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.
At 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.
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.
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