Triangles at Work


‘I’m grateful for a theory that gives me a road map for tackling the inevitable triangling process at work. I’m reminded that when a negative report comes via a third party it’s likely to be exaggerated by the listener. Hearing things directly from another creates a clearer space in the relationship. It’s less likely that anxious negativity gets cultivated.’

In a recent meeting to review our training program, a remark was casually made that a team member (not in the meeting) was unhappy about a decision I had made.  Immediately I recognised a triangling process – when a problem between two people is detoured to, or through, a third person.  A genuine, concerned third party was conveying a message on behalf of another. It happens so naturally when there is some level of unease in relationships. The issue doesn’t get expressed between the two people with whom it belongs but gets conveyed via another who is instinctively acting as a mediator. It’s easier to express concerns indirectly and in turn to calm down if we sense that the third party shares our view. Hence Bowen proposed that the triangle is the most comfortable relationship (not to be confused as healthy), with the inevitable differences between two people making it inherently uncomfortable.

I responded to the detoured message with a tweak of frustration. Why hadn’t this person come to me directly? I expressed my concern about needing to work out how to deal with this triangle information to the 2 people in the meeting. They each suggested that I ignore the comment as if it had not been spoken— a withdrawal of the remark.  The problem with this is that once the concern is expressed, it is in the system of relationships and will consequently affect the way I relate to this absent person.  When we next connect, it’s likely to be a little edgy, with me perceiving a tension attached to the complaint that wasn’t expressed directly to me. Even if nothing is said, the impact of the detoured message will create some instability in the relationship – silence does not fool a relationship. The other person will sense that something has shifted and will not know why. They in turn will add their own reactive interpretation to this.

I determined that the best way to de-triangle was to let this colleague know how I’d heard about the upset regarding allocation of some training work. This is a way of putting whatever the issue might be, back into the relationship in which it belongs. I reflected that I had not been making sufficient effort to be in contact with this colleague. Our busy schedules meant that we were rarely in the office on the same days. I needed to address my part in increasing the likelihood of triangled communication by making better contact. As soon as possible I arranged a time to catch up over lunch. Over our casual catch up I made every effort to share updates about each of our lives; to hear about her recent travels to visit family and to share some of the non-work related things I had been up to. I know how important it is NOT to attempt to bridge distance by raising a potentially stressful issue.  A relationship needs to be sufficiently relaxed to be able to tackle points of difference. After our conversation moved to chatting about various professional endeavours, I mentioned how I had heard about her concern about the training related matter. She conveyed that while she had initially been taken aback by the information, she was comfortable with the situation when she heard more details.  Any tension between us that could have festered was simply cleared up in this exchange. Whether or not my colleague was reporting the situation factually is not the issue. The whole point of the effort is to ensure a more open, person to person relationship.

I left the lunch grateful for a theory that gives me a road map for tackling the inevitable triangling process at work. I was also reminded that when a negative report comes via a third party it is likely to be exaggerated in the listener’s psychology (in this case my own). Hearing things directly from another creates a clearer space in the relationship. It’s less likely that anxious negativity gets cultivated. As a leader I’m reminded once again of the importance of remaining in good enough contact with the people I work with. – Contact that is calm, not intensely self-disclosing and that best facilitates others being able to focus on their job duties. While distance is an issue, so too is intense monitoring that will just as surely trigger anxious relationship patterns such as triangle detours that can spread quickly through other triangles. I don’t always get this right but I do have a way of recognising the effect of triangles and in turn having the option to address my part. My goal is to relate in an open way to those I work with and to put detoured issues back where they belong.  A quote from a talk by Dr Michael Kerr has stuck with me: that differentiation of self/ maturity is having the capacity to keep a problem in the relationship from which it is trying to escape.

Questions for Reflection:

  • Can I recognise when information is being conveyed through a third party?
  • Do I notice when I feel compelled to share something about another to a third party?
  • When I hear a third party’s complaint about another how can I do my bit to get it back into the relevant relationship?
  • Is my distance from a person I work with increasing the likelihood of triangle communication?
  • What was my predictable triangle position in my family growing up? Was I quick to jump in and listen to the detoured concerns of a parent/family member? Was I a ‘distancer’ who made it hard for a parent to talk directly with me? Was I a mediator who was often overly sensitive to disharmony between parents or siblings? Was I a reactor who deflected receiving direct feedback from a parent?
  • What ways can I work at connecting with others without needing to discuss absent third parties?

Key quotes from Bowen

‘A “differentiated self” is one who can maintain emotional objectivity while in the midst of an [anxious] emotional system, yet at the same time actively relate to key people in the system. …Gossip is one of the principle mechanisms for “triangling” another into an emotional field between two people…..’ FTCP p 485

‘A two person relationship is unstable in that it forms itself into a three-person relationship under stress. A system larger than three persons becomes a series of interlocking triangles….As tension mounts in a two person system, it is usual for one to be more uncomfortable than the other and for the uncomfortable one to “triangle in” a third person by telling the second person a story about the triangle one. This relives the tension between the first two and shifts the tension between the second and third. ‘FTCP p 478

‘When there is finally one who can control his/her emotional responsiveness and not take sides with either of the other two, and stay constantly in contact with the other two, the emotional intensity within the twosome will decrease and both will move to a higher level of differentiation (maturity)’ FTCP p 480

‘Triangles at Work’Jenny Brown


Getting to Know You

Continuing to grow in knowledge of the familiar otherIMG_1281

…when a person never has a posture of curiosity towards another about certain issues there is a shutting down of dynamic conversation and growth in the relationship.

