Getting caught in becoming a third party detour is a central pitfall of any helping relationship (professional, family, friendships, congregations, work). Any struggling person will feel better when they find an empathic listening ear to their problems within another relationship.
Daniel is a committed helping professional in adolescent mental health services. He engages with young people well and is skilled at drawing them out to discuss the issues that are troubling them. One of the most common complaints he hears from his young clients is that parents or step parents just don’t understand them. They are too pushy and always on their back. They expect too much, they are disapproving of friends, they don’t convey trust, they set impossible limits, and they are intrusive. In hearing about the negatives of the adolescents’ adult carers Daniel would invite his clients to talk in more detail about the effects of these experiences of their parents. He asked about what they needed to feel better supported and conveyed that he appreciated what they were up against. He affirmed their strengths and sought to build their self-esteem as well as suggesting techniques for reducing negative thoughts and anxiety symptoms.
The problems arose for Daniel when he invited parents to counselling sessions. Having already conveyed assent for the young person’s criticisms of the parent he found that he was immediately biased towards parent blame. He worked to convey warmth towards the parent in order to engage them in exploring their relationship with the child but he was quick to be annoyed by what he perceived as their invalidating approach to their adolescent. Any slight gesture of negative body language from a parent would push Daniel’s emotional buttons of defence for his young client. Daniels focus would be on trying to help the parent see what their adolescent needed from them. There was little curiosity for what the parent was up against in relating to their adolescent or for the many years invested by the parent in trying to help their child. All he could see was the current conflict in the relationship and how this seemed to be causing emotional distress for the young person. Daniel was caught in a common helper’s triangle. He was on the side of his client and was unable to see the broader patterns of interaction as part of a complex backdrop to the adolescent’s current symptoms. Daniel genuinely believed in conveying warmth and respect for the parent but his side taking meant that the parent sensed that they were the focus of a blame and change effort. In turn the parent would be edgy with Daniel which gave him further confirmation of his biased view of their dismissive parenting style.
You may be wondering if it is ever possible to counsel one person without forming an alliance with their view of things. Without an understanding of relationship systems it is very difficult to avoid side taking. In particular, without an appreciation of the invitation to triangle, a helper inevitably falls into validating one person while blaming others – sometimes in subtle ways. A triangle is when a third party is used as a detour for dealing with an issue in the relationship between two people. When we are upset with another it is comforting to find a third party who will listen to our distress. The act of telling an outsider about our worry effectively calms us down. The predicament however is that the person is not working on their problem in the relationship in which it belongs. Additionally the third party now has a different view of the person who has been complained about. This infects a negative tone to the way they now relate to this person, as was happening with Daniel in his stance with his client’s parents.
When we construct our picture of a problem through the complaints and distress of an individual, it is natural that our focus will be helping them recover from what we perceive others have inflicted upon them. This forms the basis of the common helping triangle. Such side taking or triangling can be averted when the problem is explored through descriptions of patterns of interaction and how these relationships have adjusted to pressures of adverse circumstances over time. Exploring patterns of how each person has affected each other’s way of relating enables us to appreciate that every family member (or group member) has played a part in constructing current dynamics. Rather than draw out more details of a person’s complaint the helper asks: when does this happens, who is involved, how do they each respond, what is the effect of this?
Daniel was concerned about the blocks he experienced in working with parents of troubled adolescents. He knew their relationship with the young person was important to the adolescent recovering their wellbeing. As he came to see how he was getting caught in a triangle with the parents on the outside of his alliance with their child he began to work out ways to prevent this occurring. Rather than ask his young client to expand on their feelings of angst about their parents he would explore what they were doing to deal with their frustrations in their relationship. He tracked carefully the interactions the young person was regularly part of when conflicts or symptomatic behaviours escalated. As he saw a more objective view of parent-child relationships over time he began to appreciate how important it was to include parents in his counselling right up front. When parents expressed their grievances about the child (or the other parent) in counselling, he discovered that he could draw out how they were trying to address this in the relationship. This replaced his previous approach that provided a platform for making a case that another was the problem.
Getting caught in becoming a third party detour is a central pitfall of any helping relationship (professional, family, friendships, congregations, work). Any struggling person will feel better when they find an empathic listening ear to their problems within another relationship. The helper can also feel competent as they sense appreciation for providing positive validations that are missing from an important relationship. The short term relief of this alliance can easily give way to a helping impasse. While the upset person wants to feel supported, they have not been assisted to work their difficulty out in the important relationship in their life. When a helper shifts from encouraging venting about others, to identifying patterns in relationship with others, they can become a valuable resource for a person’s change process. They still convey respect and concern for the weight of the difficulty but they resist the invitation to side taking.
‘Side Taking or Triangling in a Helping Relationship’ – Jenny Brown