In his book Six Thinking Hats, DeBono explores “parallel thinking,” which recognizes that there are concurrent realities for people based on their perspectives. Many different perspectives co-exist at any time and they all have something to contribute. They all need to be heard and acknowledged. He uses the six hats metaphor as a way for all of these perspectives to be explored to their depths. Clients simply put on a different colored hat to explore each perspective.
The metaphor works brilliantly to split problem-solving into an orderly, thorough and relatively fast process. This solves a common time-consuming problem: People often try to think in too many directions at a time. They jump around among emotions, facts, risks, and options without uncovering the path forward that would work the best. All too often, people and organizations simply run out of time because of this haphazard process, so they hop onto the most readily available solution even if it is hazy and they are uncertain it is the best. DeBono’s process resolves that problem. The process can be used with groups and individuals to fully explore each aspect and see the way forward. The hats are a useful metaphor to get the client in the coaching space and get clients into roles they might not be good at playing.
The hats often function in pairs. The white hat and red hat work well in tandem, and the process should start with white-hat thinking to lay a foundation in what is known and what is not known. The white hat is objective and factual. It looks at what is. It is neutral. It has two tiers of facts: Those that are checked and proven and those that are believed to be true but not fully checked. The red hat metaphor provides the chance to explore emotions. The hat metaphor can provide the distance for people to acknowledge feelings like anger and jealousy. It explores hunches and intuitions. These feelings are useful but they are not necessarily correct. Their correctness isn’t the point of the exploration. The point is simply the safety to express and clear emotions. There is no need to explain or justify the feelings or hunches. Once the emotions have been made visible, they can be explored, changed, or let go.
The yellow and the black hats are the next pair. The yellow hat deals with optimism and possibility. It sees challenges as opportunities. It looks at “what if” and looks to the future. It asks what could be and what the best possible scenario is. It asks people to envision a future and dream. The black hat, in contrast, is cautious and careful. It looks for weaknesses and risks. It looks at past and future. It compares the information that has been presented to what is already known. It is the hat of judgment. It is the most used hat – and the most overused hat — so an allotted time for black hat thinking needs to be set and kept. When black hat thinking jumps in out of turn, it needs to be recognized. People often can get stuck in black-hat land, so it is important to fully hear their concerns, acknowledge them, and then move on lest the process get stuck.
The green hat covers new ideas. It involves growth or creativity. It takes the yellow hat ideas and asks how they might work. The green hat is particularly useful in coaching because the invitation to be creative can be intimidating for several clients. The green hat offers safety to say whatever comes to mind no matter how outlandish or radically different. Coaches can invite the client to explore by saying,
You are wearing the green hat, so you are free to say things like that. That’s what the green hat is for.
If a client is skittish, the coach can say,
You are under the protection of the green hat so there is no harm in saying your idea. No one will be harmed.
Sometimes nothing new comes out of green hat thinking. What matters is that time is spent in the effort, DeBono writes. From my experience, the effort can be very enjoyable because the protection of the green hat metaphor reframes creativity in a way that takes the pressure off clients and makes it a playful process.
Very often, creative people are only people who spend more time trying to be creative because they are more motivated by creativity,
The green hat device allows a sort of artificial motivation. It is difficult to motivate people to be creative, but you can easily request someone to put on his or her green hat and to give green hat input.
The blue hat is concerned with control and order, and the coach, for the most part, is the one wearing the blue hat as the coach moves the client through the process. The blue hat is concerned with the discipline to stay with one hat until the area is fully explored. The blue hat stops the tendency to jump around. The blue hat remembers why the discussion is taking place and asks what needs to be achieved. The coach in the blue hat roll reflects back to the client and invites the client to state what was achieved and what the next steps will be. The blue hat is employed when clients are asked to state their learning from a coaching session.
From a coaching perspective, the six hats can give a client practice in underused perspectives. It can shift them from right-wrong thinking and get them to use and develop other thinking abilities. It can get them to see and appreciate other people’s perspectives. The result is more lightness, a sense of possibility, collaboration, and wholeness. A cautious client who overuses the black hat on a regular basis will find lightness and possibility from learning to use the yellow hat more. Clients who have a tendency to get swept away in emotion will find calm through the use of the white hat by taking the time to be objective, neutral and fact-based. Through the entire process, clients are learning about themselves and the situation. They are also moving toward decisions and action through the use of the blue hat by looking at what they have learned, what they still need to learn, and what actions they can commit to.
The hats can also get a client to slow down and re-examine things that have been glossed over or assumed. Recently with a client, it only took the use of the white hat to reveal assumptions about a business transaction that were not necessarily true. The client paused when she realized she didn’t know some important information. Gaining that information became her action step.
Last, the hat metaphor gives the client protection to be honest and say daring things. Under the protection of the red had, for instance, the client can say they are really pessimistic and angry about a situation. And then it is done. It has been spoken. Under the green hat, a client can offer up ideas that would be laughed off in other instances but might contain the spark for a workable solution.
Dislodging limiting thoughts
While DeBono’s six hats can be used in individual coaching and in groups, the four questions in Byron Katie’s The Work process are geared toward individuals and can be applied to a broad range of coaching issues. While DeBono’s work uses a metaphor to try on new perspectives, Katie’s work involves removing limiting perspectives to open up options and create momentum
The four questions in are:
- Is it true?
- Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
- How do you react when you think that thought?
- Who would you be without that thought?
