Watch Out for Triangulation!

By Kathy McGowan

Triangle sign with exclamation point

One sure way to invite conflict into a congregation is by triangulating. Triangulation is about the transference of anxiety, creating unhealthy relationship triangles. One way that human beings react to anxiety is to try and get rid of it by giving it to someone else.

If I am feeling uncomfortable about my interactions with Mary I may triangulate a third person in. For example, I might go to Jose to talk about Mary in hopes that Jose will step into our relationship and “fix” it for me; that way I don’t have to deal with my own anxiety. That is how I create an unhelpful triangle.

While it is important to talk to people directly in order to avoid triangulation it is just as important to know how to get yourself out of an unhealthy triangle. Often, we are unsure of how we even got into the middle.

In the situation listed above, Jose might have even felt flattered to be approached by me, as I probably said very nice things about his leadership skills before I engaged him. Jose’s job is to very politely give my anxiety back to me, as I am really the only one that can deal with my issues with Mary.

He might council me by asking some good questions so that I might discover the nature of my issues with Mary. He might even offer to go with me to talk to her but only as support. These are examples of healthy triangles. But it is ultimately up to me to handle my own anxiety, feelings, and relationships.

If this kind of behavior is common in a congregation, you can be sure that unhealthy conflict will be ever present. If this has become a cultural norm, it will take everyone working on directly addressing each other when issues arise.

Avoiding triangulation will not eliminate conflict in a congregation but it will help keep it in the constructive and creative zone.

About the Author

Kathy McGowan

Kathy McGowan has been on the Congregational Life Staff for the Southern Region of the Unitarian Universalist Association since 2013. In that time her areas of focus have been in systems thinking, theology, conflict, intercultural sensitivity, and staff supervision. She is one of the primary...

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Don't Get Triangled!

Dr. Jonathan Camp discusses the book A Failure of Nerve by Edwin Friedman, who owes many of his ideas of leadership to Murray Bowen (1913-1990), a pioneer of family therapy.
Central to Bowen's family systems theory is the concept of differentiation, or the ability of a person to maintain a strong sense of "self" within the family. The anxious family system is composed of emotional triangles, in which two conflicting members try to diffuse the anxiety between them by bringing in a third member. But this only heightens the anxiety of the system.
A well-differentiated person is able to resist the lure of emotional triangles, which causes the family system to mature by influencing others to take responsibility for themselves. In A Failure of Nerve, Friedman applies Bowen's family systems theory to organizational leadership.