Nosey Co-Worker Stares At Me And Others

Question:

I work next to someone who looks up from her work every time someone comes into our office, or, I’m talking to someone or I get up to leave. She constantly stares at me and my work or interaction with others in the office. What tactful comment can I make to her to make it STOP? It really is becoming bothersome and distracting to me and to others.

Signed,

Tired Of Being Stared At


Answer:

Dear Tired Of Being Stared At:

I imagine there are several issues going on that contribute to this situation. Let me share some thoughts and see if they assist you.

First, since you are the one dealing with this, you undoubtedly have a clearer visual in your mind of what constitutes staring, or staring to the point of being distracting. An outsider would think that it is not all that uncommon to look up when someone comes into the office, or when someone gets up to leave, or is otherwise moving around or talking. So, I’m assuming there must be much more to it than just glancing up or looking for a moment.

But, before I make that assumption, consider this: Apart from the staring, how do you feel about this co-worker? Is she a friend to you and others? Is she someone you enjoy being around? Has she been around a long time and you are newer, or is the reverse true? Is she part of your circle of friends, or is she on the outside of many office situations?

You can see where I’m going with those questions for you to consider on your own. Are you so sensitized to this person for other reasons, that the slightest glance on her part triggers the thought, “She’s staring again!”

One way to think about that is to consider how you know she is staring at you if you or others are not looking at her an equal amount. Or, do you catch yourself setting things up so she WILL likely stare, and you can reinforce for yourself and others with, “there she goes again!”

You can see that this can easily become like kids in the back seat on vacation. “Mommmm! She’s staring at me!” “No I’m not!” Yes you are!”

I’m not implying that she isn’t staring. I’m just saying that if she was a good friend of yours I doubt this would be a problem. So, I imagine there is something else going on. If that’s the case, you can almost be certain that you are hyper-sensitive to her actions. You don’t want to be that way–if for no other reason than your own comfort level!

The second thing to think about is to consider what might be going on in her mind. One of the best ways to deal with any situation that frustrates you is to take the perspective of the other person, BEFORE you develop a strategy for dealing with the irritant or frustration.

What might she be thinking to justify her actions? “I’m right in line of sight, so I just naturally look up when someone is walking into the area or around me.” “There’s no rule that says I have to keep my eyes lowered all day!” “They stand right near me and talk. It disturbs me and I look to see what is going on.” “I get tired of staring at work on my desk, looking up and at others is just a way for me to rest my eyes.” “I wish I was included. I wonder what it is they have, that I don’t?” “I’m working and they’re not. Why is that?” “I’m not really looking at them specifically, I’m just taking it all in visually.” “I’ve heard them hint around about me looking at them so much. So, let’s see how they like it when I REALLY stare at them.” “I don’t mean to stare rudely and I don’t think I do!” “I have no idea what she is talking about. I don’t think I have looked up more than once or twice today.” “She’s just using this as an excuse because she doesn’t like me.” Her reasons could be logical, self-centered, angry, thoughtless, worried, hurt or perfectly justified and appropriate. If you think you have an idea what is going on in her mind, based on some other aspect of her behavior, that might be helpful as you develop a response to the situation.

For example, what is her behavior like in other settings? Is she intelligent and socially skillful generally or not? Does she focus in an unnatural way in any conversation, so this is another example of that? Is she strange in her overall behavior? Is she animated herself, and very verbal? Often people like that are keenly sensory–they listen and look at everything.

One of the problems with cubicles and open offices is just what you describe–and some people are more prone to it than others. I just happen to be reading a book today on using video in training. Here’s a quote! “Most humans cannot avoid eye movement and visual and mental attention when they see animated behavior by a presenter, or animated content on a screen or in the room.”

So, perhaps your co-worker is prone to noticing everything that is happening, and doesn’t realize how irritating it is. I have a close friend who I tease and say she is like a crow that has found a shiny object, when she is interested in something that is going on across the room! She can’t seem to help but glance, look, listen, turn her ear to listen better, covertly and overtly stare. She’s not intentionally being rude, she’s just intensely aware of everything around her.

