Saturday, February 20, 2010


"Let us then pursue the things that make for peace and build up the common life." ~ Romans 14:19

(Note: I lied in my last post, saying that this would be the final installment in this series. Actually, I'm going to do one more. I know you can't wait!)

"Speak For Yourself, Part I: The Triangle Trap"

One of the good things about living in Alaska – which we did for about six years when our children were young – was receiving visits from friends and family who took our presence in the Last Frontier as an opportunity for the great Alaskan tour. On one of those occasions, when my sister’s family was visiting, we were belting ourselves into the van in preparation for heading up to Mt. McKinley when I became aware of a commotion in the back seat. My niece, Sarah, and her cousin, Beret (they were ten or eleven years old at the time), were having one of those predictable tussles about who got to sit by the window. I turned around and started to intervene, “Sarah you sit here and Beret, you sit…” when Sarah interrupted me, “You’re outta this, Uncle Dick!” I turned back around. Sarah was right. Allowing for appropriate adult constraints against violence or unfair behavior, it was advisable to let the two combatants settle it for themselves. I had been trying to initiate a triangle. And triangles are hardly ever helpful.

Here’s another scenario (this one is made up): You are a sales manager and as you arrive at work on Monday morning, a co-worker greets you by saying, "Mr. Jones (your boss) was really unhappy with your work on the Smith contract." You would undoubtedly feel anxious and unhappy. And imagine further that you hear nothing from Mr. Jones himself on the matter for the entire week. What would your attitude be during that week? How would you feel about coming to work each day? You'd most likely be somewhat miserable, apprehensive, and perhaps even angry. Why? Because you were caught in a triangle trap. Instead of hearing directly from Mr. Jones, you heard a third-party report from your co-worker. Beyond that, you're not even sure that what you've been told is accurate – you're not certain what Mr. Jones is really thinking. It may even be an innocent misunderstanding or baseless rumor. You don't know what – if anything – you should say to Mr. Jones.

Imagine, on the other hand, that Mr. Jones comes to your office on Monday morning and says, "I need to have a word with you about the Smith contract," and went on to describe one or two things he is dissatisfied with.  It's never any fun to be criticized by your boss, but at least in this situation you know exactly what he's thinking, you have an opportunity to clarify any misconceptions, and you have a chance – if necessary – to let him know how you feel. And when the uncomfortable Monday-morning session is behind you, you'll be more likely to breathe easier and see the rest of the week as a time of opportunity rather than dread. Mr. Jones has done you the favor of bringing the criticism to you directly. He hasn't involved you in a triangle.

Triangles (what Family Systems Theory calls "emotional triangles") all have the same shape, but they come in many variations. What they have in common is that they interfere with direct communication. Triangling is a way of avoiding "straight talk." The simple antidote to triangling, according to Edwin Friedman in Generation to Generation, is de-triangling: Finding one way or another to eliminate that third leg – the third person – and get two people involved directly. The simplest de-triangling response to an A-B-C triangle is for person A to report to person C what person B has said about them. For example, in the hypothetical office situation described above, the confused sales manager might go directly to Mr. Jones and ask to clarify the situation, reporting what has been said. (This, of course, assumes a basic level of mental and emotional health on the part of Mr. Jones.)

Here are two more common triangle traps (there are dozens):
1) “People are saying….” I serve in a context where this kind of statement is sometimes heard. After many years of experience, I can now assert authoritatively: 99.5% of the time the one who utters this comment is speaking for him/herself – and maybe one crony (and that is probably someone who nodded tentatively while the speaker was opining).  My de-triangling prescription is to say, “Lydia/Hank, unless you bring ten or twenty people with you here into my office, I won’t believe you.”

2) “Just wait till your father gets home” (and variations on that theme). In addition to signaling to junior that (in this case) mom doesn’t have any parental authority and that dad is the “boss” in an unequal family system, this comment has the effect of making dad a bad guy in the father-child relationship. De-triangling? Mom deals with it as it happens. Here’s one of those variations. I once caught myself saying (just once, thankfully), “Anna, mom wants you to practice the piano now.” (Message: If it wasn’t for mean old mom, what a good time you could be having!)

I’ve tried to think of a healthy triangle. The only one I can come up with is if Harry tells Bill what a great guy Ralph is. Otherwise, if you’re tempted triangle-ward, remember, “You’re outta this.” 

Next post: "Speak For Yourself II: You & I"

(For a general introduction to this series, see this post.)

No comments: