Can You See the Triangles?

How many times in the last week has someone come to you with a comment or complaint about someone else? How have you responded? A key source of stress for leaders is the way we get caught in emotional triangles. Seeing these triangles as they occur is the best stress-management tool around. It also helps make sense of the sometimes-perplexing dynamics in organizational life.

What is a triangle? The triangle is eternal in all human relationships. Psychiatrist Murray Bowen observed that when the relationship between two people becomes troubled, they will pull in a third person, as a way toward stability. In family life, two squabbling children cry, “Mom!” An unhappy wife talks to her sister about her husband. A frustrated father complains to his tennis partner about his teenaged daughter. Anxiety goes down, and the relationship is stabilized, for the time being.

Triangles occur not only in families, but wherever people organize together. Here are few examples: In church life, the pastor makes a comment a key leader doesn’t like, and that leader complains to another leader. The music director chooses a piece the choir hates, and a choir member gripes to her husband. Or, in business, a manager drops by a colleague’s desk to process a conflict he just had with his administrative assistant. The one forming the triangle feels better. In the case of the choir member complaining to her husband, she has let off steam, and transferred some of her anxiety to her husband. But he probably feels worse. The greater his sense of responsibility for the relationship between the other two (for example, if he chairs the music committee), the worse he feels, and the more stressed he becomes. Similar triangles occur in every organization. Here are just a few: in a school system, superintendent-principal-teacher; in a business, owner-employee-customer; in politics, incumbent-challenger-voter.

We can’t stay out of these triangles. And in fact, triangles are not necessarily bad; they’re simply part of human experience. But how we manage ourselves within the triangles we encounter can make or break our leadership. We manage poorly when we function anxiously within them, when we feel responsible for the relationships of others, or when we take sides within triangles. We can, however, learn to conduct ourselves more effectively in triangles.

Here are some facts about how triangles work:

First, you can’t change the “other side” of a triangle. In other words, you can’t change a relationship you don’t belong to. If you are in a triangle with two other people, you cannot directly affect their relationship. Their relationship is up to them, not to you.

Secondly, if you try to change the other side of a triangle, the situation often gets worse. People resist, consciously or unconsciously, our willful attempts to change them. If two people are fighting the more you try to help them get along, the more they will be in conflict.

Thirdly, when you try to change someone else’s relationship, you carry the stress that belongs to the other two. Trying to do the impossible always creates stress. The other two may love it, because they will experience less stress: you’ve taken on what belongs to them. But there is also no potential for change.

Remember, you can only change a relationship you belong to. You can change that relationship because you are part of it. It’s not always easy to see triangles at work. But simply beginning to observe triangles and to make some different choices about how to relate to others in those triangles can help us all grow.

How Long Does it Take to Let Go?

My daughter graduates from college tomorrow. Launching kids is a great lesson in managing boundaries. Once there was almost no boundary between us. Soon she’ll be on her own. The last 22 years have been a process of little by little firming up that boundary.

When she went to college, a young adult in a Bible study group I was leading suggested I watch the movie “Finding Nemo.” “It’s about letting go,” he said. I watched the movie, and laughed, and felt a bit freer. It might be time for me to watch the movie again.

So my answer to the question, “Can you let go?” is, “sort of.” Or, “I’m working on it.” It’s good for both of us when I can.

What about you? Where in your life are you being called to let go? To respect someone’s natural boundary? To give them room to find their own way?

What about Church Governance?

Here’s an interesting blog post by Alban consultant Dan Hotchkiss on church governance. It raises the question for me, “What are the characteristics of a congregation which is able to make real changes in governance which can lead to real change in congregational life?” Like so many other matters, it’s not “about” governance. It’s easier for some congregations than it is for others to choose life and possibility.

What are your experiences with changes in governance and structure?

And Another Book, About Faith, Family and Society…

I spent much of yesterday reading yet another book (instead of doing all those other things on my list, including working on my own book…). It’s Crazy for God, by Frank Schaeffer, son of Christian apologists and leaders Francis and Edith Schaeffer. He’s a wonderful writer, and beautifully portrays the challenges and gifts of growing up in an intensely God-focused family.

Is it a good thing to be intense about your faith and ministry? What does that mean for family life, at least in this one family? What happens when a Christian leader gets famous? Because Schaeffer grew up mostly in Europe, he also has something of an outsider’s view of American society and Christianity which is valuable. And he’s experienced the reactivity of evangelicalism both as an insider and as someone who has moved away from the fold.

I found this book as much of a page-turner as a novel.

Have You Seen this Movie about Faith and Family?

