“Not my circus, not my monkeys” Polish Proverb
“You grab a mad dog by the ears when you butt into a quarrel that’s none of your business.” Proverbs Proverb (Message Bible)
My wife’s favourite saying these days is “not my monkeys!” and I love it.
People approach us full of negative energy from a recent conflict between themselves and another person and tell us their side of the story. For some strange reason we just have to listen to it! Whether at work, with your friends, or in your family we really like to get involved in other people’s problems.
I’ve been thinking about why we do it and I think it does a couple of things for us. Firstly it’s sort of nice to hear about other people’s problems. Their “circuses” seem quite simple to sort out when they bring us their complaints about someone else and everything is black and white to our brilliant minds when we have no skin in the game. We are the wise counsellor and they the offended victim.
More specifically we always believe the person in front of us with their side of things and, therefore, the other one involved in the conflict must be wrong! If only they would change their evil ways everyone could be happy! We stroke our ego with how wise we are and avoid going back to our own monkeys, where we don’t seem to be having much luck.
Secondly we like being taken into someone else’s “confidence” and find in it some weird sort of belonging. “They trusted us with private information! They must really like me!”
I know that sarcasm is terrible (so said a very sarcastic religious person in reprimanding me one time), but if we didn’t poke a little fun at ourselves it would be very difficult to actually change our ridiculous behaviour! I’m not talking about the mean cutting ways of some but the type of sarcasm my dad’s family was known for where lazy or hypocritical talk was met with a wry comment that made you immediately rethink the judgement you’d just made above your pay grade, so to speak. The one who picks up the tab has the right to say something, not the rest.
I was taught from an early age to mind my own business. Because I learned responsibility personally I was soon entrusted with more. By the time I was 15 I was running little crews of other boys at the job I worked at. Honestly, I just didn’t have time to be worried about making judgements about other people’s monkeys and certainly didn’t feel like listening to the sob stories of some who always seemed to think they were the victim of some horrible plot by everyone else in the world. I just figured if you didn’t like what you had no one else was going to change it for you, so pony up and do something about it!
In entering the politics of the business world I realized that what I had grown up with was very unusual. People would rant and rave about others to me all the time and try to get me on their side over “issues” that I wasn’t even sure were issues at all, let alone to the person who so insulted them! I never understood why they just didn’t walk up to the offending party and say “When you said that, what did you mean by it?”. I love shortcuts and figured there was a lot of energy being spent creating allies and having conversations with people too polite to tell you they had their own problems and had no desire to start dragging your resentment around with them.
Being hurt is just part of life. Conflict happens across tables of friendship and business. Taking offense is a decision and an action. We perceive an insult and actually decide to get offended. We love the negative energy from it and then we realize we’d better get our story to market first or people will side with them! Sadly they were our friends five minutes ago but now we’re certain they mean to destroy us so we hit the “Quick! Do something stupid!” button (Why do we even have that button?)
When we pick up third party offense our assumption is that “If (enough) people say something it must be true”. We also assume that it’s our business because it involves someone we know. That’s just stupid. So grab a mad dog by the ears and run home crying when it bites you! Much deeper is our addiction to thinking that everything is our business and we have the “RIGHT” to be offended whenever anything happens!
Someone told me once “If I’m angry I have the right to say something about it”. The trouble is she was trying to meddle in our marriage and had never been given the right by Erin or myself to consider herself our personal supreme marriage counsellor. We have people who have total access to our marriage but she would never be one of them and knew it. Also, while I’m ranting, if I ever gave myself the RIGHT to open my mouth every time I was angry about things that didn’t even concern me I wouldn’t have a wife at all, or kids who love me, or friends, or a job…
Closer to the truth is this statement: “If people say something, they want something”. Nobody is impartial. There is motive and an agenda behind everything you ever say and do. You may not understand what it is, but it’s there. Every fight, every verbal transaction, every FB post. If the motive is pure and they don’t want anything from you but for you, you’re good to go. But when you’re hearing someone’s side of the story about personal people conflict that doesn’t concern you they only want one thing: YOUR SUPPORT.
If I come to you to talk about her I want an ally, not the truth. You will become the “….and I’m not the only one who thinks this!” to the next person who hears my side of the story.
This next part is very important to understand…
There are three sides to every conflict. My side. Your side. And the truth.
Three parallel tracks that sometimes intersect but are not the same thing. If I’m coming to you then I’m trying to get you on my road and as many others as possible to prove that it’s the right one. No matter how RIGHT you are in a conflict, the real story lies closer to your new enemy than you think it does.
That’s why leaning in matters so very much and better training has everything to do with our success. Some of us are so insecure and fragile our default is to kill the relationship ourselves rather than risk rejection again, but that only hurts everyone involved.
“But what if my story doesn’t look so Right after they tell their story?”
It won’t. That’s why it’s important. I’m not always right and neither are you. Besides, you don’t even like people who think they’re never wrong..
The terrifying reality that requires so much courage is that sheer amount of strength it takes to patiently hear them out while your mind is reeling from the insult you’re sure happened (and may have) because you simply don’t want the relationship to be over yet.
But what normally happens is this:
We kick our chair back.
We turn bystanders into allies.
We walk out.
Three sides to every conflict. The shorter the time it takes us to do these things, the further our own story was from the real one.
Sorry for the sucker punch at the end.