Six Thinking Hats at the Hotline

How well do you think?

I’m not talking about your intelligence—I’m asking about the way you use your intelligence. Are you getting the most out of it? How can you tell?

Traditional schooling often models thought processes within specific disciplines but does little to address the thinking approach itself. We’re taught facts and techniques for doing things by thinking, but the thinking process itself often lurks out of view, seen only by the shadow it casts.

Edward de Bono has spent a career trying to fix that. He’s written lots of books about how to think more clearly, usefully, and intentionally; I’ve been using one of them, Six Thinking Hats, in teaching crisis hotline workers this spring. It’s a simple visual metaphor for making sure that we include different types of thinking in our processes and then getting people to commit to using them.

The book is well worth reading in its own right, but if you’d like a quick reference or startup guide, Martha Walker’s excellent guide is available through Virginia Cooperative Extension. I’ve used Martha’s guide in teaching my hotline volunteers and staff.

Playing roles makes us stronger

De Bono argues that people often aren’t willing to engage in certain kinds of thinking because they’re afraid of what those thoughts will say about them. Nobody wants to be the negative person who’s always seeing problems, and nobody wants to be the naïve positive Pollyanna either. We’re humans, and we’re concerned about what others think of us. When thinking in groups, it’s hard to get away from this basic truth: we often care more about others’ opinions than about what we’re working on. This makes it risky to say what we really think.

De Bono’s approach is to name the different kinds of thinking (he calls them different Thinking Hats) and ask people to step into “playing the role” of that Hat for a while. He points out that, in theater, prestige comes from playing the role really well—whether it’s a wicked witch or a lovesick teenager or an awkward professor or a heartthrob. So in the Six Thinking Hats approach, you might relax into playing the White Hat (facts and data) role, comfortable in your clear (though restricted) mission, and be able to let go of the social concerns because you’re just playing a role.

I think he’s really onto something with naming and talking about these social concerns. We are social animals. Since reading Six Thinking Hats, I’ve been really paying attention to the group dynamics in thinking processes, and I’m continually seeing people hamstringing their own thinking abilities because they get too wrapped up in worrying what others think. The roles—the Thinking Hats—shield the wearers from judgment, and that makes us all stronger.

The Six Thinking Hats

The Hats can be a little hard to see in the abstract, but bear with me. It’ll get clearer. For a longer description of the Hats, refer to Martha Walker’s guide or the book.

White Hat

White Hat thinking is concerned with facts, figures, and verifiable statements. It doesn’t care what those facts mean; interpretation belongs to other Hats. Judgment and conclusion belong elsewhere; clarity of perception is key here.

On the hotline, White Hat often relates to the details and available options in a caller’s situation. What has the caller already tried? What relationships exist? What bridges have been burned? What are the caller’s preferences?

Remember that White Hat needs things to be verifiably true and accurate. So White Hat won’t say “the caller can’t get to Canton to register for DSS help“, because we can’t show that statement is true. White Hat might say, instead, “the caller works in Star Lake from 8am to 6pm every day. Star Lake is 35 miles from Canton. The DSS office in Canton is open from 8am to 4:30pm every day. The caller doesn’t have a car. The caller says that a DSS worker told her that she’d have to come to Canton in person if she was going to apply for help.

(Think of White as the color of purity, of neutrality, of cold reason.)

Red Hat

Red Hat thinking is concerned with emotions and feelings. Unlike White Hat, where everything must be justified, Red Hat never has to justify what it says. Gut reactions are the province of Red Hat: get them out on the table so we can talk about them!

On the hotline, we use a lot of intuition and instinct in helping callers, so that application of Red Hat is pretty obvious, but it can also be useful for “putting ourselves in their shoes” and making sure that we’re giving them a chance to talk about emotion.

Red Hat thinking on the hotline might motivate us to say things like “something’s not right with this caller—I’m worried that she’s in danger” or “this caller seems like an inappropriate sex caller to me. I can’t put my finger on it, but it’s there.” An awareness of the need for Red Hat thinking might also lead us to say “I’m glad that you called to ask about these referrals. I’m definitely going to help with those, but first I wanted to check in on how you’re feeling. This sounds tough–how are you bearing up?

(Think of Red as the color of emotions, of love, of anger, of feelings.)

Black Hat

Black Hat thinking sees the negative side of things, the flaws, the risks, the holes, the missing pieces, and the dangers. It clearly discerns what may happen if we try a solution, wonders whether the plan is strong enough, and notices the small problems that may sink the whole ship later on.

It’s easy to see Black Hat thinking as negative in itself, but it isn’t. Black Hat gives us a chance to see problems and fix them before they have a chance to hurt anyone. Alison Green talks about this in her article about conducting “pre-mortems” on a project before starting, to make sure that the team addresses all the problems anyone could see coming. If we refuse to allow Black Hat thinking, we’re likely to trip over obvious, preventable problems later on.

I’ve found it really helpful to have a name for Black Hat thinking because it also helps to shift people when they are getting excessively negative. Saying “I’m hearing a lot of Black Hat; could we hear some more White Hat right now?” is clear and direct, and it doesn’t criticize people—it asks them to shift their behavior.

On the hotline, Black Hat thinking gives us a lot with regard to safety and planning. “What happens to our mobile crisis counselor if she’s in a client’s house and the client pulls a knife on her?” is a critical question to answer, and it’s better to answer it in advance. “This referral plan relies on the caller getting a lot of help from DSS, but what if he’s been sanctioned and doesn’t have access to that? We should look into other options.” Black Hat helps us make our plans strong by seeing how they’re likely to fail.

(Think of Black as the color of negativity, of absence, of darkness, of night.)