I recently watched a fascinating documentary, Hiding and Seeking: Faith and Tolerance after the Holocaust, by Menachem Daum and Oren Rudavsky. Menachem Daum takes his sons to Poland to see where his own father came from and to find the Christian farmers who sheltered his father-in-law from the Nazis. I was riveted by the multigenerational dynamics, watching Daum caring for his father, and challenging his sons to open to those beyond their ultra-Orthodox world. In the brief interview with the filmmakers, cameraman Oren Rudavsky talks about the way the family knew him well and were used to the camera so felt free to be themselves as he filmed. Watching the encounter of the Daum family with the Polish family is also intriguing. Recommended.

What Are You Reading This Spring?

Have you read anything this spring? Spring and fall seem like the hardest times to get chunks of reading done. I’ve got a shorter list, too, but here’s the latest.

1. Oliver Twist, for my reading group (I never would have read it on my own). Even in this, his second book, Dickens is a terrific storyteller, his characters are unforgettable, and his social commentary (with a dash of sarcasm) fascinating. Not simply for junior English class.

2. Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation. I’ve been reading this book devotionally, about a paragraph at a time, for months. It’s rich, like spiritual chocolate.

3. Patsy Rodenburg, The Second Circle: How to Use Positive Energy for Success in Every Situation. I like the British title much better: simply, Presence. This is not just another self-help book. The author is a vocal coach for actors, one of the best. The book is really about paying attention to our presence with others and in the world.

4. Deer Drink the Moon: Poems of Oregon, edited by Liz Nakazawa. I met Liz at a publishing event recently. I’m not much of a poetry reader: I read too fast. So it’s a good discipline for me to slow down. I’ve been trying to read a poem every day or so. These poems cover the geography of Oregon, and they are wonderful.

5. The Girl of His Dreams, by Donna Leon. I’ve already mentioned before that her Venetian mysteries are fantastic, and this is the most recent.

Are You Breathing?

One of the best resources for church leaders is constantly available, and free. It’s your breath. Using breath consciously can help us slow down and pay better attention to ourselves and others. Our brains need oxygen to work well. In a difficult meeting or conversation we can find ourselves breathing rapidly and shallowly, which can keep us from thinking clearly, just when we need to most.

Here are some ways to use breathing to help your ministry:

1. In prayer. Sit still and breathe, in awareness of God’s presence, for five minutes. Or one.
2. In meetings. When you notice your heart pounding, start breathing more deeply. Take at least five breaths. No one will notice, but you will calm down.
3. Before worship. Stand in the worship space before anyone gets there, and breathe to the back of the room. You’ll be more present in the pulpit. (This exercise comes from the great vocal coach for actors, Patsy Rodenburg.)

How are you breathing?

Are You Too Focused?

How focused are you? Too much can be as problematic as too little, and widening our horizons can benefit our leadership. I recently led a clergy retreat in Hoquiam, Washington, on the Olympic Peninsula. Before I headed home, I asked how far we were from the ocean. “About fifteen minutes,” someone said. I am not one to meander home; typically I drive straight through with minimal breaks. But I thought to myself, it’s ridiculous to be this close to the beach and not go. I could feel the pull of the many things I had to do, but I made myself take the little trip. I didn’t spend all afternoon there, but I did find that even a short glimpse of waves and sand, and especially the long ocean horizon, gave me a much-needed sense of perspective.

Widening our perspective and taking a break are about more than stress relief. When we have some new experiences, we can begin to see our leadership context in a new light. And when our perspective is different, we lead differently, and others have the chance to respond to our wider view.

Here are some things that help me keep my focus from becoming too narrow:

1. Nature. In addition to the ocean, there’s a park near my house with old, tall trees. I lean against a tree, and it reminds me that it’s been around a lot longer than I have. My anxiety of the moment is just for a moment, not for a lifetime. I’m really an indoor person, but getting outside is a gift to myself and those I work with.

2. Art. Music, art and fiction feed my own creativity in writing, speaking and leading. I do better work when I keep my creative vision fresh by staying in touch with those who are creative in the arts.

3. Other leaders. In my own arena of church leadership, and in others, it’s easy to connect only with others in my field. I find when I connect, in person and by reading, with leaders in other fields, I discover the gifts of my own area, and that my struggles are not unique to the church. I’m challenged to learn some things I need to know. And I’m more gracious and less whiny when I stay in touch more widely. And beyond collegial relationships, making friends who are not clergy keeps me fresher and makes my life more interesting.

How’s your focus? What do you do to keep it broad enough? What might you try? Who might you connect with who brings a different perspective?