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The Monkey Trap and Communication Problems

By Robert F. Abbott

Have you heard the story of the monkey trap?

It's said to be true, and goes like this: In tropical countries, hunters used to capture monkeys with a simple but effective trap. They placed a banana or something sweet inside a basket, and anchored the basket to something solid. A hole in the top of the basket allowed a monkey to get its open hand inside and grab the food.

So far, so good, from the monkey's perspective. But, when it tried to pull out its hand, while holding the banana, it could not. As long as it held the banana, its closed fist was too wide to get back out.

At any time the monkey could drop the banana and easily pull out its hand. But, it would have to let go of the banana first, to make the hand narrow enough to slide back out.

You probably know what's coming next: the monkey never lets go of the banana and ends up captured.

We humans often get caught in monkey traps, too. For example, a couple of months ago I tried to get to a street not far from my home -- an area I know well. Yet, it wasn't where I expected it and I had to call to get directions. You can imagine my embarrassment. I certainly knew the street but had a different area stuck in my mind, which blinded me to the real location.

As communicators, we get into traps, too. Consider the assumptions we make about the people with whom we communicate. Assuming that others think the way we do is a common problem. Consider, too, the perspectives on problems or opportunities we embrace, and later can't shake.

For example, when publishing newsletters for organizations with many locations, I try to ensure that the mindsets of different locations, as well as that of head office, are taken into account. It's easier for me than the people who work in head office, of course, because I'm not part of that workplace culture; I just drop in every month or two.

The monkey trap also can plague us when trying to write something important. We're rolling along nicely, and suddenly get stuck on a word or a idea. No matter what we do, we're stuck; in fact, the harder we try the worse it gets.

To beat the monkey trap, we need a fresh perspective. On minor traps, like getting stuck on a word, a walk or short break often does the job. Simply putting the subject out of mind for a few minutes can be enough to escape

On the bigger traps, the challenge may be to recognize we've mentally painted ourselves into a corner. Once we recognize we're caught, we can escape in a number of ways. One of the best is another person's advice, especially from someone not connected to the issue. We can also read books that help us think laterally or creatively; brainstorm with colleagues; watch television (really); or go for a long walk (just don't grab any bananas in baskets while you're out).

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