Using Six Thinking Hats in Negotiation

Dec 06, 2021 | EDR Blog

By James Holbrook

Edward De Bono has identified six different ways of thinking using six different color-coded “Thinking Hats.” Too often, negotiation – especially high-conflict negotiation – begins as a mishmash of facts, emotions, and negativity, with very little productive problem solving.

The Six Thinking Hats are useful in negotiation because they separate sharing information from expressing emotion, and they enable us to brainstorm and improve options before evaluating and committing to them.

Blue-Hat Thinking deals with organizing and directing relevant strategies of productive thinking:

  • What is the problem we are trying to solve?
  • What kinds of thinking will help us solve it?
  • What should we do first, second, third, etc.?

Blue-Hat Thinking in negotiation defines the objective; analyzes the parties’ situation; determines the appropriate strategy to use for solving the problem; identifies priorities, resources, and constraints; directs implementation of the strategy; and monitors and measures progress. Used at the end of negotiation, Blue-Hat Thinking summarizes, articulates, and explains the parties’ agreement.

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Green-Hat Thinking deals with creativity, brainstorming, and new perspectives:

  • What are ways we might solve this problem?
  • How might we land a man on Mars tomorrow?
  • What if I bolt roller-skate wheels on luggage?

Green-Hat thinking in negotiation involves the deliberate creation of new ideas and new approaches to problem solving. It is an intentional and focused effort to generate options and facilitate change. It places value on ridiculous and unworkable ideas that exist outside usual thinking patterns, because that may move parties outside their normal habits of perception to take a new perspective.

White-Hat Thinking deals with information, but without criticism or judgment of facts and data:

  • What information do we have?
  • What information do we need?
  • Where can we get more information?

White-Hat thinking deals with neutral and objective facts and figures, free from interpretation or opinion. If conflicting facts are suggested, they are listed without argument or criticism. We are marshalling a mutual database of potentially relevant information.

Yellow-Hat Thinking deals with positive assessments, e.g., of how and why things work:

  • What are positive implications of the options?
  • What are the benefits if we choose this option?
  • Which is the best option now available to us?

Yellow-Hat thinking is concerned with positive assessments, ranging from logical and practical ideas to our dreams, visions, and hopes for the future. It probes and explores for value and benefit and seeks to find rational support for proposed ideas.

Black-Hat Thinking deals with negative assessments, e.g., of how and why things don’t work:

  • How does this fail to satisfy our interests?
  • What are the difficulties in implementing this?
  • Why does this option violate existing law?

Black-Hat thinking legitimizes the value and importance of caution and risk assessment. It relieves us of the burden of having to be fair-minded and having to address at the same time both the positive and negative implications of available options.

Red-Hat Thinking deals with emotions, but without explanation or justification of why they exist:

  • Tell me what you feel at this moment.
  • I’ll describe how I feel about this issue.

Red-Hat thinking allows us to express our feelings, emotions, hunches, and intuitions without any need to explain or justify them. It is important to resist the impulse or demand to justify our feelings, because their existence, validity, and influence in conflict are not based on whether they are logical or appropriate.

The Six Thinking Hats help us get to problem solving more quickly and efficiently. And they enhance the rigor of using the Harvard seven elements of negotiation – relationship, communication, interests, options, legitimacy, alternatives, and commitment – almost as consecutive steps in a negotiation.



James Holbrook is a Clinical Professor of Law Emeritus at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law where he taught negotiation, mediation, and arbitration. Before joining the law faculty in 2002, he practiced law for 28 years in Salt Lake City. Since 1987, he has been chosen to mediate and appointed to arbitrate over 1,000 disputes dealing with a wide range of legal issues. He currently is the Manager of Special Projects for the law school’s Career Development Office. He can be reached at: