Beware The Triangle!

By: Patricia A. Sartini, Ed.S., LMFT, LCPC

Learn the effects of this communication dynamic.

spacer  

women friends having a conversationOne of the easiest ways to get into communication trouble is by using dysfunctional triangles as a form of communicating.  A relational triangle consists of three legs. Typically, one person is speaking to another about a person, place, or thing.  We speak in triangles all day long:

How was your mother’s visit to the doctor? (person)
What do you think of the new restaurant in town? (place)
What about the weather we are having? (thing)

Now, as you can see above, generally speaking, triangles are not a problem if they meet the following criteria:  the what (content) and the why (motive) are not negatively charged.  They are primarily used for informational purposes or with a compassionate intent.

However, dysfunctional triangle communication can cause disruption in clear communication and result in negative consequences relationally.  In this article, I am mainly focusing on the triangles that involve the third leg as a person.

Let’s look at an example: 

You have an argument with your sister-in-law and vent about her to your mother, who you know dislikes this sister-in-law.  You have just initiated a dysfunctional triangle.  The content included speaking angrily about her to someone who would probably agree with you; and the motive wasn’t clean because the intent was to have someone join you in the anger, keeping the emotion as the prime focus.

Imagine the many possible consequences of this simple misstep in communication:

  • Your anger feels justified and you have no thoughts of resolving the issue with your sister-in-law.
  • You do not learn from the interaction; in fact, you can become more stuck in a relationship dynamic with her that can only get worse.
  • A lot of emotional energy is wasted.
  • No positive outcome can occur as a result.
  • You may not be open to an apology from your sister-in-law.
  • You could develop the reputation as a gossip or a pot-stirrer.

Here’s another example:

You own a small business and have two employees.  This is a triangle just waiting to be activated!  This setup can be a minefield of potential communication problems.  Think of the possibilities:

  • Your two employees don’t think you lead well and they ally against you and sabotage productivity; or,
  • You depend on the more reliable of the two to do more of the work because you know it will get done.  Imagine the imbalance this can create, which can only lead to more communication dysfunction in your business.

The possibilities are many and the consequences can even lead to your business failing!

These are just two examples of dysfunctional triangles.  They happen everywhere…at work, home, social events, with your friends and with your significant other.

Therefore, before you speak within a triangle, particularly about another person, do two things:

  1. Check the content
  2. Question your motive

This will help keep your communications clear and keep you out of dangerous territory relationally.  So, beware the triangle!