I recently used this process with a client who was stuck in doubt about her daughter’s future because she doubted her daughter’s intelligence. The daughter had struggled through high school and barely graduated. She spent her first semester at community college learning basic skills and study skills. She didn’t begin “real college work” until her second semester, the mother said.
I asked the mother if it really was true that her daughter wasn’t very smart. She elaborated on her fear that her daughter was not intelligent enough to get through college and ultimately become a youth corrections officer. I allowed the client to talk for a few moments about her daughter’s difficulties and get to the depth of her perspective. When I asked my client if she could absolutely know if this was true that her daughter would not succeed, she began to talk about how much she had doubted her daughter would even make it through a semester of college, yet she did. The mother then said she was actually really proud of her daughter’s commitment to finishing that semester and signing up for a second semester. She said her daughter exceeded her expectations for discipline, time management and perseverance. The mother was seeing that her daughter’s actions no longer supported the mother’s thoughts.
I did not need to pose the third question because the client freely offered how she felt about her thought: She felt despondent and fearful about her daughter’s future. She realized her perspective added a great deal of strain to her relationship with her daughter. They argued every time the mother helped the daughter with schoolwork and the daughter was starting to ask for help only when she desperately needed it. The mother feared she could lose her relationship with her daughter entirely because of arguing over schoolwork. Her doubts about her daughter’s ability were at the heart of it. She doubted that the time and work would result in a college degree.
When I asked who she would be without the thought that her daughter would not succeed at school, her voice became lighter and quivered with emotion. She acknowledged that her daughter had made a deep commitment to college — and she was keeping that commitment with a lot of hard work and resourceful use of her time. The client viewed her daughter as capable for the first time. The client also began to think of ways to support her daughter. In follow-up sessions, the client indicated that she checked in with her daughter daily to see if she needed help, and their time spent together on homework was no longer a conflict because the mother had let go of a limiting thought.
Transformational perspectives on Power
My experience as a coach and as a client has shown me that many people turn to coaching because they want to know that their lives make a difference. When their lives are done, they want to know that they made the world a better place. They want to know they made the best decisions possible during key turning points in their lives. This desire reveals that clients are experiencing a shift in the way they view power. As described in Janet O. Hagberg’s book Real Power, they are shifting from viewing power as finite to seeing power as infinite. They no longer ask what they can get from life. They ask what they can give to life to make it meaningful. They are in the position where they see that using their talents to support the growth of others creates exponential growth that betters the world. People at this stage see that “power multiplies,” Hagberg writes.
Everyone gets more. It is infinite. The win-lose status of power is lost. People who are in the higher stages of power see themselves as conduits for power to multiply in the world. As they make the progression to the later stages of power, they are making the transition from being externally-oriented by positions, titles and possessions. They are moving toward being internally-oriented and motivated by an inner journey.
People often turn to coaches during the transition from power by achievement and attainment (Stage Three) to power by reflection (Stage Four). The trigger can be of internal origin (a strong desire to explore questions of integrity and purpose) or external origin (the loss of a career, death of a loved one, or onset of physical limitations).
It can be an extremely difficult transition because achievement and attainment can be very satisfying. Many successful people stop at this stage with satisfaction. Attainment is the form of power that is most often celebrated and recognized. Isolation, lack of direction, and the search for new motivators are common challenges for people in this transition to a different perspective on power and a major reasons they turn to coaches. The isolation and loneliness come from feeling out of step with the culture as a whole, Hagberg writes.
It feels as if you are being asked to give up many of the things you’ve learned to want and strive for all these years. It’s an about-face in many ways. And you have to look inward before you can look outward again, not in a narcissistic way but in a self-healing way.
The coaching applications of Hagberg’s model include the following:
- Consider what motivated you at an earlier time in your leadership growth. What motivates you now? Consider what priorities would have been at the top of the list in the past. What are the priorities now? What values do those priorities reflect?
- If there were no losers in this situation, what would things look like?
- If you were to put on your Stage Four hat, what would be the highest priority?
- Can you broaden your sphere of influence by stepping into a new role away from your work?
- Act like a person you know is at Stage Four. What qualities and characteristics do you admire? What habits could you cultivate that could build those qualities in yourself? What habits might you need to let go of to become a Stage Four leader?
- If you had no doubts you would have the resources you need to meet this challenge, what would your response look like?
- Put yourself into your future. How do you want to look back on yourself and your leadership in five, ten or twenty years? What qualities will matter? What actions will make your organization sustainable?
Coaching has the power to change the world by supporting the shift from right-wrong thinking to the broad-perspective thinking that is essential for collaboration on the economic, social, relational and environmental issues facing the world. On an individual level, coaching has the potential to support the kinds of leaders we desperately need in government, industries, communities, and homes. The three resources explored here offer tools to move clients beyond right-wrong positions, argumentative thinking, and limited-supply views of power. The result is cooperation, an end to gridlock, the freedom to make concessions without the risk of losing worth or integrity. Coaching opens the door to connection and growth. It creates a path forward where everyone wins. Now that is some yellow-hat thinking.
The Gifts of Imperfection, by Brene Brown, Hazelden, 2010.
The Six Thinking Hats, by Edward DeBono, Back Bay Books/Little Brown and Company, 1999.
Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life, by Byron Katie with Stephen Mitchell, Three Rivers Press, 2002.
Real Power: Stages of Personal Power in Organizations, Third Edition, By Janet O. Hagberg, Sheffield Publishing Company, 2003.
“Teens feeling stressed, and many not handling it Well,” USA Today, Feb. 11, 2014.