Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 1, Issue 23;   June 6, 2001: You Remind Me of Helen Hunt

You Remind Me of Helen Hunt

by

At a dinner party I attended recently, Kris said to Suzanne, "You remind me of Helen Hunt." I looked at Suzanne, and sure enough, she did look like Helen Hunt. Later, I noticed that I was seeing Suzanne a little differently. These are the effects of hat hanging. At work, it can damage careers and even businesses.

At a dinner party I attended recently, Kris said to Suzanne, "You remind me of Helen Hunt." I looked at Suzanne, and sure enough, she did look like Helen Hunt. Later, I noticed that I was seeing Suzanne a little differently. These are the effects of hat hanging. At work, it can damage careers and even businesses.

Hat hanging is a phenomenon identified by Virginia Satir, a pioneer of family therapy. The name comes from the idea that we hang the hat of someone from our past on someone in our present. Back at the dinner party, I was probably seeing Suzanne through the characters I've seen Helen Hunt play — perhaps the "you" Paul Reiser's character was so mad about. That evening ended harmlessly, but in important relationships, hat hanging can lead to serious trouble, especially when we're unaware of it, because it distorts our perceptions.

HatsAt work, we tend to hang the parental hat on the supervisor. Supervisors are usually older, and they have the power to give us the toys we want, or to take them away. With our perceptions so distorted, we have difficulty seeing our supervisors as colleagues, working with them as colleagues, or understanding them as colleagues. Since they are colleagues, trouble is inevitable when we see them as parents.

How can we detect hat hanging? And what can we do about it?

Sometimes it's obvious
When someone closely resembles someone else you knew well — especially someone who was important in your life — be alert to hat hanging. The resemblance needn't be physical. It can be in age, size, profession…almost anything.
Tune in to strong feelings
With our perceptions distorted
by mistaken identification,
we have difficulty seeing
things as they are
When you're angry or when you have strong feelings about some issue at work, ask yourself: "If this were someone else's story, would I be so upset?" If not, your feelings might be connected to the there-and-then, rather than the here-and-now, and you might be hanging a hat.
Focus on differences
If you think you might have hung a hat on someone, notice the differences between that person and the hat's owner. If you've hung a hat, shifting your focus is often enough to bring you back to the here and now.
Keep a Hat Journal
When you notice yourself hanging a hat, enter the incident in one of those pocket notebooks — your Hat Journal. After a few months, scan the journal for patterns. Knowing your own patterns can help you find pathways around them.
You probably can't see others hanging hats
Others might hang hats, but you don't know enough about their inner processes to decide. Suggesting that someone else might be hat hanging is therefore risky. It can seem blaming or defensive, especially when you haven't been asked for your insight.

Take care, though. Saying to your boss, "You remind me of Helen Hunt" isn't hat hanging if your boss really is Helen Hunt. Go to top Top  Next issue: Geese Don't Land on Twigs  Next Issue

Rick BrennerThe article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More

For more on the relationship between hat hanging and how we make meaning out of our observations, see "Making Meaning," Point Lookout for January 16, 2008.

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenHoWzUJVeioCfozEIner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

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When did you last receive an email message with a "tweaking CC"? Probably yesterday. A tweaking CC is usually a CC to your boss or possibly the entire known universe, designed to create pressure by exposing embarrassing information.
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When we try to understand the behavior of others, we often make a particularly human mistake. We tend to attribute too much to character and disposition and too little to situation and context. When we seek a better balance, we can adopt a more accepting view of events around us.
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The judgments we make at work, like the judgments we make elsewhere in life, are subject to human fallibility in the form of cognitive biases. One of these is the Focusing Illusion. Here are some examples to watch for.
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Perhaps you've heard that humor can defuse tense situations. Often, a clever quip, deftly delivered, does help. And sometimes, it's a total disaster. What accounts for the difference?

See also Emotions at Work and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A wolf pack, probably preparing for a huntComing June 14: Pseudo-Collaborations
Most workplace collaborations produce results of value. But some collaborations — pseudo-collaborations — are inherently incapable of producing value, due to performance management systems, or lack of authority, or lack of access to information. Available here and by RSS on June 14.
A meeting of a small team working to resolve a serious matterAnd on June 21: Asking Burning Questions
When we suddenly realize that an important question needs answering, directly asking that question in a meeting might not be an effective way to focus the attention of the group. There are risks. Fortunately, there are also ways to manage those risks. Available here and by RSS on June 21.

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