Six Hats – Empathy or Thinking?

by Brendan Coram

Six Hats - Empathy or Thinking?Sometimes, it takes more than just thinking about somebody else’s point of view. We actually have to empathise with them for true understanding. There are various ways of considering other people’s point of view in the process of creative problem solving:

  • Six Value Medals provides a simple framework for systematically considering different perspectives of value, great when evaluating solutions
  • TERMS provides a useful mnemonic for considering different perspectives on the customer experience from time to situation
  • Hall of Fame is a fun way to randomly select a famous personality and consider the world (or problem space) from their perspective

And if that isn’t enough, brainstorming techniques can be used to manage collaborative interactions in different, high output ways. But there is a missing element in all of these approaches. Empathy…

To be able to really connect with the world from someone else’s perspective we need empathy. We need more than just a logical understanding, we need to connect with their emotional response, because without it we really don’t care. Empathy is what we use to feel what others are feeling, and understand what matters to them. Here are some examples:

  • Collaboration: Without empathy, collaboration is just a collection of people arguing their point of view
  • Dialog: without empathy, conversations are just organised turn taking (Jeez, are they ever going to finish…I have something to say)
  • Conflict: without empathy, conflicts cannot be truly resolved…and are instead a series of cease fires
  • Creative Thinking: without empathy, our creative thinking is limited by our own experience and perspective

How to Develop Empathy

Others have written more eloquently about empathy than me. You can read about empathy with Blog Gone WildSkillful Minds and Ashoka. SOme key points in developing empathy are:

  • Identification: actively seek out alternative perspectives, don;t just stop at your own point of view
  • Build Bridges: Look for similarities instead of differences if you want to connect with alternative perspectives
  • Listen: Suspend judgement a little longer and actively listen to others, don’t just wait for your turn to speak

Six Empathy Hats

Edward de Bono’s six thinking hats is an excellent tool for systematically exploring a problem from multiple perspectives, and a framework for creative response. But it can be a little ‘me’ focused if you aren’t paying attention. Here’s how to use the tool with empathy:

Set the empathy stage

  • Be clear about your problem statement
  • List out your stakeholders. You might try mind mappping or a round robin brainstorm for a quick list to get you going
  • Build stakeholder profiles. For each stakeholder, build up a few details about their personality including how they will be impacted by the problem/solution,  their motivations, and enough human characteristics to build up a quick profile. In marketing terms the purpose here is to build up a customer profile to illustrate our segment. For example, if we are exploring a new design of motorbike and are considering parking attendants be specific. How old is our attendant, where do they live, what do they read, how much are they paid, do they have a family. A few minutes will be enough, but we want enough of a profile to be able to put ourselves into their shoes and answer emotional questions like ‘would they like …’ or ‘how would they feel about…’

Run a Six Thinking Hat Iteration

Pick a stakeholder profile. Remember, our goal here is to step away from the me focus and use some empathy to explore alternate viewpoints.

Have your blue hat facilitator guide you through each of the thinking hats, using a subtle twist of empathy. As a facilitator, the blue hat should introduce the profile and their characteristics to create a strong visual image of this person. We should then be invited to ‘step into their shoes’ before using the remaining 5 hats to explore and empathise with their response:

  • White hat: what does our profile know and which information do they feel is relevant?
  • Red hat: how does our profile feel about this
  • Black hat: what does our profile feel is wrong about this
  • Yellow hat: what does our profile feel could work here
  • Green hat: what else can our profile think of

Run another Six Thinking Hat Iteration

Using quick iterations (say 2 minutes a hat), you should aim for a high momentum exploration of all key perspectives. By keeping momentum high you should be able to connect with the emotional perspective more easily. It’s best not to over analyse your responses, use gut feel. When you are done, draw the session to a close using your preferred methods. Try not to select a ‘best’ answer, or judge the validity of different perspectives. Instead, evaluate the potential impact from various perspectives and decide which are more important for this context.

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Tools for Idea SelectionBrendan Coram is a Management Consultant at The Birchman Group where he specializes in ITSM, ITIL v3, organizational change, business process improvement, workshop facilitation, asset management, project management, and innovation. He leads performance improvement initiatives for organisations in government, transportation, telecommunications, and professional services across Australia.

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  1. Thanks really great article, a much needed focus and neglected aspect. I have posted on my blog with links to your article. Please let me know if you are ok with this?

  2. Please do, glad you found the article useful

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