What kind of monkey are you dealing with?

Peter English suggests that a good way of improving your personal relationships is to remember that we are all basically primates. Are your colleagues chimps or bonobos?

Many of our day-to-day behaviours have been hard-wired into us over thousands of years of evolution. Our ancestors survived by being excellent threat-detectors (it was important to decide quickly whether an animal or situation was safe) which often meant keeping on good terms with the leader of the pack – according to the evolutionary psychologists, being friendly with the alpha male or female enhanced your survival prospects.

So, we've evolved to be vigilant and aware of power relationships. Apparently when we meet someone, the first thing we unconsciously assess is their level of status – do I need to be wary of this person? Do I need to keep on the right side of them?

And other primates are sniffing you, picking up cues as to how powerful you are, how much respect they need to give you.

If you want to master this game, it helps to know what kind of monkey you are dealing with. Let's consider the Chimpanzee and the Bonobo.

In the wild, chimpanzees are very territorial, competitive and (particularly when threatened), ferociously aggressive. There is a strict hierarchy with a male chimp at the top.

In your organisation, you know you're dealing with a chimp when:

• You feel like they are trying to dominate (often using their tone of voice and body language), and they are inclined to displays of power and status

• The conversations often have an argumentative tone – there's a win/lose feel to the interaction

• Their focus is on the task in hand, with little or no attention paid to pleasantries.

Bonobos are very different. They are much more relaxed about their territory. Rather than seeking to dominate, they engage in 'affable social networking'. Bonobos are much less hierarchical than chimps, and tend to form matriarchal groups.


You know you're dealing with a bonobo because:

• Their body language is responsive and affirming – lots of smiling and nodding

• The conversation is friendly, and relaxed

• You get the impression that their primary focus is 'mutual stroking', with the task being secondary.

If you tend to be a Chimp and you're dealing with a Chimp, then it's normally pretty straightforward – you 'get' each other. Similarly, Bonobos recognise one another and can rely on their preferred way of working.

But if you're a Chimp and you have to work with a Bonobo (or vice versa) then you need to adapt your approach.

How a Chimp Views a Bonobo

The Chimp misinterprets the Bonobo's friendliness as weakness.

How a Bonobo Views a Chimp


The Bonobo misinterprets the Chimp's strongly task-focused approach as an attempt to dominate and bully.

Whether you're a Bonobo or a Chimp, if you are facing a difficult conversation and you want to avoid being misread here are three tips to help you handle the situation:

Tip 1: Pay Careful attention to etiquette
Small things matter. If you are a Chimp, be very polite and solicitous (Bonobos place great emphasis on courtesy). If you are a Bonobo, show respect for the other person and their environment but without demeaning yourself (Chimps get very agitated if their physical, organisational or psychological territory is threatened).

Tip 2: Use 'safe phrases'
The following phrases press the right buttons whether you are dealing with a Chimp or a Bonobo (they convey the message 'we are in the same troop'):

'We can handle this.'
'We'll sort this.'
'We'll get through this.'

Tip 3: Get a grip on your inner primate
Recognise that we all tend to act instinctively most of the time, and that this includes becoming defensive when we feel threatened (e.g. in a difficult conversation). If you have the chance, clarify in your mind before the encounter:
• How you want to behave
• What you are going to say
• How you will respond if the other party behaves in a certain way.

About the Author
Peter English is an independent consultant specialising in leadership development and personal effectiveness. Peter can be contacted via his website www.peterenglish.co.uk or pete@peterenglish.co.uk.

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