The Story Behind the Behaviour

Have you ever been in an interaction with someone or watched odd behaviours from a distance and thought to yourself, “What is wrong with that person?” We all have. It is an honest response to witnessing something that we do not understand. I recently watched Prince Harry and Oprah’s Apple TV show called The Me You Can’t See and for pop culture psychology I was impressed at its honest look at mental health. In the first episode, Harry proposed that when we question another person’s behaviour we should automatically ask ourselves, “What happened to them?” instead of our go question of what is wrong with them. This is such a simple reframe that allows us to evoke empathy and compassion for the experiences of others.

While it may be easier for us to conceptualize someone else as a jerk or terrible person, please consider that no one behaves in these ways without a reason for doing so. Individuals simply do not wake up and think, “I am going to be real mean to someone today,” or “Wouldn’t it be fun to have a meltdown in public for everyone to see.” Taking time to reflect on what another person may have been through, or even better asking someone their story, allows us to gain alternative perspectives on a situation. It also creates space for people to be seen who might not otherwise be, and possibly get the help they need. Anyone who has been through significant trauma may feel the need to control situations in order to feel safe. Those who have been holding in pain for a very long time may break and have an angry outburst with a stranger as a way of letting it all out. A friend who is struggling to keep it all together may be short with you or avoid you all together because they simply cannot handle pretending for another moment.

I am not suggesting that we blindly tolerate or accept negative behaviours from others but rather we consider why the behaviour exists without judgment prior to distancing ourselves from the human. Dr. Michelle Buck, a leadership expert, suggests that in conflict or tense situations the best thing, and arguably the most difficult thing we can do is to ask the person to tell us more and then really listen to what they have to say. We can use a combination of empathy and understanding for the other person and also let them know it is not okay for them to treat us or others in that way, using empathy first.

September is a time for beginnings and as we begin this next cycle of our lives, I encourage you to try the following exercise. The next time you feel compelled to question what is wrong with someone challenge yourself to come up with at least five reasons for the behaviour. You can include your first instinct, but then consider all other possibilities. For example, you see someone yelling at their kids in a public place. You can think they are not good at parenting. You can also consider the following: that person just lost their job and are worried about how to feed their kids, they are struggling with mental health, they tried every effective communication strategy they could that day, it did not work and you witnessed them in their worst moment, or they have no one else in their life to help support them and they really are doing the best that they can. Be the person who chooses to see the story behind the behaviour and not the simply the behaviour itself.

The content provided in this article is for information purposes only. It is not meant as a substitute for professional medical or psychological advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you find yourself in distress, please reach out to your local physician who can provide mental health resources in your community.