You trap a monkey by taking a jar and staking it to the
ground. Then you take a piece of fruit that barely passes
through the mouth and put it into the jar. When a monkey reaches
in, the combination of the fruit and the monkey's paw
is too big to be pulled out.
As long as the monkey hangs onto
the fruit, it is trapped. When the hunter approaches, the
monkey usually refuses to release the prized fruit until it is
Ordinarily the 'monkey trap' is a parable about
desire and greed leading to destruction. We at Conflict
Communications use the idea of the monkey trap differently. It's
not greed, but rather neurological changes and behavioral loops
(we call them 'scripts') humans unconsciously fall into when
we're upset, emotional and in conflict. These are behavioral
patterns that kept our species alive for
millions of years.
The problem with these
scripts is they are not for your benefit.
They are designed for the survival and the benefit of the
group. They are not designed to 'fix' the problem. In fact, they
veer away from the actual problem and focus more on personal
feelings, social status and maintaining the social order and
rules of the group. All things that keep the group going.
But, before we go there, let's take another look at the monkey
From a logical, human perspective, all the monkey has to do is
let go of the fruit and it could escape. Also, again thinking in human
terms, we 'rationally' know that there is other food in the
But, to the monkey, getting that food is a matter
of survival. To the monkey's mind there is NO other food. To the
monkey's perspective, if it abandons the fruit, it dies.
This fear combined with not understanding the danger of a projectile weapon is
what leads to disaster. The monkey knows full well the danger
tigers, snakes and crocodiles pose, but those must be near to
injure the monkey. The monkey doesn't see the hunter getting into
attack range, so it still believes it's still safe. If the
hunter rushed up (like any other predator), the monkey would
know to let go in time to escape. The monkey's perceived danger
of starvation blinds it to the real one.
So what does this have to do with you and conflict? Everything.
We humans fall into our own emotional Monkey Traps. When we are
in our 'monkey brain' not only are we following neurological and emotionally scripted behaviors,
but we fail to recognize different kinds of dangers
building. And, like the monkey, the more things don't work out
'the way they're supposed to' the 'harder we tug on the fruit.'
We fail to recognize that we've trapped ourselves.
In short, what gets us into conflicts, what keeps us
there and why we can be blind when scripts turn dangerous.
Emotions, pride, anger, expectations and fear of loss of face
become the 'fruit' that we cannot let go.
While we like to believe we are in control of ourselves during
conflict, odds are we've become the monkey with our hand
in the jar. At Conflict Communications we'll will help you let
go of what is trapping you in primitive conflict scripts and
instead focus on fixing the problem.
Remember, both humans and monkeys are primates.
Social primates to be exact. We humans have bigger brains and
higher functions than monkeys. But what many people forget is
their bigger, better brains are built on the
foundation of the 'monkey brain.' And all of that is sitting on
top of the 'lizard brain.'
All it takes is a little emotion, a little adrenalin and
certain signals and we start 'heading downstairs' to these other
parts of our brains. And that's not necessarily a good
way to prevent, manage, de-escalate or resolve a conflict.
Conflict management doesn't work too well if you're swinging
from the ceiling fan yourself.
a side note, this model of three brains is for
ease of communication. These are simple explanations
of complex neurological designs and functions. Rather than getting caught up in
scientific details, we've rolled complex issues of neurology,
psychology, evolutionary psychology, physiology, adrenal
response, conscious and unconscious behavior, emotional
processing and zoology into easily understood models. Yes, the
science and psychology is there, but this 3 part model is easier
to understand. People can very easily associate the
different behaviors arising from these parts of the brain with
humans, monkeys and lizards.
More importantly, you can do this when someone is within
arm's reach of you screaming and threatening you with physical
violence. While that is an extreme, it doesn't take that much to
throw us into our monkey brain and these scripts.
Before you can prevent or de-escalate a conflict, the first
person you have to de-escalate is yourself. When you are in your
human brain you can stay calm, rational and mentally flexible in
a conflict situation.
