Erik Van Alstine

Erik Van Alstine

Author. Leadership strategist. Expert in Perceptual IntelligenceTM.

Covey’s Subway Story and the Power of Perception

In his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen Covey tells a well-known story about an incident on a subway…

I was riding a subway on Sunday morning in New York. People were sitting quietly, reading papers, or resting with eyes closed. It was a peaceful scene. Then a man and his children entered the subway car. The man sat next to me and closed his eyes, apparently oblivious to his children, who were yelling, throwing things, even grabbing people’s papers.

I couldn’t believe he could be so insensitive. Eventually, with what I felt was unusual patience, I turned and said, “Sir, your children are disturbing people. I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little more?”

The man lifted his gaze as if he saw the situation for the first time. “Oh, you’re right,” he said softly, “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.”

Suddenly, I saw things differently. And because I saw 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 filled with compassion. “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.[i]

Here are the insights I draw from Covey’s story….

Insight #1: When perception changes, emotion and behaviors change automatically.

Covey’s story reveals what I describe in my recent book as the “See-Feel-Act Progression,” a simple way to show how perception and emotion and behavior work together. Here’s the progression:

Notice the “automatic influence” in this progression. The way we “see” automatically influences the way we “feel,” which in turn automatically influences the way we “act.”

Initially Covey sees the man on the subway as an irresponsible father. Covey, a father of nine, puts high value on family, fathering, and discipline. So his take is, This is extremely bad.

Covey’s perception automatically influences his emotions. He’s shocked and angry. It takes a lot of self-control for him to confront the man and stay calm.

Then the man describes how his wife had died just hours earlier. Covey’s perception changes. Instead of seeing the man as an irresponsible father, he now sees him as a grieving husband. This new view automatically influences new emotion and behavior. Instead of feeling anger, Covey feels compassion. Instead of acting to confront the situation, Covey now acts to listen and support. Here’s the See-Feel-Act progression with Covey’s two views, and the emotions and behaviors that automatically follow.


Insight #2: When we understand what perception is, we understand the source of our emotions and motivations and behavior.

Since there’s such power in perception, I make the case that we need to develop our “perceptual intelligence,” meaning, our understanding of what perception really is and how it works.

In this progression, perception isn’t just physical sensation. It’s a broader idea that draws meaning and implications from direct experience, memory, and imagination. It’s what we mean when we say, “I call it the way I see it. When we “see,” we instantly ask and answer two questions:

  1. What is happening? In this way we “characterize” reality. We tell ourselves what is real as we look at situations, ourselves, others, and life.
  2. How good or bad is it? Once we’ve made the snap judgment about what is happening, we “evaluate” it. We define it as good or bad, and the level of good and bad.

This graphic illustrates:

We’re constantly making snap judgments about what is happening and how good or bad it is. This is what it means to “see.”

Insight #3: The better we understand the progression, the quicker we can sort out our emotional and motivational lives.

When we understand how the See-Feel-Act progression works, and start to understand the nature of perception, we can start to work the levers to lead ourselves and others more effectively.

  • Am I trying to change attitudes and behaviors without changing the perceptions that automatically influence attitudes and behaviors? If so, I’m taking an ineffective approach to change.
  • Am I sure I’m seeing things right? Am I listening and observing long enough and carefully enough to get the right view? Are there more constructive ways to see things?
  • If I’m feeling angry and depressed, how might a new view change things? What am I seeing that is creating these emotions? How might I change my view and instantly change my emotions?

The goal here is perceptual intelligence – the knowledge of how perception works and how to work it. When we get better at seeing how we see, and changing how we see, the emotions and behaviors follow automatically.


[i] Adapted from Stephen R. Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (New York: Fireside, 1989), p. 30-31.

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