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.

5 Responses to Can You See the Triangles?

  1. Jason, We can never actually get out of the triangles we are in. I think of it as positioning ourselves in a different way. A less anxious way to be in those triangles is to take less responsibility for that other side. Managing ourselves so we don’t jump in so quickly is one important task. Saying “I don’t know” can be one way to try doing this. But even when we do that it’s important to work on our own anxiety so we can say it in a fairly light way.

    You might view this as an experiment. How quickly can you recognize the triangles–a week later? Thirty seconds after you’ve already jumped in? Before you jump?

    This process of learning to see triangles and manage ourselves in them is a lifetime’s endeavor.

  2. Jason Gamble says:

    Good systems thinking as usual, Margaret.

    Lately I’ve been reflecting on the classes I chose to take in seminary. Within certain parameters, I was able to follow my interests and define myself in several areas. I wound up with a concentration in Spirituality in my MDiv and I also did a separate internship in Spiritual Direction.

    In any given week at the little church where I serve a thousand things come my way that don’t seem to be covered by my MDiv: the preschool tenants, the toilets, which brand of midi to use on the new organ, ‘where are the bulletins?’. I frequently make the mistake of hopping into triangles that don’t interest me or for which I am not actually qualified to operate, in truth, confessing now, to deal with someone else’s anxiety. A Family Systems therapist told me I’m an ‘absorber’.

    I’m thinking I should walk around with my MDiv transcripts, merely the things I wanted to do as a Pastor, and look at it before answering any questions that come my way. If questions regarding carpet color or cake storage don’t seem to fall under a relevant syllabus, my best answer would probably be ‘I don’t know’. Does that get me out of the triangle?

  3. Both of you point out the way short-term triangles (a chaplain’s visit, a mediator’s intervention) can help people manage intensity in relationships. Even then, the person who is called in needs to be able to manage themselves to be most useful to people, never an easy task.

  4. Michael Roth says:

    Excellent insight Margaret! In conflict resolution, a triangle is viewed as an effective strategy in diffusing differences and opposing sides. As one thinks about it, one on one or mano y mano, is or can be very confrontational. When I was trained in conflict resolution, a prime directive was to dilute the confrontation between opposing viewpoints by introducing the mediator as a neutral third party and even implement such tactics as using a round table instead of a square or oblong table for parties to sit at. The Theosophical Society in America used to facilitate a meditation program based on triangles that seemed very effective and thorough in connecting people and programs for effectiveness and building energy and initiative. In some societies confrontation is not only not considered bad manners but a major faux pas. It is also interesting to note that not only Christianity, but most religions teach that a triune relationship comprises the components of the godhead.

  5. Paul Brassey says:

    Thanks for this reminder about triangles. In my work as a hospital chaplain, functioning as a temporary third leg of a triangle is almost exclusively what I do. Patients and families take advantage of the opportunity to vent various emotions to me, to complain about a family member or their medical care, or to question why God is allowing this to happen to them or their loved one. I’m sometimes tempted to offer advice, but this is almost never what the individual wants, even if s/he asks for advice. They simply want to speak freely and know that someone has heard them. Often a silent presence is what’s needed. Sometimes there are boundary issues, such as a family member’s attempt to pull the chaplain into one side of a family dispute or to maneuver the chaplain into solving a live-long personal problem for them. Because of the temporary, short-term nature of the relationship, it’s easier to detriangle from these situations than it is for the parish pastor or the business executive who has to interact with the same people over a period of years or decades. In my case this sort of long-term relationship management happens with colleagues or staff members. Thanks for the reminder.

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