Dealing with Challenging Coworkers – The Eyebrow Story

One of the great things about being a parent of four boys is the endless supply of material they provide.  As they’ve gotten older we’ve seen the supply of food products evaporate in transit from the grocery store to the pantry.  There are days I hear rumors that brownies were made, but by the time I get home, they’re nowhere to be found.  All this food feeds their ever-growing bodies as we churn through multiple pairs of shoes throughout the year (really, size 13 shoes?).  And as their voices got deeper, the facial hair arrived and there is only so long I’ll let them go without shaving.

Being a typical Minnesota “towhead” (note:), my sons’ facial hair is very light and it takes a few days for the noticeable “Shaggy-esque” type whiskers to emerge.

  • Side note: many people mistakenly believe the phrase is “toe head” but in fact the first word is “tow” referring to the tousled mass of light yellow fiber resulting from combing out the fibers from certain plants into thread; since these pale fibers resemble human hair the term “towhead” is occasionally used to describe blond children which I honestly didn’t know until I wrote this piece – thanks wisegeek.com!

On one particular morning where this was the case with one of my sons, I made it clear that I didn’t want to come home from work to see an unshaven face.

Fast forward to later that day.

I’m sitting down to our family dinner and my wife gestures to whisker boy and says to me, “Notice anything different about your son?”

I glanced down the table, and the boy stops eating and stares forward not quite avoiding my gaze but not looking at me either. The first thing that hits me is his hair is combed. This in itself is usual.

“Hair washed and combed today?” I reply.

He smiles and my wife shakes her head.

“What?” I say.

“Told you it wasn’t noticeable,” my son replies triumphantly.

My other three boys are laughing now.

“Well I noticed it right away,” my wife counters.

It’s at this point I’m starting to feel a little stupid for missing whatever it is I should be seeing. I felt a little like when those “magic eye” books came out in the early 90’s and everyone else is quickly spotting the 3D unicorn and all I get is a headache unfocusing and straining my eyes. “Just stare through the picture…look behind it…don’t focus…” (bonus points if you can see the 3D shape in the image below).

Finally she hints, “Check near his eyes.”

Given the length of his hair and the fact he has combed it down, his eyes are a bit hidden but then I see it.

No eyebrows.

They are completely gone. His brow is smooth as can be. I’ve always wondered what eyebrows were for and most experts would say to keep sweat, water and debris out of the eye. But at the moment, I’m thinking they are needed to look…well…normal.

“What the heck,” I mutter. “What happened to your eyebrows?”

Now the other kids are in an uproar and I get the feeling this isn’t the first time this conversation has taken place.

“I had an accident,” was my boy’s guarded reply.

Shaking my head I struggle to understand this. What kind of accident results in your eyebrows disappearing?

A deep sigh later the story unfolds. “I was shaving this morning with the electric razor and stopped paying attention for a moment and nicked part of my eyebrow…”

While my son continued the story, I must stop here to tell you what was going through my mind. How does one stop paying attention when shaving? What could be so distracting that staring in the mirror with a battery operated cutting device vibrating at high speed which grabs away at little hairs pulling and cutting them clumps at a time one loses the location of said device? Even if you look away from the mirror for a moment, it is impossible not to know where it is by tactile nerve impulses alone. I imagine the elbow of his “razor arm” resting on the side of the bathroom counter while shaving and somehow it slips off and he over compensates and “bam” there goes a chunk of brow? Honestly, the truth of what really happened may never be known (I don’t what to even speculate further). What I do know is the outcome.

“So, wait a minute,” I interrupt. If you just nicked a part of the brow, how is it that both brows are entirely gone?”

Through whimpered cries of laughter, my wife explains. “He thought it would look better to shave them both off than to have one just missing a small piece.”

Of course.

Why hadn’t I thought of that?

I suddenly fear a large investment in eyebrow pencils is coming and shudder at memories of my grandmother’s painted brow way up on her forehead and quickly let my oldest know in no uncertain terms will he be allowed to start drawing in his facial features.

Having set yet another new ground rule in place that I never considered I would have to verbalize, I realize that this entire experience gave new meaning to the term “brow beaten”.

The Moral of the Story

As I thought of this story, I couldn’t help think about how I totally missed the missing eyebrows even when I thought I was really looking at him.  In my mind, I saw him one way and even with the evidence in front of me, I totally missed the obvious change (c’mon, missing eyebrows, who misses that?).

