Are you wearing the Black thinking hat? – Do you default to constructive criticism?

A mate messages me, I find his response a bit frustrating. I had just sent him a link to the Lambda School, saying that they have an interesting business model. They charge nothing up front but take a percentage of a student’s income for two years, once they’re earning over $50,000.

His first response was – “And if they never get to $50k?”

It felt like, he hadn’t considered it at all. I responded that I think it keeps the school on their game. If the market doesn’t value someone after they have taken their courses, perhaps they are teaching the wrong thing.

My aim of the first message had been to point out that it’s refreshing to see a different approach.

Then, he unprompted, apologised for his recent negative responses. I admire that a lot, the ability and awareness to reflect. Reflecting on our past behaviour makes our past experiences a better investment in the future. This is different to dwelling on the past.

The default to a negative response is frustrating for someone who shares the idea and it suppresses the sharing of new ideas. Ideas in themselves may be non-starters, but when they are built upon, they can turn into something beautiful. To be fair, saying it is a negative response, is perhaps the wrong adjective to use. It can be perceived by the recipient as negative, whereas it is constructive from the perspective of the respondent.

I privately (until sharing it on this blog) called it “the black hat syndrome” – From Edward de Bono’s six thinking hats.

The intention is positive, in that they are looking for obstacles preventing it from working. I’ve noticed it’s more common with people who receive a lot of output from other people to review and have to give their opinion on it or use the information to make a decision, quickly.

So they train themselves to look for gaps and find these gaps, thinking to themselves, where can we get burnt? While useful and necessary, it is also a limiting mindset and requires awareness to break out of.

“The Black Hat is judgment – the devil’s advocate or why something may not work. Spot the difficulties and dangers; where things might go wrong. Probably the most powerful and useful of the Hats but a problem if overused.” – From the de Bono Group.

The concept of hats is useful, as it enables us to look at things differently. Ideally, we would have a room balanced with people metaphorically wearing different hats, but life is seldom ideal, like attracts like and we become stagnant. If the majority of people are saying how wonderful an idea is (yellow), then it is useful to have some black hat thinkers who anticipate problems, so the idea can be challenged, refined and improved.

I have done exercises where people are asked to “wear” one hat for part of a problem-solving session, then another one for the next part. It’s amazing to watch people transform to conform to their new roles. It is particularly useful for people who perhaps lack awareness of their own defaults, they quickly gain more awareness of others and more importantly themselves. It then broadens their thinking process, they may begin to cycle through the hats as they make a decision.

Using thinking hats is more powerful than leaving people to be “that’s just the way they are.” It is also then less offensive to say “it sounds like you are wearing your [colour] hat.”

I encourage you to examine your last few responses, in email or perhaps WhatsApps, were they “black hat thinking”, should you try a few of the other thinking hats for size and fit? 

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