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Stop listening to the monkey

“They cannot take away our self-respect if we do not give it to them”


Someone explained to me one day that a manager must always imagine that the person storming into their office with a gripe has a monkey perched on their shoulder, representing the problem that they would like to see solved for them.

It is said that the art of management is simply based on ignoring the grunting sounds and gesticulations of that small primate. This is because if we bow the monkey’s demands, the manager takes on the role of trouble shooter, thus preventing the other person from learning how to take care of themselves. Moreover, the discussion remains high up in the emotional sphere and never comes down to earth.

The above story occurred to me after various episodes when colleagues shared their emotional reactions to a specific situation with me. As I was thinking about what was being discussed, I felt a monkey jump neatly on to my shoulder! So now, the question was how I could remedy their situation without taking ownership of their monkey.

The answer was asking myself these five questions, which provide a clearer understanding of what is going on.[1]

1. What is the situation?

Team members share their negative feelings about an idea, project or another activity for which I am the main person responsible, but do not come up with any solutions.

I feel hurt, and I’m disappointed that my brilliant ideas have bred this mood of discontent, so I try to explain the whys and wherefores. The atmosphere is tense, and my motivational levels are at rock bottom, as are those of the people opposite. What’s happening is that I have taken on their mood of dissatisfaction.

2. What is making me feel uncomfortable?

A few years back I attended a presentation on self-defence[i] in which we were taught to utter the following sentence when faced with a type of behaviour that made us feel uneasy: ‘When you …, I feel …, so I’d like you to …’ By memorising this template, I realised that what was destabilising me most in these heated exchanges was that the other person opposite stopped after the first two utterances. They did not bother to finish the idea. An example would be: “When you explain policy X to me, I feel uncomfortable.” Full stop.

3. How would I like things to be?

When the sentence is complete, I don’t feel any hostility and have a better sense of how the other person feels threatened. I don’t feel the obligation to take their moods into account. I feel that the other person is calm and intent on working to find a solution. So, to speak, their monkey is sitting calmly on their shoulder. I don’t feel obliged to reply or comment unless asked to by the other person. I am simply listening.

4. How would things happen ideally?

One fine morning, Josephine comes to see me. She says, “Michèle, I don’t feel comfortable with the way of working you suggested when we last met. I’ve thought over it and feel like a puppet on a string. I’d feel better if you’d let me choose between two or three different solutions rather than being told what to do. I understand you need to manage what is going on in the company, but I’d prefer if you gave me goals to aim for. For example, you could frame the policy as follows: ….”.

5. What can I do to ensure this ‘ideal outcome’ occurs?

That’s not easy. The solution is out of my hands. It’s up to the others to change. Hang on, that’s not the right way of thinking! Am I not trying to rid myself of my own monkey and pass it on to someone else? So, having discussed this issue with several people, here is what I can do:

First, I need to ignore the calls from the other person’s monkey. As I’ve learnt from Emmanuel Maire,[2] my previous mistake was one that is common to many project managers. I jumped in too soon, too hastily and with both feet first. My technique should be RPA: Reflection, Preparation, Action. Then, I should help the people opposite me to finish their sentence. I could therefore say: “What would you like me to do?” or “Based on which facts or attitudes are you saying that… ?”, or “What advice can you give me so I can do better next time?”

So, I’m doing what I can to turn the situation round, by being responsible and proactive.

Then, little by little, my attitude will influence other people, and I will be faced less often with the need to rebuff the calls of the monkey sitting on their shoulder. Indeed, when we start behaving differently, so do the people we are dealing with. In turn, our circle of influence[3] will become larger.

What about you? Do you have similar or different experiences? Don’t hesitate to leave a comment. I'll be happy to discuss the issue with you!

Artwork: Mélanie Bénard Tremblay, 2020, © Marakoudja.

[1] This five-step model was created by Hélène Nicole Richard, a lifestyle coach. It was inspired by Anthony Robins' Personal Power programme. Hélène Nicole can be contacted via her website,

[2] Emmanuel Maire provides coaching to organisations. He can be reached via his enterprise EMC Conseil. [3] Stephen Covey's "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People".

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