Like many of you, I watched last week’s incident between Chris Rock and Will Smith at the Academy Awards ceremony with a mixture of fascination and disbelief. For those who somehow missed it, Rock, a world-renowned comedian, made a joke about Smith’s wife while preparing to present an award. Smith responded by walking on stage and striking Rock in the face with an open hand.

While most of the discussion and debate has been focused on who was in the wrong, I was far more interested in a few pieces of background information that were drowned out by the hysteria. As with many situations, there are complexities below the surface of the incident, including pertinent personal history for both men. This degree of context often helps us move from simple judgment to a deeper understanding of the situation, and better outcomes.

Last year, Smith released a massively popular memoir titled Will, where he spoke candidly about his life, including the challenges of his childhood. In particular, Smith shared how he personally witnessed his father regularly abusing Smith’s mother, emotionally and physically.

In a particular passage, Smith recounts a story of how, at nine years old, he watched his father punch his mother in the side of the head so forcefully that she collapsed. Smith noted, “As a child I’d always told myself that I would one day avenge my mother. That when I was big enough, when I was strong enough, when I was no longer a coward, I would slay him.”

That’s a pretty poignant revelation. And while that experience in no way excuses Smith’s actions, it is imaginable that someone who witnessed trauma and abuse as a child might respond disproportionately, and physically, to a perceived attack on a loved one.

Meanwhile, Rock has opened up in the past few years about being diagnosed with a nonverbal learning disorder (NVLD) and how that has affected his daily life. Rock has shared that he doesn’t naturally connect with people emotionally because he misses nonverbal cues, which are a major part of communication. This may help explain why Rock stood in a non-defensive posture, with his hands behind his back, as Smith approached him in an aggressive manner.

To go even a level deeper, Rock’s remarkably calm and cool reaction to being slapped in the face may be rooted in his personal history as well.

As a kid, Rock was bullied constantly, targeted for both his race and his small size. In one instance, when another kid embarrassed him in front of a group of girls at a party, he went home, put a brick in a backpack, returned to the party and swung it at the face of the kid who bullied him. The boy was critically injured; at one point, Rock feared he would not survive.

This incident left Rock permanently frightened of his anger and the harm it could cause. As a result, he vowed never to let his anger overcome him that way again; he was terrified for his rage to escape again.

It’s easy to believe that this experience factored into why Rock maintained his composure, did not respond physically to Smith and continued with his duties as a presenter after just a brief moment of pause.

Aspects of both men’s actions in the moment were likely deeply rooted in early childhood experiences. While the incident itself was shocking and unexpected, a connection between our past experiences and present behavior is quite common.

Over the past few years, I have helped over 1,000 people discover their personal core values through both my core values course and in-person leadership training. In speaking directly with many of those people, I have seen firsthand that our core values are often tied directly to formative childhood experiences. For example:

  • People who have a core value of trust often experienced a trust violation early in their lives.
  • People who prioritize relationships over everything often lacked strong emotional connections during their formative years.
  • People who value order and process often come from very structured households, such as military families.

It’s always easy to make judgments based on what we see on the surface. But while our pasts don’t completely dictate, or excuse, our behavior in the present, working to see these connections helps build understanding. I believe we learn far more from understanding than we do from judgment.

What is a closely-held experience that you think would help others better understand you? Have you shared it before?

Originally published on