Six Hats and a Mediator – Turning Problems into Solutions

By: Sylvia Mayer, Mayer on Mediation (

“Six Thinking Hats” is a problem solving system developed by Dr. Edward de Bono. The basic premise is that the brain can analyze and solve problems in six distinct ways: objectively, creatively, subjectively negative, subjectively positive, process oriented, and instinctively. While our brains can use each of these distinct approaches, our brains tend to follow one or two preferred paths. As a result, we may overlook other options or opportunities.

Whether the analysis is undertaken individually or by a group, Dr. de Bono suggests that effective brainstorming requires the problem solver(s) to consider the problem “wearing” each of the six hats. The hats are color coded to aid in visualization and understanding:

  • White Hat: The white hat is the objective hat. When wearing this hat, the problem solver thinks about the data (what data do we have and what is needed, but missing, etc.) to understand the issues and identify available solutions.
  • Red Hat: The red hat is the instinctive hat. Wearing this hat means focusing on gut reactions and instinctive responses. This problem solver proposes – or reacts to other’s proposals – based on gut reaction, rather than objective analysis.
  • Green Hat: The green hat is the creative hat. With the green hat on, innovation is the focus. This is where “out of the box” ideas come from. Even if the ideas are wild and crazy, there may be an element that can become a tenable solution.
  • Yellow Hat: The yellow hat is the positive hat. When wearing this hat, the problem solver focuses on the opportunities and advantages of any proposed solutions and considers options to achieve the best possible outcomes.
  • Black Hat: The black hat is the inverse of the yellow hat – wearing this hat means focusing on the potential risks and downsides. This problem solver helps to assess and weigh the cons of any proposed solution.
  • Blue Hat: The blue hat is the process oriented hat. With the blue hat on, the problem solver examines where have we been, where are we now and where are we going. It is the blue hat thinker who may figure out how to implement a proposed solution.

As the problem solver cycles through each of the “hats”, he or she will examine the problem in a new way, thus identifying new options, concerns, solutions, or permutations. The end result is a solution that has been examined from multiple perspectives and found viable.

So, what does this have to do with mediation? The “Six Thinking Hats” are an important aspect of helping disputing parties understand – and move past — their conflict. Many parties arrive at the mediation table wearing the red hat. They are often emotionally invested in their “winning” position and react instinctively to what they hear.  Mediators can help the parties pause, breathe, listen and then try on some of the other hats. Perhaps one or more parties need to further explore the realistic upside or downside of going to trial (the yellow and black hats). Or maybe the parties need try on the green hat and get creative. For example, I often encourage parties to consider what I call “the nonmonetary” – basically, what do they have to offer – or what do they need – beyond money. The nonmonetary could include an apology, an agreed form of letter of recommendation, an introduction to a particular business contact, an agreement not to seek re-hire, or a commitment to change policies or procedures.

Mediation empowers parties to explore the conflict, identify common ground, and, building on the common ground, develop a mutually acceptable settlement. Mediation gives the parties the ability to control the outcome of their dispute. But in order to reach resolution, one or more parties may need to stretch and try on a couple of the “Six Thinking Hats” so they can see the situation from a new perspective. When they do, then six hats and a mediator may very well turn problems into solutions.

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