Sunday 26 February 2017

The Monkey Puzzle: Difficult People Explained

Do you struggle with difficult people? The ones that get things so hopelessly wrong it is almost as if they are actually trying to wind you up or ridicule you? What makes someone else completely unable or unwilling to get the most simple things?

I have recently discovered a brilliantly insightful children's book called Monkey Puzzle, written by Julia Donaldson. In the book, a lost baby monkey is looking for his mum. A friendly butterfly attempts to help reunite the baby monkey. At each step, the monkey gives an adjective to describe his mum and the butterfly makes seemingly absurd suggestions, much to the monkey's annoyance. At first, the monkey says "bigger than me" and the butterfly takes him to an elephant. Next, the monkey says his mum's "tail coils around trees" and the butterfly thinks his mum is a snake!

At the end of the story, the baby monkey get very upset when the butterfly suggests the elephant is his mum for a second time. In anger, he says that "none of these creatures look like me". The butterfly says that the baby monkey never said that it's parents look like it and are also monkeys. The baby monkey is confused since to him, that was assumed and didn't need to be said. However, the butterfly explains that his young are caterpillars and look nothing like the parent butterflies.

During the search, the baby monkey got increasingly frustrated by the ludicrous suggestions from the butterfly. The monkey was viewing the butterfly as being difficult. The butterfly however was able to stay calm and finally hear the key to finding monkey's mum. On encountering the rest of the monkey family the butterfly could easily have got angry that the baby had withheld the most crucial piece of information. Instead, he neutrally explained that the monkey and butterfly come from different species and have different reproductive processes. Throughout, the butterfly remained curious and in the end revealed that during the story both sides had been innocently playing out the separate realities that they both lived in. The thoughts that occurred to the monkey were not the same as the thoughts of the butterfly. They were in different worlds until the 'looking alike' bridge connected them. At this point, they were able to work together effectively.

So, this is a cute kids story about talking animals. How does this help you and me to cope, understand and most importantly be unaffected by difficult people? The lesson from the story is that different individuals have different ideas about what is obvious. It seems annoying when people state the obvious. Just as bad when they ask obvious questions. However, in truth it allows for greater human connection. If I share something with you that you already know, it is not a bad thing. If you ask me something that I expect you to know, providing you with the answer is just ensuring we are both on the same page. If someone is not getting you and you think they are being difficult, what would happen if you assumed they were innocently just experiencing a different version of the world. Get curious about them. While explaining things that are obvious to you, the other person will sense your genuineness and not take offence. Ask them some open questions to find out how they see things. What is the worst that can happen? On the contrary, you will be surprised by what you learn.

Let me leave you with this: When you think someone is being 'difficult' change yourself by assuming they are innocent. This will make it natural and fun to get curious about what is different to them. Finally, do not assume anything is also obvious to them. We all have different obviouses.

Thursday 2 February 2017

Are you having a Groundhog Day?

Today is Groundhog Day. How many of us have had the repetitive experience of Phil Connors (Bill Murray) in the classic film Groundhog Day?

For those unfamiliar with the film, allow me to give a summary. Otherwise feel free to skip this paragraph. In the film, Phil wakes up each day to the same day, 2 February also known as Groundhog Day. The same song on the radio, the same people, the same events. He's stuck in a cycle. He reacts angrily and becomes hedonistic, especially when he realises there are no consequences to his actions. He descends to the point where he kidnaps Punxsutawney Phil (the groundhog) and kills them both but still wakes up to the same day. Suddenly, Phil has a shift and starts along another approach. Instead of fighting his experience, he embraces the opportunities and uses them to learn new skills, to correct wrongs and make the town a better place.

What happened to cynical and self-centered Phil Connors? You'd find it hard to argue that his circumstances changed, after all, the whole premise of the film is that everything external is constant. I was recently discussing the effect of conditioning from repeated exposure to the same events. We see something like this with the increase of Phil's violence and anger over time. Each day he gets more and more frustrated with what he cannot change. This fails to explain the sudden change that Phil undergoes. If this was getting used to being stuck, I'd expect a gradual change.

So how would I explain the fact that Phil one day saw a homeless guy needlessly die and changes his whole focus to taking the steps needed to save him? He let go of previous thoughts and became able to have a new thought. The plight of the homeless guys was always there yet now Phil was more present and was open to seeing him. Throughout the film, Phil's mind is the only things that he can control. His state of mind fluctuates and his thoughts vary.

So back to real life and my original question. In my own life, I sometimes have Groundhog days. I'm woken up at the same time, by the same radio station on my radio alarm clock. (Perhaps radio alarms clocks are a bad thing!) Whilst it is not the same exact song, the theme and presenters narrative is familiar. I face the same internal struggle to get myself ready in time to get to work. I go to the same job, doing the same work, with the same people. Even outside of work, it's the same routine, same friends and social activities. It's all repetition. Even when I try to make the most of my surroundings, either constructively or destructively, little appears to change.

How do I break the cycle? It all starts with a change in Thought. The situation does not have to change for my experience to change. Worse still, the circumstances can be different but my experience of life no different. It is only my thoughts and consciousness that determine how I perceive the world around me. When I am in a lower state of mind, the world seems like a battle to overcome and everything is stale. However in higher states life is full of opportunities and I am entertained by the details, whether they are fresh or repeated. Who doesn't enjoy when they hear their favourite classic song on the radio?

So, when I recognise that it is me that can change, things seem different. Being in a Groundhog Day is less important or relevant.