Leading With Empathy

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This story from “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” is one that has always stuck with me and reminds me of the importance of understanding someone else’s perspective and experience:

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.”

This short story gave me perspective as a principal and teacher.  I remember as I progressed in my career, moments of misbehavior from students affected me less emotionally because it often had little (if anything) to do with me, and everything to do with what was going on with the student at the time. I just learned to breathe and calm down and get to the heart of what was going on.  It wasn’t that I didn’t care about what my students were going through; I just realized that it was often not a reflection due to our interactions.  Something else was often going on.

The next time you struggle with a student, colleague, or someone in your personal life, remember this Covey story.  There is probably a more significant side to the story that you are not seeing.

Source: George Couros