Yellow Hat

Yellow Hat thinking sees the positive, optimistic outcomes by carefully exploring what’s actually possible in a situation. It relies on curiosity and a belief that good things are possible and that we can always find a way to make the situation a little better. Where a Black Hat identifies a problem, the Yellow Hat responds by saying “okay, how can we tweak that so the problem goes away?”

I’ve noticed that new hotline workers tend to dive straight for the Yellow Hat when callers talk about thoughts of suicide. Sure enough, they start saying “but you’ve got to have lots of things to live for!” or “I’m sure things aren’t all that bad!”. The hard truth is that they’re usually right, but that it’s not useful to say so at that point in the conversation. Again, having the Yellow Hat label for talking about that behavior makes teaching about it a lot easier.

It’s genuinely useful to have the Yellow Hat when helping put together a complicated series of connections with other agencies, or when helping a caller to navigate difficult personal relationships or professional challenges. Sometimes callers need us to help them have faith that things can work out, and finding that faith is Yellow Hat territory.

(Think of Yellow as the color of sunlight, of buttery goodness, of daytime, of candles against the dark.)

Green Hat

Green Hat thinking is creative. I call it “third way” thinking, because Green Hat thinking often involves finding a third way out of a difficult situation where it seemed like there were only two options. It’s very easy to get locked into seeing a problem in a particular way because that’s how we saw it first, and it’s the Green Hat’s role to challenge those assumptions and look for additional options.

Green Hats are likely to ask “Okay, we can’t get the caller to Canton in time to register at DSS. DSS needs to verify the caller’s ID; can DSS do a Skype interview and have her show her ID on screen?“. Green Hat thinking gives us “we can’t afford really nice whiteboards, but we can make cheap ones out of bathroom wallboard from Lowe’s, and we’ll replace them if they break. It’ll cost us $14 for 6 of them.

Green Hat says “okay, we know that we’re trying to reach farmers, and that they’re really skeptical of Mental Health People in general. Who do we know that they trust and talk to regularly? We know that the dairy farmers all talk to the guys who drive the milk trucks, and they see them daily. Can we get the milk truck drivers to help us keep an eye out for farmers who are struggling?

(Think of Green as the color of growth, of new leaves, of finding a way, of adapting to your circumstances and fitting them perfectly.)

Blue Hat

Blue Hat thinking focuses on managing the thinking process. In a group discussion, the Blue Hat helps to make sure we’re hearing from all the Hats, helps keep the discussion moving, and has a degree of conversational control.  Blue Hats provide a synoptic view and help everyone use the Six Thinking Hats method effectively. At the end of the process, they’re usually the ones in charge of clarifying what the next actions are.

Blue Hats say things like “I notice we’re hearing a lot of Black Hat right now, and people sound pretty fed up about it. Put on your Red Hats for a second and tell me how you’re feeling.” It’s okay and expected for Blue Hats to direct people to wear different Hats for a while. (And the Blue Hat doesn’t always stay on the same person’s head.)

When working with callers, Blue Hat thinking is what helps us know when to focus on listening to details (White Hat), listening to feelings (Red Hat), thinking up solutions together (Yellow or Green Hat), or dealing with problems (Black Hat). Blue Hat thinking leads us to say “I think I got ahead of you–sounds like you want to say more about what happened with your partner. Tell me more about that.

(Think of Blue as the clear blue sky, of the view you get as a pilot at 30,000 feet, of openness and flow. (Thanks for the suggestions, Jerome!) Think of it as the Hat you wear when you’re doing process control.)


At first blush, the system may feel a little kludgy and silly. It’s important to acknowledge that (Red Hat!) because it’s hard to work on things when emotions are getting in the way. It may be hard to see how the system works together, and it may seem like it’s not really worth all the heavy mental lifting to learn how to use a new system of dubious value (Black Hat!). I encourage you to give it a try anyway, and commit to using it for an hour or two. I think you’ll like it. (Yellow Hat!).

I taught Six Thinking Hats to my new hotline workers this spring, and I was surprised by how quickly we all eased into using the Hats as shorthand for keeping ourselves on track. Before long, we were all wearing the Blue Hat, noticing when we had slipped into one Hat and stayed there for a long time. We directed ourselves to use different Hats to figure things out. The Hat metaphor helped us to notice when our thinking was getting stuck in a rut and, crucially, gave us a tool for getting back on the road. 

It takes some good facilitation at first. Keep reminding people that they’re being asked to play roles, and that they will “win” by playing those roles as fully as possible. Give people permission to try, to struggle, to fail, and to succeed. As with any other change process, it takes a little time.

By now you’ve surely noticed that, in Six Thinking Hats, we’re all expected to wear all the Hats, not just our favorites. If you’re like me, you’ve noticed that you tend to select a few Hats for yourself, leaning away from the others. If so, give yourself a challenge: practice donning the other Hats, too.

Thinking about how we think is really valuable. Intelligence is a fine thing, but it’s wasted unless we direct it down productive channels. Six Thinking Hats helps us see those channels and choose them consciously. Since we’ve started using Six Thinking Hats at Reachout, we’re coming up with good decisions faster than before, and we’re more confident that we’ve seen those decisions from all angles. This method works for us, and I hope it works for you!

Remember to buy de Bono’s book, Six Thinking Hats!

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4 thoughts on “Six Thinking Hats at the Hotline

  1. Nice approach. Would it help to think of Blue as the Sky, as in 30,000-foot overview? (He asked in his Green-Hat role).

  2. Great post of a theory-in-practice. I agree that 6 Thinking Hats is a great way to see a problem from all perspectives and generate a more holistic solution. It’s a great tool for someone who struggles with “stubbornness of opinion” – something I think we all suffer from at one point or another.

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