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Interpersonal Triangulation Published: Sunday, December 16, 2001 By: Dr. Manuel Ángel Morales

Salvador Minuchin has coined the term triangulation to describe how most people manage their anxiety by talking about their issues with one person to someone else. This is the process. John works for Jane and he is making up a story about her that leaves him feeling tense and discomforted. If John would get to the point where he couldn’t help expressing this feelings that would probably be a good thing because there would be a lot of organizational fog or density within the work environment if he doesn’t communicate these emotions.

Instead, he finds someone else he can complain about Jane, preferably someone whom he can get to agree with him regarding that Jane is the problem. John goes and talk to this person until the tension and discomfort are reduced to a level that he can manage, and next time John is around Jane she don’t have to clue how upset she makes him.

This is the process of triangulation because a third person is brought in to manage the feelings going on in a relationship between two people. It is a very common process inside and outside organizations. It is how human beings manage difficult situations to maintain a calm exterior and get by without ever doing anything the change to work environment that would otherwise be unbearable. It is a system for absorbing anxiety, creating some artificial stability in dysfunctional contexts and ensures that NOTHING EVER CHANGES.

Notice the route of a typical triangulation process. 1. I check out my own perspective of sense making, with someone other than the person who is critical in a problematic interaction, so there is a fertile condition for generating an inaccurate story. 2. I never learn anything about the protagonist part in the problem pattern because I choose interacting with a third party that agrees with my story that the other person is the problem. 3. Triangulation acts as a tension escape value and I never have to deal with the root cause of problems.

What happens in an organization full of people triangulating about each other? The organizational fog or density will be extra thick because people will be making stories after stories. Fantasy will be layered upon fantasy. Triangulation blocks learning dialogues by removing all the urgency for having these conversations within the system.

How can human beings overcome this mayor obstacle to organizational learning? By naming and recognizing it. It is important to describe what it is and encourage people who work for key leaders to have dialogues (sharing meaning and understanding) about what they think and feel about triangulation. The simple exercise of just talking about this condition will take some of the wind out of its sails. As a leader, executive, manager or supervisor I can coach a person on how to talk to another person with whom he is having a problem pattern. This is the role of a process consultant trying to facilitate a two or three people, or a small group learning conversation. But at the end of the day, the two people involve in a problem pattern will have to talk straight to resolve the issue.

Remember a key statement: You cannot arrive at interpersonal understanding with someone who is not an active part of your conversation. A dialogue is an imperative for achieving connectivity and significance.

 


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