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.
When 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,
that were installed
long agoMoreover, 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. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Emotions at Work:
- Never, Ever, Kill the Messenger
- If you're a manager in a project-oriented organization, you need to know the full, unvarnished Truth.
When you kill a messenger, you deliver a message of your own: Tell me the Truth at your peril. Killing
messengers has such predictable results that you have to question any report you receive — good
news or bad.
- First Aid for Wounded Conversations
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forward progress. Here are some ideas for releasing the tension.
- Not Really Part of the Team: II
- When some team members hang back, declining to show initiative, we tend to overlook the possibility
that their behavior is a response to something happening within or around the team. Too often we hold
responsible the person who's hanging back. What other explanations are possible?
- Big Egos and Other Misconceptions
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others as having a "big ego." Maybe so. And maybe not. Let's have a closer look.
- Scope Creep and Confirmation Bias
- As we've seen, some cognitive biases can contribute to the incidence of scope creep in projects and
other efforts. Confirmation bias, which causes us to prefer evidence that bolsters our preconceptions,
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See also Emotions at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
- We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
- And on October 19: Bullying by Proxy: I
- The form of workplace bullying perhaps most often observed involves a bully and a target. Other forms are less obvious. One of these, bullying by proxy, is especially difficult to control, because it so easily evades most anti-bullying policies. Available here and by RSS on October 19.
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