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How to make hard decisions (the Six Thinking Hats model)

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Decision-making is challenging for a lot of people, especially if there's a lot of risk involved or some possible negative consequences. In times of uncertainty or heightened anxiety, it’s even more challenging to make important decisions.

Most people are familiar with doing a Pros and Cons exercise or even the enhanced DBT quadrant version of the Pros/Cons approach. The Six Thinking Hats method is like a super-duper sized and pragmatic version of pros and cons.

When emotions are high, whether it’s excitement and the urge to be impulsive or it’s fear and dread and avoidance, it can be beneficial to step back and slow down the decision-making process. A model called the “Six Thinking Hats” helps with this and offers an illuminating framework for identifying and weighing out important parts of the picture.

The concept of the Six Thinking Hats was created by Edward de Bono, a doctor, psychologist, author, philosopher and inventor. He first published the idea in his 1985 book entitled Six Thinking Hats, which now has a paperback edition. It’s basically a contemplation exercise that can be done on your own or done in discussion with a partner, family, co-workers, committees, etc.

Each of the six "hats" represent a perspective or personality style or way of thinking about an issue. The benefit of this “hat” discussion approach in a relationship or group setting is that each “thinking hat” or perspective is valued and given airtime, so all parties have valuable input even if they are different.

And here they are....the Six Thinking Hats

As you are considering a big decision, imagine putting on each color hat and trying to look at the issue from only that perspective before moving on to a different color.

Yellow Hat: this is the “sunny” hat. It’s the optimistic viewpoint that thinks positively about potential outcomes. The yellow hat is also helpful to put on if a situation seems like it has no ideal options and everything is dire.

Yellow hat questions: What can go right here? What are the possible benefits? What is the glass-half-full way to look at this?

Red Hat: this is the "heart" hat. It’s the perspective rich in emotion, intuition, gut reaction and instinct. The red hat is often the one people get most intense about. It’s a healthy hat to spend time with and allow for all feeling reactions to be expressed and validated without a need to justify anything. When using this perspective, it can also be helpful to consider the emotional impact that your potential decision will have on other people too.

Red hat questions: What feels right about this? What feels wrong about this? What will be the emotional impact on me and others after the decision is made? What is my gut telling me?

Black Hat: this is the "judge" hat. It’s the critical and cautious hat or the “devil’s advocate” approach. When using Black Hat thinking, you explore the potential fallout or negative outcomes of a decision. You pick things apart and look for gaps or holes in the decision. This helps you identify what might not work so well and can then help you strategize to avoid that if possible.

Black hat questions: What can go wrong here? What are the possible consequences? What weakness or uncertainties can I anticipate and/or prepare for? What criticism or pushback might I receive for this decision?

White Hat: this is the "white coat" scientist hat. It’s the objective and data-oriented hat. When using the White Hat, you focus on the facts available and explore past trends and likely projections based on accessible information. In relationships, this can look like observing patterns about what actually happens rather than what you think *should* happen. This hat can also help you recognize that maybe you don’t have enough factual information to make an informed decision and more time/observation/research is needed. This helps with impulsive decision making!

White hat questions: What are the facts? What do I know for sure? What do the numbers say? What does research have to offer about likely outcomes? Am I missing any key information?

Green Hat: this is the “growth” hat. It’s the hat that focuses on creativity and new options and potential. Green hat thinking is the “outside the box” perspective used in brainstorming where all ideas and possibilities are valued with no criticism. It can also look like a curious and wide-eyed approach. You can also unearth creative solutions you may not have considered using the other hats. The Green Hat can also help validate that even if a decision has negative consequences, it may also lead to growth.

Green hat questions: What growth can come of this? Where could this decision take me? What is the pie-in-the-sky best possible outcome this could lead to? What options have I left out?

Blue Hat: this is the “sky” hat that overlooks the other hats in the decision making process. The Blue hat makes sure all hats gets equal time and emphasis. It also focuses on the important goals or values guiding you overall. It’s a helpful hat when a particular “hat perspective” seems to be overshadowing the others without attending to long-term wants and needs.

In a group setting, it can even be helpful to have a person designated to “wear” this hat to keep the conversation focused on overall goals & values or if to provide guidance if the group seems stuck in a particular perspective. Ex: “We seem to be stuck looking at all the potential fallout, let’s put on a green hat perspective and consider how we could handle this creatively if we had no limits.”

Blue hat questions: What perspective am I missing or undervaluing here? What are my long term goals and needs? If I zoom out, so I see this any differently?

Let’s practice!

Let’s say I’m trying to decide if I should accept a job I’ve been offered. (Note: you would likely want to be more robust in fleshing out your responses, but here’s a basic effort to use the thinking hats).

My question is clear: Should I take this job?

Yellow hat (sunny optimism) - I am a perfect fit for the job and will likely perform really well. It’s so exciting to think about getting paid more and being appreciated for my hard work. The job has a chance for me to move up with time and increase my pay. I might be able to get some quality training and grow my skill set. I generally like having new experiences and I’m usually less anxious after I’ve been through the training part.

Red Hat - (heart and gut) I am super nervous about starting at a new place where I don’t know anyone. I’m pretty miserable at my current job, but at least I know how to handle the parts that suck. I love the idea of getting away from my annoying co-workers. I hate traffic and I’m dreading having to wake up earlier and drive farther to get to work. I’m thrilled they offered me the job and don’t want to disappoint them.

Black hat (critical judge) - There is no certainty that this job will be better. I don’t know any of the people there and it could be an awful environment. My family might ridicule me if I leave my current job after only a year. If the economy tanks, I could get laid off because I’m the newest hire. With a longer commute I might have to get a different car, which I was not planning on.

White hat (factual scientist) - The pay is a good bit higher at the new job. The commute is longer and the hours are different. The health insurance company they use is different and I don’t know what that means for me yet. I don’t like change but I have almost always adapted to change when I needed to. The online employee reviews of the company are pretty mixed.

Green hat (growth and creativity) - Maybe I could do a job shadow before accepting the offer to see if I like it. I wonder if there’s someone who has worked there a little while that I can talk to honestly about how it is. Maybe they would be open to some remote work to offset the long commute. It’s possible I could meet the love of my life at a new job! This position could open doors I never even considered as a career if I make some new connections. If I hate it there, I can always look for another job in the meantime.

Blue hat (sky overview) - My main life goals right now are being able to finally save some money and also enjoy my daily life better. If I zoom out, I can see that the new job offers some significant uncertainty but also potential for increasing savings and actually liking my life more. I can see that my current job offers certainty but also daily frustration and no potential for saving money. It’s definitely possible I am missing some pieces though, maybe I can run my thoughts past my best friend or my grandma for some additional insight.

Some additional benefits in taking such a deliberate look at each different “hat perspective” are:

  • A slower process will reduce impulsive or under-informed decisions

  • Even if you don’t make your decision, you can give yourself credit that you are not entirely avoiding the topic and you did the exercise

  • You'll learn more about yourself and what might help you to eventually make the decision

  • You can feel more confident in your decision once you make it because you were so thoughtful about the process.

Now that you have learned about the Six Thinking Hats approach, give it a whirl. Are there any decisions (big or little) that you are struggling with or avoiding right now? Take the first step to think through it!

The book link is an affiliate link and if you make a purchase I may receive a small commission.


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