Most people will have heard of Edward de Bono’s concept of parallel thinking, but fewer will know about his Six Thinking Hats Method of discourse. This piece is to explain this method and to suggest how it might be engaged to improve the quality of political debate among politicians, or if that is not possible, among those in the media who report matters political.
It has become tacitly accepted that politicians have their own adversarial way of engaging in debate, an approach that is less concerned with the facts, the truth, than it is with gaining political advantage by stealing a march on the adversary, or putting the other side down. Truth is often relegated to an insignificant role, in favour of spin, disingenuousness, or sometimes, outright deception.
Much of what follows is drawn from De Bono’s 1994 Penguin book Parallel Thinking – From Socratic to de Bono Thinking.
De Bono traces the history of this adversarial approach back to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Plato believed that ‘uncontrolled democracy’ was the ruin of the State. He favoured restricting voting rights to a selected few because the views of the masses could be so easily swayed, in the same way many fear the media now sways the masses to its point of view. His views were reinforced by the existence of the Sophists, whose schools of rhetoric aimed at developing in its pupils skills of persuasion that could make weak arguments stronger. Today’s Sophists are known as professional lobbyists and spin-doctors. As de Bono puts it: “Faced with what he saw as a ‘rabble’ democracy, and the development of unscrupulous skilled persuaders, Plato opted for a government of competence based on rulers who had been bred and trained to rule.”
The ‘Socratic method’ is the endless search for the truth through asking questions. The Sophists believed there was no such thing as absolute truth that questioning could uncover, and that truth was only what someone had been persuaded to believe. To them, a person’s perception was ‘the truth’. Given the activities of the latter day professional persuaders, nothing much has changed since then!
De Bono believes that the adversarial, argumentative approach that the Socratic method encourages, while being suitable for some scientific endeavours, is insufficient and sometimes counterproductive in solving complex multi-facetted problems. He draws a parallel between the Socratic method and the type of argument seen in courts of law where each side is focused on winning rather than revealing the truth. Both prosecutor and defence lawyers place before the jury what they believe is advantageous to their case, and purposely omit facts that are disadvantageous. This is what happens in political discourse. Sadly, much of the media, which too often assumes a partisan position, engages in the same deception.
The Six Thinking Hats
de Bono developed the Six Thinking Hats Method as a way carrying out parallel thinking and avoiding the disadvantage of the argumentative, adversarial approach that bedevils so much debate in so many fields, not the least in the political field. Much of what follows is derived from his 1985 Penguin Book Six Thinking Hats.
He illustrates the notion of parallel thinking by painting a picture of four people looking at a building, one looking at the north aspect, one at the south aspect and the other two looking respectively at the east and west aspects. All are looking at the same building at the same time, but at different aspects. Not surprisingly what each sees and describes is different, although they are looking at the same building. If none were prepared to accept that the others were looking at different aspects, and all insisted that what they saw was ‘the truth’ about that building, and what the others was not, they would argue endlessly and fruitlessly about the nature of the building. On the other hand, if they moved as a group to first look together at the north aspect, then in turn the south, east and west, they would all see the same thing and, while one might take more note of the windows, another of the roof, another the wall and another the surrounds, they would all at least be looking at the same aspect and would therefore be less likely to engage in pointless argument.
With the Six Hats Thinking Method, all the participants ‘wear’ the same hat at the same time, so that all are looking at the same aspect simultaneously. Let me make sense of that by describing the ‘hats’.
First, they are not real hats which people actually wear, but figurative ones. They are categorized by colour: white, red, black, yellow, green and blue, each colour symbolizing the nature of the hats. The chairperson might say: let’s have some white hat thinking, or black hat, and everyone behaves in the manner specific to that hat.
Let’s look at the individual hats.
The White Hat
White is seen as a neutral colour and therefore the one that signifies the facts. de Bono subdivides facts into ‘checked facts’, those that have been verified, and ‘believed facts’ or ‘unchecked facts’, that have not been verified. The latter may take the form of, for example: “I believe I am right in saying that this new model is quieter than the previous one.” Although these are regarded as ‘second class facts’, they are allowed so long as they are qualified by stating the uncertainty that surrounds them. So long as they seem relevant, even unverified facts may have their use, if for no other reason that they invite further exploration of their validity.
Debate often starts with everyone wearing the white hat so as to gather the facts.
The Red Hat
As the colour suggests, the red hat invites the expression of emotions and feelings about the subject matter under discussion. It is important that people be given the opportunity to express their feelings, positive and negative, about the subject, as it is often unspoken feelings that distort the debate and get in the way of resolution. Wearing the Red Hat, it is quite legitimate for anyone who wishes to do so to express feelings freely without debate, and without having to explain why those feelings are present. In fact asking people to explain why they feel the way they do is prohibited when the red hat is being worn. It is enough that they feel the way they do and express those feelings; if they were required to explain why, many would repress their feelings, to the disadvantage of the debate. Some may have a feeling of uncertainty, discomfort, or fear; some may have a hunch, or their intuition may be speaking to them. That is sufficient for the vocalization of that feeling. It may be a valuable pointer, and is therefore given credence.
