Monkey Puzzle - Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

Monkey Puzzle – Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

In case you have never heard of this book, I can highly recommend it. It’s an excellent read, well written, concise and colourful and especially entertaining if you’re about 5 years old! I have read this book countless times to my daughter and it never fails to impress. It basically goes like this:

A baby monkey is lost in the jungle is looking for his mum. He meets a friendly butterfly who tries to help him find his mum. The baby monkey gives the butterfly descriptions of his mum so she can help find her. In a typical child  like way the baby monkey says things like “she’s big, bigger than me” whereupon the butterfly takes the baby monkey to the elephant to see if that is his mum, and “she lives in the trees”, so is taken to the parrot. So, baby monkey not being terribly helpful with his descriptions and butterfly’s not really asking for any clarity…(remember this is a children’s book though!)

After being presented to a variety of creatures which are non Mummy the baby monkey says “butterfly butterfly can’t you see, none of these creatures looks like me”. At this point the penny drops for the helpful butterfly who replies with by saying that she couldn’t have know that was am important issue as s “None of my babies looks like me” (baby butterfly’s being caterpillars in case you missed that one). Eventually all is well and the baby and his mum and dad are reunited. Sorry – have I spoilt the story!?

Anyway, the reason I love this book is that it plays on total miscommunication of a message to make the story. Both speakers are looking at life from their own perspectives.

It’s not just characters in children’s stories that this happens to. Sometimes we are so focused on getting our own message across that we fail completely to think about it from the other person’s perspective. Empathy and  understanding of the person we are conversing with is a pretty crucial part of our communication, just as important as the content.

Obviously in our day to day conversations we don’t necessarily want to spend our time monitoring what we say, we don’t want to overthink the messages we put out every time we open our mouths. But, particularly in a context where we have a responsibility to be clear, to convey something of vital importance or of special value we need to stay on top of it. There is a certain kind of responsibility attached to ensuring that communications are received, and that information is not just fired out with the hope that is is understood loud and clear.

So what are the kind of things that will help to make sure our messages are not misunderstood?

Well, it is things like:

  • Paying attention to facial expressions, eye contact and body language as well as verbal responses to get a better idea of how our message is being taken.
  • Not assuming that the person or people we are talking to know what we are talking about – they probably do, but depending on what it is, there’s often room crossed wires.
  • Asking questions and checking in with people along the way to see how well what we are saying has been understood. Simply asking, if what you’ve said makes sense might do the trick.
  • Thinking about the context of the conversation. You may have been thinking about a particular topic for most of the morning, waiting to share your wisdom with someone. But if they have been deep in conversation with someone else about something entirely different, they won’t necessarily just ‘get it’ straight away.
  • Making some space for the person you are talking to, to interject and ask for clarity themselves. People don’t always hear, process and formulate an opinion, thought and response immediately, especially when the information given to them is new.
  • Stepping back and taking a bit more time to explain what we mean.
  • Choosing the right time. It’s sometimes hard to grab someone’s attention, find space to have that five minutes you’ve been promised. But if you don’t choose the right moment for that person (and not just for you) then there is a danger that it will go “in one ear and out the other” to quote one of my father’s favourite expressions. I know this to be true when I try to ask my daughter something when she’s watching TV. It won’t work.
  • Choosing the right size of information is also important. Too much may make people switch off, too little may not give enough information. Some people love to have the highlights, whereas others like to hear the whole story, although unless you know the person you are talking well enough this is hard to judge.

Drawing on those extra skills we all have, to make sure that the conversation has a smooth and pleasant ride, is just as important as the words and grammar we use. After all there’s not much point in having a whole conversation about something and realising that you’ve got to reset, restart and rephrase because we have been completely misunderstood. We don’t even always know that we’ve been misunderstood in the first place because we’re not paying attention to the person we are conversing with.

Of course it would be no fun in the book if the baby monkey has stopped to consider the butterfly’s response, and looked at it from her perspective – it would have made for a dull book! But since we are fully fledged and responsible grown ups, amusing misunderstandings and great anecdotes aside it does help if we keep an eye on other people’s perspectives to help with our own communication.


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