It’s hard for me to fathom but I’ve been married for almost 35 years. Having shared my adult life with my husband David it’s easy to assume that there’s little we don’t know about each other. We have traversed so much common life ground I can easily become a bit blasé about getting to know him better. Indeed I’m confident I know him better than any other human being.

This week I’m spending a precious week away with David and it’s interesting to reflect on what takes up our conversation with all this extra time together. With so much familiarity, will there be anything new to share?

One thing David has always seemed to love is listening to music – especially jazz and folk.  He’d prefer it any day to watching TV, which has been a point of difference between us at times. He relishes the opportunity Spotify gives him to try new albums and has determined already this week that he’ll be purchasing the new James Taylor and Tommy Emmanuel CDs. Over lunch today I asked him when he first remembers having this appetite for listening to music. After all these years I had never thought to ask this question. What I learned is that in his first year of high school (junior high for the Americans), he joined a record club recommended by fellow students. I wonder if any of you remember those mail out record clubs offering amazing bargains. In response to more of my questions I learned that he commenced listening to the likes of Uriah Heap, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath in the boarder’s common room. I wondered how he managed to afford this and learned that his pocket money didn’t go far enough for him to continue after the first year (an early lesson in economics); however this predilection for relaxing to music had been firmly established. I must say I’m pleased his tastes have evolved since those early days!

This is one example amongst many of ongoing ways to keep getting to know another and to not fall into a type of detached over- familiarity. I’ve appreciated the shared conversations about viewpoints on current affairs. What is David’s unique vantage point on matters of business, politics, theology, sport…..? In earlier times my immaturity meant I could be over- attached to my viewpoints on some of these areas. This would mean that I was closed off from being interested to learn from others – including my husband. I’ve come to see how this closes down a relationship system – when a person never has a posture of curiosity towards another about certain issues there is a shutting down of dynamic conversation and growth in the relationship. This can happen so easily in a marriage – including a shutting down of interest in the other’s perspective about important shared issues such as finances and parenting. I reflect that David and I have often had differences of opinion on politics; and as I make some progress towards more maturity I have shifted from debating such differences (which can result in shutting him down) to seeking to learn from his distinct perspective. This helps move us from fusion to a notch more differentiation – distinct individuals who are simultaneously connected.

Every stage of life presents a new opportunity to get to know a spouse (or any family member). What are their thoughts about this stage of life? About future retirement?  About what’s important to them in our marriage at this time?  About later life issues?  About responding to aging parents? About relating to adult children? About dreams for the future – including outrageous ones? And of course an equal reciprocal exchange of sharing and learning opens up. This builds layer upon layer of intimacy as new knowledge of the other in their evolving life circumstances deepens.

Dr Murray Bowen observed that the less mature relationships tend to close up the exploration of new information – particularly if it was perceived as a threat to harmony. As people become more anxiously fixed in their perspectives they tend to shut down an interest in other’s vantage points. A focus ON the other – often in the form of blaming – rather than an interest IN the other can emerge. As criticism, or more subtle dismissiveness, emerges spouses can live increasingly parallel lives with a focus on others (children or work) and little openness to what their mate has to contribute to their growth and learning. A path to maturity in a relationship is the effort to open up an exchange of information.

For myself on my week’s holday I don’t plan to have a constant exchange of questions and conversation. Of course there’s time for precious quiet and time to do our own thing. For me to plan a how to cook up the local market produce; and David to aim for increased kilometres on his morning runs.  It is however a brilliant opportunity to cultivate curiosity about each other. And as I write I’m hearing some ‘interesting’ new background music playing. What is this music I ask? I’m informed it’s an artist called Morrissey and the song is a pretty obscure title: ‘Suedehead’?….never heard of it! There is always something to discover that I would never stumble upon if left to my solo efforts.


Questions for reflection

  • How open am I in important relationships to hearing the other’s vantage point and perspective?
  • If I’ve shut down this communication what have I replaced it with? Distance? Triangling by talking about others rather than person to person conversation?
  • Are there issues that I hold too much reactive certainty? How does this prevent me being open to learning about what goes into different standpoints?
  • Has a focus on third parties- children, friends, work assignments- replaced the effort to get to know my spouse?
  • If distance has crept in, what are some non- intense ways I can open up curiosity again in this relationship?

Bowen Theory relevant quotes

“ In broad terms, a person to person relationship is one in which two people can relate personally to each other about each other, without talking about others (triangling), and without talking about impersonal things.” Bowen, FTCP, p 340.

“If you can get a person to person relationship with each living person in your extended family, it will help you ‘grow up’ more than anything else you can do in life.”  Bowen, FTCP, p.540.

“Relationships that can be open and productive when calm become tense and non-productive when anxiety rises. Anxious partners display a range of reactive behaviours. They become more argumentative, less thoughtful, more critical and judgmental, more distant from one another and less able to maintain the complex behaviours of self-regulation that mark effective functioning in relationships.” From Dan Papero- Assisting the Two Person System, ANZJFT, 2014.

Getting to Know You – Continuing to grow in knowledge of the familiar other – Jenny Brown