How To Use the Six Thinking Hats

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How do you get past deadlocks in a meeting? 

You know the ones, where everybody is arguing their point, talking past each other, violently agreeing (though they don’t know it), and things heat up fast, and no decisions or progress get made.

Fear not, young corporate warrior—there is a tried and true practice for dealing with the worst, energy draining conflicts that happen in so many meetings.

You can apply the Six Thinking Hats.  You can use the Six Thinking Hats to manage conflict in your toughest meetings.

The Six Thinking Hats are a simple tool to help get everybody thinking about the problem in a collaborative way. 

In this article, I’ll show you a very pragmatic way get everybody using the Six Thinking Hats without having to teach everybody the Six Thinking Hats.

The Keys to The Six Thinking Hats

The real key here is that rather than circular or deadlock debates, you focus the group on a particular viewpoint at a time. 

This is a similar to writing, then editing vs. editing while your write, or brainstorming, then critiquing vs. critiquing while you brainstorm. 

The big difference is that rather than just brainstorming and critiquing, you’re looking at the issue from multiple, specific angles.  

On the people side of this technique, you’re letting people wear a different “hat”, in a safe, constructive way.

Applying the Six Thinking Hats

The approach below is lightweight and low-overhead, but gets you 80% there without requiring everybody to know the details of the Six Thinking Hats.

I’ve used this approach very successfully in the worst meeting scenarios time and again.

It works because you will simply list the questions that represent each of the Six Thinking Hats in sequence on the whiteboard.  This way, you’ve set the agenda, and all you have to do is walk through each question, together.

It also works because because people see that you will cover multiple perspectives – they see the positive, the negative, the facts, the feelings all addressed.

And it also works because each person is simply putting on a temporary “hat” that helps them to break out of their typical persona (for example, if they are always the Devil’s advocate.)

But the real beauty is the fact that everybody will be collaborating on each question – so rather than tug of war in all directions, everybody tugs in the same direction at the same time.

Summary of Steps for Using the Six Thinking Hats

  • Step 1.  List the questions that represent the hats
  • Step 2.  Walkthrough each question as a team
  • Step 3.  Modify the approach

Step 1.  List the questions that represent the hats

List a set of questions on the whiteboard to represent the hats.  You can do this either at the start of the meeting or when you hit a sticking spot.
Here’s the Six Thinking Hats:

  1. White Hat – the facts and figures
  2. Red Hat – the emotional view
  3. Black Hat – the “devil’s advocate”
  4. Yellow Hat – the positive side
  5. Green Hat – the creative side
  6. Blue Hat – the organizing view

Here’s an example set of questions you can use to represent the hats:

  1. What are the facts and figures?
  2. What’s your gut reaction?  How do you feel about this?
  3. Why can’t we do this?  What prevents us?  What’s the downside?
  4. How can we do this?
  5. What are additional opportunities?
  6. How should we think about this? (what are the metaphors or mental models)

The sequence of the questions can matter.  For example, it wouldn’t make sense to start thinking up solutions before you’ve focused on the problem.

Step 2.  Walkthrough each question as a team

Walkthrough each question as a team.  This is the key.  Rather than debating each other, you’re now collaborating. 

You’ll be surprised when suddenly your team’s “Devil’s Advocate” is now showing off their ability to dream up wild solutions that just might work!

Step 3.  Modify the approach

If it’s not working, change the approach.  For example, you might find that you started with the wrong “hat” or question. 

See if switching to another question or hat makes a difference.  The key is to keep this lightweight but effective.

This isn’t a heavy handed approach. 

Instead, it’s a subtle shift in strategy from free-for all debate to focusing and coordinating your team’s thinking power in a deliberate way. 

This lets everybody get heard as well as really bang on a problem from multiple angles in a teamwork soft of way.

Quick Tip

Bookmark this page so you can use it when you need it for your toughest meetings.

If nothing else, you will need these six questions to automatically walk through the Six Thinking Hats:

  1. What are the facts and figures?
  2. What’s your gut reaction?  How do you feel about this?
  3. Why can’t we do this?  What prevents us?  What’s the downside?
  4. How can we do this?
  5. What are additional opportunities?
  6. How should we think about this? (what are the metaphors or mental models)

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