She can read people intuitively very well, based on their body movement and gestures–and tends to be reading them all the time! Occasionally people say to her, “Grace, it isn’t polite to stare.” She always looks startled and says she didn’t mean to be staring–and I believe her. But that probably doesn’t prevent her from irritating people who realize she’s staring at them!

Third, maybe there is some other aspect of office conflict that is going on and that encourages your co-worker to be obvious in her staring. Is she disgusted with the noise people make? Does she feel there is too much time spent in socializing? Is there some aspect of the people’s demeanor or appearance that she finds unusual, offensive, or interesting? It may be that the staring is just a small symptom of a bigger issue that needs to be addressed by everyone.

Fourth, does this have a negative impact on work? Does she stare at customers and make them uncomfortable, and you can prove it? Have people complained to the boss about her? Can you not do your work because she is looking at you in a strange way? Why do you want her to stop? That’s the bottom line. Say it out loud and test yourself to see if your thoughts are logical and sound appropriate for why you want her to change her behavior.

That brings us to the final thing: What can you do about all of this–no matter what the reasons involved? After you have considered your motivations–and maybe your subconscious ulterior motivations–and have tried to see her view and tried to correct things that might contribute to all of this, what is left to do?

First, try not to be where she CAN stare at you and make you uncomfortable. You may find that taking away her visual stimulation will help her break the habit. Talk with people away from her area if possible. Next, accept the fact that you cannot stop her from looking up and looking at people as they come in the room, move around the room, or stand by her area and talk. You simply can’t stop that. The only thing you can ask someone to stop is unnatural and prolonged staring that seems to be intrusive or offensive.

For example, if she stops her work and stares or looks intently at you for ten seconds or more. Or, if she swivels in her chair or purposely moves her head to be able to follow you with her eyes, never taking her eyes off you. Or, if she becomes still and focuses solely on you for a prolonged amount of time. THOSE are specific things you can describe and that would be considered unusual and intrusive in most workplaces.

Finally, before you do anything at all, talk to your supervisor about it. Tell him or her that they don’t need to be involved unless they want to be, and that you will approach it in the most courteous way possible. But, you want them to know what is bothering you and others, and why. And,you want them to know that you are going to say something to the employee.

You may find the supervisor has already talked to the employee and wants to know that the behavior is continuing. Your supervisor may tell you NOT to say something, and may have his or her own views about it. But you need to make sure you are not going to put yourself into a bad situation by your actions. Don’t take action without supervisory approval. Your supervisor will probably be very impressed that you are willing to do something on your own, rather than dropping it in his or her lap! But at least this way you are not stirring up problems, you are solving them.

If you have permission to say something, do it only if there is not a customer or outside client present–preferably if there is no one else present. You don’t need to have a long conversation, just make an instant impact with a few well chosen words, said in an appropriate way.

When you see her staring, look her way and say, in a friendly, but exasperated voice, “Mary, I feel like you’re staring at me!”

Let her respond to that one way or another. Then add, “I’ve noticed that before and it bothers me a lot! PLEASE don’t do that!”

Or, you might ask her if you are doing something that causes her to stare. Don’t argue, just listen and evaluate it from her viewpoint.

If she says she didn’t mean to stare or she isn’t staring, you can say, “To me it looks as though you’re staring. You stop what you’re doing and look at me for a long time. PLEASE, don’t do that.”

Just be a broken record about the subject. You should acknowledge her apology if she makes one, and be courteous yourself at all times. “I didn’t think you intended to stare to the point of making me feel uncomfortable, so I’m not mad at you. I just don’t want you to do it again. PLEASE.”

If that doesn’t work, then you have a reason to go to the supervisor again–and that is the only person who can direct changed behavior. Or, if she takes it well, you may have to remind her a few times. But always do it in the spirit of wanting to have a good work environment.

Dr. Gorden talks about WEGO–the attitude and spirit that we can achieve more when we are not thinking from the view of our individual egos, but rather the whole workplace and the feelings of all. Hopefully, keeping that perspective will help you in this situation as well.

If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know the results! Best wishes!

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.