6 Ways Out of Your Thinking Rut
This useful tool helps you rethink your assumptions and generate new solutions.
Posted Oct 31, 2019
Ever find yourself thinking the same thing over and over, spinning your wheels on a problem and getting nowhere? Maybe this has happened in your personal life, or on a team in the workplace. It can be extremely frustrating, and many of us don’t have a roadmap out of the rut. Thankfully, you aren’t alone anymore. In Edward de Bono’s classic book Six Thinking Hats, he provides a comprehensive approach to learn how to think in new ways about your same old problems.
Each of de Bono’s hats is given a different color, and each one represents a different mode of thinking to apply to your situation. The best place to start is often the Blue Hat, which you can think of as the leader, manager, CEO, or coach to the process. This hat decides how you will focus your attention in the meeting, conversation, or reflection session. It can help you stay on track throughout the process by guiding you through the process of using the other hats, managing your time, and making sure you achieve your goal.
The next useful place to go is often the White Hat, which represents seeking information about the situation at hand. The emphasis is on seeking out the essential facts, upon which the rest of the discussion can build. When dealing with emotionally charged situations, we might jump to other hats before we consider the facts. Keeping the White Hat on helps us stay focused on gathering the information we need and helps us to avoid kneejerk reactions that we later regret. Be careful about assumptions that are so deeply ingrained that they seem like facts but in reality might just be an opinion and themselves up for debate.
Emotions are the terrain of the Red Hat. When we put on this hat, we are deliberately seeking out gut feelings, intuition, and strong emotions of fear, love, hate, among others. Sometimes these feelings come on suddenly and we have to work to put on other hats; other times, we have to slow down to really remind ourselves to listen to our intuition. When we numb our feelings or overindulge them, we also impact the quality of our thinking. By providing the Red Hat, de Bono reminds us that emotions are an important source of information when making decisions.
The Green Hat is all about creative thinking. When we put on the green hat, we specifically seek out new approaches to our problems. We brainstorm multiple potential solutions, imagine from a variety of viewpoints, and generate new ideas or options. When we wear the Green Hat, it’s important to create a space where there are no wrong answers. Instead, the emphasis is on generating ideas, however outlandish they might seem, in order to open our minds to new connections and possibilities.
The final two hats are often the most familiar, as they correspond in part to the old-fashioned “pros and cons” approach to problem-solving. The Yellow Hat involves optimism, looking on the bright side and seeing what could be good or beneficial within a situation or a potential outcome. One particularly useful exercise can be to look for what might be good about an outcome that seems negative. For instance, if you are fearful that you might get fired and are wondering whether to resign first, you might get stuck worrying about all the awful things that might happen. The Yellow Hat can help you see what could be good about getting fired, or at least to remind yourself of such a possibility with a thought like “even though I can’t see it yet, there might be an upside to this someday in the future.”
Lastly, the Black Hat probes for difficulties and challenges, looking for problems in order to anticipate and manage risk. This hat is an essential counterbalance to the other ones but can easily be misused or overapplied. It is useful to remember that there will always be potential downsides or risks in life, so no problem or potential solution is without material for the Black Hat to consider. What is important is to not let the Black Hat control your thinking or get the last word. Just because you can think of potential problems does not mean they are likely or more important than the information you have gained from wearing your other hats. The black hat is just one of many voices in this process and does not veto authority. The Blue Hat is the one who controls the process and makes the final decision.
These thinking hats can be applied in a variety of manners. For individuals involved in cognitive-behavioral therapy, these hats can help you challenge unhelpful thinking habits that might be getting in the way of your well-being. Another creative application might be to assign people in a group to wear different hats, or to rotate through them. If you are talking out a problem with a friend, you might ask them to wear only one or two specific hats. If you notice yourself or others tending to only wear one hat, teaching them about the hats and then asking them to wear others with you can be a gentle and informative way to get more constructive help.
There are not enough widely available, accessible tools to help people take control of their own thinking, and de Bono offers a useful and pleasant method to begin the process. The next time you are stuck in a thinking rut, remember to try on a new hat and see what happens.
de Bono, Edward (1985). Six Thinking Hats: An Essential Approach to Business Management. Little, Brown, & Company.