The Black Hat
The Black Hat is the one most often used, and is probably the most useful. When worn, it invites people to express caution and be careful. Wearing it, people point out what is wrong with an idea or plan, why it may not work, what does not fit. The problem with the Black Hat is that if it is worn continuously, if it is the only hat worn, all that emerges is negativity. We see that every day in contemporary politics. Yet without the Black Hat, hair-brained schemes may be adopted in ignorance of the pitfalls. Risks, dangers, obstacles, potential problems, and the downsides are considered when wearing the Black Hat.
The Black Hat is valuable if used only as one of the Six Hats, along with the others, and only if used by all involved in the debate at the one time. Again, de Bono insists that only one hat is worn at any time, and that it is worn by all participants at the same time. Sometimes people get labeled as, say, ‘a Black Hat person’. This is contrary to the method. Everyone gets a chance to wear the Black Hat, and the other hats as well. Black Hat discussion is not argument and must not be allowed to degenerate into argument.
The Yellow Hat
The bright Yellow Hat suggests sunshine and optimism. When everyone is wearing the Yellow Hat, the benefits of the idea, plan, or proposal are advanced. Everyone is encouraged to look for the good points, even if the individual has reservations or is opposed. The hat is useful because it forces people to seek out the value in what is under discussion, and not just that, but who will benefit, under what circumstances, and how its value might be realized.
Yellow Hat thinking requires positive constructive thinking, optimism, and a focus on benefits and making things happen.
It is the opposite of Black Hat thinking. It covers a spectrum from practical and logical suggestions to the more nebulous hopes, dreams, and visions.
The Green Hat
The Green Hat is worn where the exhibition of creative energy is required. Green signifies fertility and growth. Wearing the Green Hat offers the participants the opportunity to show their creativity. Sometimes even the quietest of people surprise themselves, and others, with their creative suggestions.
New ideas, new perceptions, new concepts, alternative ways of proceeding, and lateral thinking emerge and excite when all are wearing the Green Hat, often to everyone’s delight.
It is essential that creative ideas are marshalled, and even if they are somewhat nebulous, noted for further development. Sometimes it is Green Hat creativity that makes the day.
The Blue Hat
Blue, the colour of the sky, designates thinking about thinking. It is the administrative hat under which the process of the debate is determined. It is the control hat. A Blue Hat thinker acts like the conductor of an orchestra.
Often meetings begin with all wearing the Blue Hat, so as to agree upon how the discussion will begin and progress. What will be the order that the hats are worn? There is no set order, although many discussions begin with everyone wearing the White Hat, then proceeding to the Red, the Black, the Yellow and the Green Hats, often ending with the Blue to ascertain progress. But any order is acceptable.
The benefits of the Six Thinking Hats method
de Bono insists that the most striking thing about the method is that decisions seem to make themselves, and that by the end the decision is obvious to all, in stark contrast to how many discussions end. He quotes many instances where corporate boards, committees and groups that usually take a long time to reach resolution of the matters under discussion, do so in a small fraction of the usual time when they use the Six Hats Thinking Method.
It reduces argument, it gets people out of their entrenched and often unthinking position, enables all to see the facts, the way people feel, the downside, and the benefits, and gives them an opportunity to exhibit their creativity. Any method that levers people out of their entrenched positions, so often governed by adversarial behaviour and perverse motives, must be a useful tool in elevating the calibre of debate, particularly political debate, which in this country is so often characterized by bias, prejudice, bigotry, partisan positions, disingenuousness and often downright lying.
The key to the success of Six Hats Thinking is that at any one time all the participants are looking at the same aspect and all are thinking in parallel, instead of, as so often happens, being at loggerheads and at cross purposes because they are looking at different aspects, and arguing from different points of view.
The question of course is whether politicians would ever adopt the Six Hats Thinking Method. Within party structures that seems possible, although difficult because of factional divisions. Between parties, it looks impossible, set as they so often are on a course of destroying each other.
So why do I even bother describing it in a political context? Because it may help us as bloggers to develop and present better balanced arguments that take into account not just one element, but them all – the facts, the feelings, the drawbacks, and the benefits, all wrapped in a creative mantle. While the Six Thinking Hats Method is designed to operate in a setting where several people are debating issues of importance, it can be applied when writers are composing commentaries on these issues, because the same elements apply. We can adopt such an approach if we wish, and I hope some will, but my most fervent hope is that journalists who write in the MSM, and the other bloggers out there, might see the benefits and the contribution the Six Thinking Hats Method could make to informed discourse through the various media we access day by day, and adopt it in their writings.
Can these folk, who so influence public opinion, make a transition from their usual adversarial, combative and partisan approach, designed as it too often is to achieve a political outcome, and instead present to members of the public a balanced and fair appraisal of political issues for their consideration?
What do you think? Are they up to it? Do they want to change? Do we?