And if we do this with how people look, imagine how we frame our thoughts about other people and their abilities and motivations.  Think about how stagnate our beliefs are about our friends, family, and people at work.  We’ve placed everyone in our nice little box that fits our beliefs about them.  Anything that doesn’t fit in the box we ignore (like missing eyebrows).  We partly do this because our minds like habit and automatic pilot because then we can reduce our cognitive load and focus on the unique and important things we encounter throughout the day.

The downside is, we miss all of the other wonderful changing and multi-dimensional facets of those around us.  Our experiences shape and change who we are every day.  But do we allow ourselves to see those wonderful changes in other people and keep an open mind about who they are, who they are becoming, and grow the richness of our relationships?

This is especially challenging with those we have difficult relations with.  Think about those coworkers that you not only don’t see eye to eye with, but become deflated when you are in the same room with them.  Chances are you filter all their actions through a lens of negative motivations on their part (e.g., they are only trying to make themselves look good, they are lazy, they take credit for other people’s work, etc.).  The unfortunate reality is they probably think the same thing about you.

So how can you see them for something different than what you think?

Self Affirmation Theory

Oddly enough, research in ‘self affirmation theory’ shows us the answer.  Correll, et. al. write in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology –

  • “Research has demonstrated that people often resist information that conflicts with their personal views. Though new information may improve understanding, people seem to be motivated to discount both the source and the content of a challenging message in an effort to protect their existing beliefs (Cohen, Aronson, & Steele, 2000; Reed & Aspinwall, 1998; Sherman, Nelson, & Steele, 2000; for a review, see Sherman & Cohen, 2002). This close-mindedness apparently stems, at least in part, from concern over self-regard. Cohen and his colleagues suggest that, because people derive a sense of worth from their beliefs, and from the notion that those beliefs are an accurate assessment of reality, contradictory information can endanger their sense of personal worth. To protect that sense of worth, they attempt to reject the conflicting information.”
  • A crucial tenet of self-affirmation theory, though, is that the ultimate goal of a defensive reaction is the security of the global sense of self-worth, not the security of the domain, per se.  The individual should defend a given domain only to the degree that the more general sense of self-worth is compromised by its loss. Accordingly, if global self-worth is temporarily bolstered by success in a second, unrelated domain, the individual should be more willing to tolerate a threat to the domain of interest. Typically, self-affirmation research involves exactly this type of test. In research on persuasion, a self-affirmation in one domain leads people to acknowledge the merits of counterattitudinal arguments they would otherwise reject. Cohen et al. (2000), for example, asked half of their participants to write a paragraph about an important value (to affirm their sense of self-worth) before exposing them to arguments that challenged their views on capital punishment or abortion. Compared with control participants who wrote about less important values, those who wrote about a central value were more willing to recognize the strengths of the challenging argument.”

[reference: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/cccc/85d618c07d70a38aeab5ec700a1a6da07110.pdf]

What all this means is, in order to be open to new ideas that challenge our existing beliefs of others, we need to first prime ourselves with self affirmations about existing values we hold that have nothing to do with the person we are attempting to be more open toward.  It is important to physically write them down and not simply think them.  Here are two examples of what these self affirmation of values look like:

  • “My relationship with my family is very important to me because it is my parents and brother who helped push me to be who I am today. Without them, I probably wouldn’t have the patience and motivation to have applied for this university and be successful here. Whenever I have a problem, it is my family I can go to to help me through it. My friends are also very important. If I didn’t have the strong loving relationship with my friends from home, I wouldn’t be who I am today. My new friends that I have made [here] are also a big part in my life because they make me smile every day.”
  • “For me the sense of humor of someone is the most important thing. Every time someone makes me laugh it gives me comfort and happiness. I think having a good sense of humor is the best quality that a person can have. It does not matter if a person is good looking or not if they can make others laugh. Every time I meet someone I care if they have a good sense of humor or if they are funny. That is why most of my friends are always laughing, because we all like to make jokes and laugh together. I even think that laughing, making jokes and having a good sense of humor is what keeps us together as friends. Furthermore, our sense of humor is what makes us unique as a group of friends.”

[reference: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Geoffrey_Cohen/publication/259650286_The_Psychology_of_Change_Self-Affirmation_and_Social_Psychological_Intervention/links/02e7e52f3312ea8b3e000000.pdf]

I share all of this, so that no one ever has to shave off their eyebrows in order to be seen differently by those around them.

Take the easier path!

Identify a person you need to improve your relationship with, write out some value based self affirmations, become more open minded, and begin to appreciate who they really are.

 

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