I remember a mini-paradigm shift I experienced one Sunday morning on a subway in New York. People were sitting quietly— some reading newspapers, some lost in thought, some resting with their eyes closed. It was a calm, peaceful scene.
Then suddenly, a man and his children entered the subway car. The children were so loud and rambunctious that instantly the whole climate changed. The man sat down next to me and closed his eyes, apparently oblivious to the situation. The children were yelling back and forth, throwing things, even grabbing people’s papers. It was very disturbing.
And yet, the man sitting next to me did nothing.
It was difficult not to feel irritated. I could not believe that he could be so insensitive as to let his children run wild like that and do nothing about it, taking no responsibility at all. It was easy to see that everyone else on the subway felt irritated, too.
So finally, with what I felt was unusual patience and restraint, I turned to him and said, “Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little more?”
The man lifted his gaze as if to come to a consciousness of the situation for the first time and said softly, “Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.”
Can you imagine what I felt at that moment? My paradigm shifted. Suddenly I saw things differently, and because I saw differently, I thought differently, I felt differently, I behaved differently. My irritation vanished. I didn’t have to worry about controlling my attitude or my behavior; my heart was filled with the man’s pain. Feelings of sympathy and compassion flowed freely. “Your wife just died? Oh, I’m so sorry! Can you tell me about it? What can I do to help?”
Everything changed in an instant…
The above anecdote is borrowed from Stephen Covey’s best-seller: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
The anecdote is a highly touching one. You can clearly see why people often behave in a manner that appears totally irrational. But, when we get to understand their context better, we start seeing why they are behaving the way they are behaving.
Takeaway: People’s behavior is driven by their unique context. If you want to understand people better, then please understand their context better, before you form a mental model or paradigm about them!