“Seek first to understand, then to be understood”  Steven Covey The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

There are always going to be times when we encounter that person who just doesn’t behave in the way we expect and our response can range from irritation and annoyance to frustration and even anger. How do we deal with this?

There’s always one…

I regularly attend a local gym, and when you go often enough, you get to recognise familiar faces, their training habits and routines. The culture is great, it is relaxed and friendly, people use the equipment appropriately and give each other space when using weight machines and doing floor work. 

There is one area that is reserved for pushing a piece of equipment called a sled. The carpet on the floor is a different colour to indicate the track where the sled is pushed up and back. Other carpeted areas in a different colour nearby are used for floor exercises with mats provided for the purpose. Most people use this area for floor work.

There’s always one person always uses the area reserved for the sled for floor exercises. She gets in people’s way, seemingly oblivious to the fact that people want to use the sled. Many people get frustrated with her, rolling their eyes, shaking their heads and complaining to the staff. And yet, despite this, she continues to do push ups and stretches on the sled area. I’ll admit, I would often feel quite frustrated myself, thinking that she was selfish and rude. 

All behaviour satisfies a need

I started noticing she did floor exercises on the same part of the sled area, and this was a regular pattern of behaviour. Understanding that all behaviour satisfies a need, I knew there had to be a reason for her exercising in that one spot, but I didn’t know what it was. I wondered if it had to with the colour of the carpet, or concerns about hygiene. Finally one day when I went to use the sled and she was there on the floor in front of it, I decided I needed to say something. 

I sought first to understand. I asked her: “I notice you like to do your floor work on the coloured carpet. I wondered if there was a reason for that. Are you worried about the cleanliness in the other areas?” She explained that she was concerned about what she might be breathing in from the carpet in the area where most people walked.  She liked to work on the sled area to the side because that was an area where people didn’t walk. 

Now I understood. She wasn’t selfish and rude, her health was important to her, and she behaved out of her need to feel safe. All behaviour happens for a reason. The most common reason for seemingly inappropriate behaviour comes from a need to feel safe.

Behaviour comes from a need to feel safe

I was walking my dog in a park one day and let her off the leash to play with other dogs who were also there. My dog is a large, friendly, goofy thing who loves to be sociable. Some distance away was a family with a child in a pram, and off my dog lolloped to say hello before I could catch her. Most people are delighted to meet my dog, especially children, but not in this case. The mother yelled at me: “You need to have that dog on a leash!” I apologised profusely and collected my dog, put the lead on and headed off. The mother wasn’t satisfied and continued to yell at me after I apologised a second time and walked away.

I felt hurt. I meant no harm, I had apologised and this woman wouldn’t accept my apology and kept on yelling. I’ll admit I really struggled to try to understand the reason for her reaction, and it took me almost a whole day to come to terms with it. The mother or her child may have had bad experiences with dogs in the past, and if a large strange dog came bounding over to her child, she would have sensed a threat and automatically reacted angrily, because anger and aggression are responses to fear.

Anger and aggression are responses to fear.

It is difficult to view behaviour that is unexpectedly inappropriate or aggressive as an expression of fear, particularly when we feel it is directed towards us. It is not easy to seek first to understand, especially when we feel attacked and our senses tell us to automatically react defensively. It is hard to seek first to understand, but it is well worth the effort. 

It is hard to say to a child “I can see you’re upset, what’s worrying you? ” while they are yelling and screaming at you. It is hard to understand that the student yelling abuse at the teacher is afraid of looking foolish in front of their peers because they can’t read or don’t understand the work. It is equally hard to understand the teacher who is yelling back or imposing a punishment because of their fear of appearing to lose control of the class. 

It is surprising how much challenging behaviour is based on fear. If we seek first to understand the other person’s perspective, we have the opportunity to meet them halfway and restore peace. We may not know the reasons for a person’s behaviour, we may not even agree with it. But we can accept there is a reason for the behaviour. Seek first to understand that reason, and we have taken the first step towards achieving a better outcome for all.