The Three Hats Strategy

A Facilitation Technique to Enhance the Harmony of the Roundtable Approach in Sustainable Development

An important principle of sustainable development is utilization of a multi-stakeholder roundtable approach. This ensures wide participation, by experts and the public, from across all sectors, in key discussions.

The Three Hats Strategy is a facilitation technique that enhances the harmony of the roundtable approach (peace building is another important principle of sustainable development), as well as the principle of integration of environmental, social equity and economic concerns and considerations (the 3 Es), all the while allowing creative argument.

(Teachers, please be sure to see the caveat below.)

"This multi-stakeholder process provides a neutral forum that facilitates the development and nurturing of partnerships across all sectors and regions of the country — partnerships that are crucial to breaking down the barriers that stand in the way of real and sustained progress toward sustainable development in Canada.

"The process entails developing common ground among the stakeholders and narrowing the areas of debate or disagreement."
— National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy

Sustainable development is, first and foremost, about people (human development).


  • get people actually sitting around a round table, which makes "hearing" each other easier

  • include people from all levels, areas, sectors, "pillars" and alignments (social, environmental, economic)

  • be sure to invite those from the social pillar (sustainable development is often mistakenly seen as only jobs and economy versus the environment, so the economically and environmentally aligned will show up to counterbalance each other, but the socially minded don't feel a part of it)

  • remember that what makes sustainable development a different discussion, planning and decision-making paradigm is the principle of integration: social, environmental and economic concerns are all considered together

  • have a "secretary" write the participants' ideas and questions in the appropriate section of a triple Venn sustainable development diagram; this will help everyone "see" the integration and interconnectedness of their concerns

During the multi-stakeholder roundtable meeting, instead of having participants defend their own interests or stances in relation to the topic being discussed, have the group "wear" all three hats (social equity, environmental viability, economic prosperity) in turn, with the same amount of time given to each "hat."

This way, participants can, and usually do, all speak about each "hat" (social, environmental, economic) together, harmoniously — and will experience their integration firsthand.

In other words, they're learning sustainable development by "doing" sustainable development. They're experiencing the power of the multi-stakeholder roundtable approach, and learning the SD principle of integration by actually integrating the 3 Es.


Using the Three Hats Strategy is particularly important in school if you're having your class do a simulation or "townhall meeting" type of activity.

Don't recreate the old reductionist, adversarial paradigm by pitting role players against each other.

Have them sit down together, around a round table if possible, and use the Three Hats Strategy (giving anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes for each hat — environmental, social and economic) to really hear each other, to discover what they have in common, and to find out what is important to each of them. (NB: There will be overlap ... and that's exactly what we want people to learn!)

My research shows that community, and all that community means for people (their families, friends and neighbours, their homes and sacred spaces and other favourite places, and their local livelihoods) usually turns out to be common ground for everyone. (This is one reason that sustainable development is often a localized process.)

Another advantage of the Three Hats facilitation approach is that lots of questions will arise, leading to lots more learning about sustainable development!

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