Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 1, Issue 16;   April 18, 2001:

The Triangulation Zone

by

When somebody complains to you about someone else's performance, you're entering into another dimension — a dimension of three minds. That's the signpost up ahead — your next stop, the Triangulation Zone.

Jim and Beth had been tangling for weeks. Finally, Jim asked to meet with Lars, Beth's boss. He would ask Lars to talk to Beth. By making Lars his agent, Jim was dealing with Beth indirectly. He was triangulating Beth by asking Lars to fix the problem. His approach was more direct than most — the triangulator usually complains to anyone who will listen, out of the hearing of the target.

Triangulation rarely works, and when it fails, it can fail catastrophically. Here's why.

At a conversational distance, we can maintain real contact with only one person, because our eyes, ears, and mouth all point in the same direction. And most of us can listen to only one person at a time. When three people are in conversation, one is "on hold," while the other two are in connection.

We've all experienced being on hold. As infants, we watch in befuddled left-out-ness as our parents converse. Most of us are uncomfortable on hold. We search intently for pauses where we can "break in," or we tire of waiting and just break in anyway. Or worse, we tune out. For most of us, triangulation pushes powerful buttons that were installed long ago.

The triangleWhen Jim triangulated Beth through Lars, he created a triad. While he and Lars were in contact, Beth was on hold. Aware of the tension between herself and Jim, Beth eventually became uncomfortable, worrying about Jim discussing anything with her boss with the door closed. Later on, when Lars spoke with Beth, Jim was on hold. In his turn, he experienced left-out-ness as Lars and Beth talked privately. All of this increased the tension. Now add the "telephone effect" — any message passed between Jim and Beth through Lars is jumbled somewhat by Lars. Lars cannot be a perfect transmitter, because he brings his own perceptions to any communication.

For most of us,
triangulation pushes
powerful buttons
that were installed
long ago
Moreover, both Jim and Beth tend to slant their views most favorably toward their own positions, because their partner in conflict isn't present to refute their claims.

When someone triangulates through you, you can always decline to participate, by offering another, more constructive approach:

  • Offer to arrange a joint meeting, and volunteer to mediate, if you have the needed skills.
  • If you don't feel that you can mediate effectively, offer to help find a mediator.
  • If action is urgently needed, and you have the skills, offer to meet with both of them right now.

Avoid listening to one side privately — it compromises your neutrality, making you less useful as a mediator.

Pondering your options, you might be tempted to let it "resolve itself." Whatever the cost of resolving the problem proactively, the price is bound to be higher if you let it fester. In the Triangulation Zone, doing nothing is the most expensive strategy. Go to top Top  Next issue: Restarting Projects  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenGBFYqdeDxZESDSsjner@ChacmtFQZGrwOdySPdSsoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Emotions at Work:

One negative outweighs a world of positivesWhen It Really Counts, Be Positive
When we express our ideas, we can usually choose between a positive construction and a negative one. We can advocate for one path, or against another. Even though these choices have nearly identical literal meanings, positive constructions are safer in tense situations.
A straw-bale houseResponding to Threats: I
Threats are one form of communication common to many organizational cultures, especially as pressure mounts. Understanding the varieties of threats can be helpful in determining a response that fits for you.
A polar bear, feeding, on landResponding to Threats: III
Workplace threats come in a variety of flavors. One class of threats is indirect. Threateners who use the indirect threats aim to evoke fear of consequences brought about not by the threatener, but by other parties. Indirect threats are indeed warnings, but not in the way you might think.
Deepwater Horizon oil spill imagined in true color on May 17, 2010, by the MODIS instrument aboard NASA's TERRA satelliteHandling Heat: II
Heated exchanges in meetings can compromise both the organizational mission and the careers of the meeting's participants. Here are some tactics for people who aren't chairing the meeting.
A visual illusionScope Creep and the Planning Fallacy
Much is known about scope creep, but it nevertheless occurs with such alarming frequency that in some organizations, it's a certainty. Perhaps what keeps us from controlling it better is that its causes can't be addressed with management methodology. Its causes might be, in part, psychological.

See also Emotions at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A demanding managerComing April 14: What Micromanaging Is and Isn't
Micromanaging is a particularly dysfunctional pattern of management behavior, involving interference in the work others are supposedly doing. Confusion about what it is and what it isn't makes effective response difficult. Available here and by RSS on April 14.
A possibly difficult choiceAnd on April 21: Choice-Supportive Bias
Choice-supportive bias is a cognitive bias that causes us to evaluate our past choices as more fitting than they actually were. The erroneous judgments it produces can be especially costly to organizations interested in improving decision processes. Available here and by RSS on April 21.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenGBFYqdeDxZESDSsjner@ChacmtFQZGrwOdySPdSsoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around.
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
Reader Comments About My Newsletter
A sampling:
  • Your stuff is brilliant! Thank you!
  • You and Scott Adams both secretly work here, right?
  • I really enjoy my weekly newsletters. I appreciate the quick read.
  • A sort of Dr. Phil for Management!
  • …extremely accurate, inspiring and applicable to day-to-day … invaluable.
  • More
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
Comprehensive collection of all e-books and e-bookletsSave a bundle and even more important save time! Order the Combo Package and download all ebooks and tips books at once.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!