltese physician, psychologist, and philosopher. Initially, this technique was developed for government agencies, but it turned out to be very practical and got to be used in everyday situations.

The Six Thinking Hats technique is an example of “lateral thinking” – an approach to problem-solving that uses creativity and thinking out of the box, also introduced by de Bono. This approach is opposed to the Western type of thinking, based on argument, which originated from ancient Greece. 

So let’s go over each of the hats and learn more about them:

The White Hat

White is the absence of color, and the white hat represents information – which is pure objective facts. This excludes feelings, intuition, impressions, and any other things that leave space for interpretation:

“Give me your broad white hat thinking on unemployment” – you’re asking to provide only facts and figures, and do it in the most neutral way.

Unfortunately, what we call facts is often just our beliefs or a likelihood. This is why before putting a white hat on, you should verify the information. If you see that it’s likely to be true, you can still provide it – but only in the right frame: “occasionally true”, “usually true”, “been known to happen” etc.

The Red Hat

Red is the color of fire, and fire means feelings and emotions – anger, unhappiness, doubt, frustration, etc. In a business environment, expressing emotions is seen as ill-mannered. But emotions are real, and the red hat lets you openly discuss them:

“I do not like him and I don’t want to do business with him. That is all there is to it” – this may sound a bit too harsh, but pretending that everything is fine when it’s not will only make the situation worse.

We should never underestimate the effect of emotions on our thinking. The red hat brings them to the surface and helps us realize why we feel a certain way. Sometimes our reaction is colored by a long-lasting first impression, sometimes – by our overall attitude. In any case, it’s very useful to understand your own “illogical” self.

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The Black Hat

Black stands for danger. The black hat makes you consider anything illegal or unprofitable, anything that may put you at risk. This type of thinking is an evolutionary mechanism of self-protection – without being vigilant, humankind wouldn’t have survived in the wild.    

“I am all in favor of appointing Peter to this post. But it would be sensible to have some black hat thinking first” – in other words, you want to know the downsides of your possible decision, to make sure they don’t prevail over the benefits.

The black hat is about risk assessment: we think about possible problems and obstacles in advance, to not let them catch us off-guard.

Note: de Bono says that the black hat is the most important one – and at the same time, it’s the most overused. Many people tend to think negatively, finding “dark sides” in virtually everything. This is when putting on other thinking hats comes in handy. If your typical thinking style is looking for negativity, you may be very surprised with your own ideas developed, for example, on the basis of facts or out of creativity.      

There is one more way to overuse black hats. People can intentionally criticize someone else’s ideas, only to appear more expert and this way demonstrate their own self-importance. Unfortunately, a single negative comment can diminish the value of generally good ideas, since it will be the part people will focus on – again, because of our natural urge to protect ourselves.

The Yellow Hat

The color of sunshine, yellow represents optimism. Wearing the yellow hat, you’re supposed to deliberately look for positive things – and find value where you normally don’t see it:

“There is abundant water in the mountains fifty miles away. Would it be feasible to put in a pipeline?” – yes, you don’t know if this works out for sure, but here is an opportunity, so why not give it a try?

Speaking about optimism, de Bono underlies it shouldn’t turn into foolishness. The yellow hat is not about pink unicorns. Your ideas must be practical so that you can benefit from them. Over-optimistic hopes that a miracle will save your business have nothing to do with yellow-hat thinking. But if you start looking for opportunities to save your business yourself – then it’s exactly how the yellow hat works.

The Green Hat

Like green leaves symbolize growth and energy, the green hat symbolizes creativity. You come up with totally new ideas, no matter how absurd they seem at first glance:

“Here is a suggestion for working on Saturdays and having a midweek break on Wednesday. Can you green hat it for me?” – this idea sounds unusual, but you never know – some people at your office can still accept it.

With the green hat on, you’re open to experiments – and protected from being called a clown. You can use provocations, and you can make up literally silly suggestions because there is a chance they will turn out brilliant.

To make provocations even more provocative, de Bono invented the word “po” – a symbolic indicator of a crazy idea that follows it:

“Po planes should land upside down.”

“Po” ideas are absurd, of course, but they plan an important role. Forcing you out of your ordinary thinking pattern, they also force you out of your habitual perception. This way, you can come across another idea – the one you’d never think of otherwise.

The Blue Hat

The blue sky above is clear – and your thoughts under the blue hat are clear as well. The blue hat is about control. It helps you organize your own thinking.

“We do not have much time to consider this matter… would someone like to suggest a blue hat structure for our thinking?” – when you are time-constrained, or just feel at a loss, a structure is the best thing you can use.

To put on the blue hat means to pick an algorithm of thinking. For example, in some situations, it’s more appropriate to use red hat thinking, while others require neutrality. As an option, you can provide a plan to follow: first, we put on white hats, then green ones, and then – black ones. The better you organize your thinking, the more effective your results will be.

The Benefits of Six Thinking Hats

So what are the benefits of the Six Thinking Hats technique? De Bono speaks about the following ones:

Power. Like the focusing of the sun rays can burn holes in metal, focusing your mental effort can solve a most serious problem. Putting on the hats, one by one, we use our abilities to the fullest. And when it’s done in a group, where all players share their experience and knowledge, the result can be truly outstanding.

Time Saving. A meeting can take a ridiculously huge amount of time, only because participants argue, stand for their own thoughts – but not really hear each other. With the Six Thinking Hats method, people think in the same direction, accumulating ideas. This saves a lot of resources, both time and money, since hours spent in meetings can be used on actual work.

Removal of Ego. A huge advantage of the Thinking Hats is that they give everyone a chance to speak  up. Very often people are shy to openly express their opinions, especially if there is someone else with a naturally louder voice and bigger ambitions. The Hats make everyone in the room equal. They don’t let you disagree only because you personally don’t like the speaker.

One Thing at a Time. What does our thinking process normally look like? We look for new ideas; we are full of emotions; we look for facts… and eventually, we feel confused and probably exhausted. It’s hard to handle all of this at the same time. The Thinking Hats clear our mental labyrinths.    

How Do You Use the Six Thinking Hats?

There are several ways how to use the Six Thinking Hats:

1. Single use. This is simple – you decide to think under a specific hat or ask others to do so.

2. Sequence use. Here the hats are picked in a certain sequence, which you agree on beforehand. With the sequence use, there are some rules to follow:

  • Discipline. A facilitator (usually the boss) must decide which hat is being used, and no one can change the order. You cannot say whatever you want – you must stick to the order.
  • Timing. For each hat, allocate a certain amount of time. De Bono recommends allocating 1 minute for each person per one hat – so if there are 4 people in a group, one hat session will take four minutes.
  • Guidelines. Different situations require different approaches, so the combination of hats will not be the same in each particular case. Use the blue hat in the beginning and at the end of each situation. Be careful with putting the red hat right after the blue one in certain cases – sometimes it’s not appropriate. Doing the assessment, put on the yellow one before the black one.

3. Group and Individual Thinking vs. Individuals in Groups. This technique brings the most impressive results when used in group discussions, but of course, it can also be applied by a single individual.

Individual thinking can as well take place in discussions and conversations: a leader can ask to pause to come up with ideas. This is very useful with the green, yellow, and black hats.

The Six Thinking Hats method is very simple but incredibly effective. Of course, there is no need to apply it at every moment of our thinking – after all, we cannot voluntarily control it all the time. However, when it comes to solving complicated issues or just work issues, it can prove really helpful. 

The Six Thinking Hats help make better decisions, relieve stress, and save time – these are the reasons why this technique has become a routine in many organizations worldwide. So give it a try, and see how easier it will get for you to think.

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