The heart has arguments with
which the logic of the mind is not acquainted
-- Blaise Pascal
So let's look at these parts. While in conflict, an overwhelming
majority of our behaviors, emotions and perceptions are arising
from the non-rational and emotional parts of our brains. It's
technically called the limbic system, but we call it -- and the
emotions and behaviors -- that arise from it, the 'monkey
What confuses many people about this idea is just because
non-rational parts of the brain are active, doesn't mean we lose
the ability to talk. Worse, is because it's going on inside of
our heads people think they are thinking. While
technically speaking we are still processing information,
that isn't the same thing as 'rational' thought.
And to really mess things up, not only are different parts of
our brains active during conflict, but our nervous systems are
awash with chemicals and adrenaline. Putting that in simple
terms, not only is the 'monkey driving the bus,' but that
monkey's stoned too.
When you start thinking about some of the more unreasonable
arguments and fights you've ever found yourself in, it's pretty
easy to paint that picture. You weren't arguing with a human
anymore. You were in conflict with a stoned, angry monkey; a
monkey who could talk. And not only that, but a freaking out
monkey who looked like the person you were arguing with.
Here's the problem, that's what the other monkey was seeing too.
That's because we are designed to react to the emotions of
others. In fact, you could say that emotions are contagious.
It's another survival tool. Both of you had been not only sucked
into a different part of your brain, but once there, you'd both
fallen into patterns of behavior that have kept our species
alive for so long. When we're in these emotional and behavioral
loops (we call them scripts), then we have become the monkeys
holding the fruit.
Worse is these behaviors aren't for your
You may think you're being rational, but it's you vs.
millions of years of nature. There's more to that fight than
just telling yourself that you're being reasonable ...
And that monkey with his fist in the jar
When the emphasis changes from
fixing the problem to 'winning,' the
monkey is driving the bus.
What most people don't understand is how their monkey
brain is influencing their behavior. In fact, with a lot of
human behavior, while we think we're being rational and
reasonable, the monkey is 'driving the bus.'
Given certain circumstances
and conditions, we ALL drop into our monkey brains. It
doesn't take much before we become the monkey holding onto the
When we are in this state of mind, we become
emotional and mentally myopic to other choices. We can no more
see other options than the monkey can simply let go of the
Recent experiments involving MRIs,
brain scans, politics and hot button questions demonstrates
this. Opposing ideological groups were engaging in the
exact same behavioral patterns. They showed the same biases,
inconsistencies and engaged in the exact same behavior they
claimed to despise from the 'other' side. During this test, the
'logical' parts of their brains showed little to no activity.
When asked, all the participants
insisted they were being rational and logical -- except the MRI
emotional, non-logical parts of their brains were firing like
We can also bring this down to a personal level: Have you
ever told someone to be calm and rational and their response was
"I AM BEING CALM!"? Have you ever done that yourself? Have you
ever found yourself emotionally reacting to something only to
discover later that wasn't what was happening at all? Have
you ever seen two people get into a screaming fight over a small
comment? These are examples of someone believing they're being
rational when non-rational parts of the brain are dictating
Most arguments and fights result from monkey brain issues --
even though they start out over something else. Realize he
monkey's 'agenda' is different than the human parts of your
brain. Things like pride, social status, territory, fear and
protecting your emotions are monkey brain priorities. When we
perceive these to be threatened, the monkey brain swings into
action. We might tell ourselves that we're still arguing over
the matter at hand, but we've fallen into these primate conflict
behavioral patterns. Unfortunately, so too has the other person.
Being as we're social primates we are designed to
react to other people's emotions and non-verbal cues. In fact,
you could say that emotions are contagious. Worse, we can infect
each other faster than conscious thought. When we perceive
certain cues, our default programming is to drop into our monkey
brain. Now instead of one person engaging in emotional,
non-rational and conflict behavior, you have two. This is what
we at Conflict Communications call a 'monkey dance.'
In a very
real sense you have two people who have fallen into a monkey
trap. The issue is no longer about conflict resolution, but
getting the fruit. The fruit the monkey feels is critical for
its survival. From deep within the monkey brain
The first person you
have to de-escalate is yourself