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