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Coaching Clinic Lesson #11: Managing Triangles: Strategies and Skills

The final segment in a monthly series of 11 posts presenting my thinking and experience on the topic of coaching

Last month, I discussed four distinctive triangle patterns that leaders regularly observe as coaches in organizations: solution requests, exclusion moves, anxious agreement and bickering colleagues.

This month, I’ll suggest guiding strategies and skills for managing oneself in any relationship triangle. Then, I’ll apply those guidelines to the four patterns mentioned above.

Guiding Strategies and Skills

No matter what form a triangle takes, having clear guidelines improves one’s likelihood of a desirable outcome.

I try to live by the following guidelines for managing myself in triangles, and regularly teach these strategies in presentations and courses. These guidelines have been influenced by the thinking of Drs. Murray Bowen, Edwin Friedman and Laurie Lassiter:

1. Maintain a neutral stance in a triangle and resist taking sides. Be slow to agree with the messenger.

2. Stay in emotional contact with both sides in a triangle. Seek one-on-one relationships that are not dependent on others.

3. Recognize that one cannot take responsibility for a change in the relationship between two others. Any change between two others must come from them.

4. Attempts to shift the relationship between two others may feed their helplessness and immaturity while increasing one’s own level of anxiety.

5. One can most effectively influence a reduction in tension between two others by remaining thoughtful and coaching each of the others towards responsibility.

6. Observe situations broadly, without blaming or scapegoating. Consider the context, instead of getting fixated on “who’s right and who’s at fault.”

7. Allow two others to be “cozy” without interfering. Develop the capacity to remain in the outside position of a triangle without feeling threatened.

8. Being in the outside position of a triangle often feels like rejection from two others in the inside position. Normalize that “rejection” by reducing self-importance and approval-seeking. Develop the ability to see that exclusion can have its own advantages in life.

9. Secrets easily breed anxious distance and hostility. Note the extent to which your secret keeping is automatic vs. thoughtful. An example of an automatic secret is one motivated by the desire for acceptance. An example of a thoughtful secret is deciding to keep a confidence when doing so makes sense.

10. Do the opposite of what comes naturally, for example, taking things personally, wanting to be included or desiring approval.

Guided by the above strategies and skills, let’s now consider how a leader might respond to the four common workplace triangles: solution requests, exclusion moves, anxious agreement and bickering colleagues.

Solution Requests

Leonard, two years out of law school, reports to Tabari, a partner in a bustling law firm.

Leonard approaches Tabari with a problem: “My file load is too heavy. I need you to tell me which files are most urgent, and which ones I can wait on, or give away to other attorneys.”

Tabari is tempted to tell Leonard which files to keep and which put on hold, but she catches herself:

Tabari: “I’d like to hear your own assessment of which files are the highest priorities.”

Leonard: “But to do that, I’d have to review all the files – I have 31 files - very time consuming”

Tabari: “Is there a way to do a cursory review and come up with the priorities?”

Leonard: “You mean, like, skim the files?”

Tabari: “Right – say, a 60-second review of each file, before prioritizing.”

Leonard: “I could try.”

Tabari: “OK, great. Can you bring me the 10 highest priorities in an hour then?”

Leonard: “I’ll give it a whack.”

Note how Tabari keeps the problem in Leonard’s lap, doesn’t give an answer, and holds Leonard accountable for independent thinking.

Exclusion Moves

Bernie oversees two project managers, Charlie and Jacinta. One day, Jacinta notices Charlie and Bernie going out to lunch. She wonders why she’s not invited.

This really bothers her. At first, she plays the rejection/exclusion card: “Why doesn’t Bernie ever invite me to lunch?” “Is Charlie trying to exclude me and kiss up to Bernie?”

Jacinta is tempted to jump to conclusions. Instead, she reflects on what she can do to build a stronger relationship with both Charlie and Bernie.

Over the next few months, she initiates lunches and other one-on-one conversations with Bernie and Charlie. She builds a stronger connection with each, individually.

Not long afterwards, Bernie invites Jacinta to lunch!

Anxious Agreement

Siblings Mandy, Rita and Kevin work in a successful family business as second generation employees. Their father, the majority shareholder, has requested their input on who would be best suited to lead the business into the future.

Mandy: “I love Kevin, but I don’t want him to be my boss. Do you agree?”

Rita: “It will be interesting to hear Dad’s thinking about the future.”

Mandy: “I don’t think Kevin’s very open-minded.”

Rita: “I wonder if he could gain anything from hearing that.”

Mandy: “Yes, but I feel intimidated around him.”

Rita: “Have you told him?”

Notice how Mandy tries to lure Rita into agreement. Also note that Rita continually resets the focus back to Mandy, refuses to bad-mouth Kevin and challenges Mandy to take appropriate responsibility for her relationship with Kevin.

Bickering Colleagues

In last month’s blog, I mentioned Sinja and Janet, who both report to David, the head of IT.

They have made it clear they don’t respect each other and do not want to work together. Each confides in David about the other’s deficiencies.

Because David possesses “triangle savvy,” he individually challenges the bickering colleagues about each one’s own part in the feud.

David asks Janet:

“Have you told Sinja what you’re telling me?”

“Do you see it as my job to change Sinja for your sake?”

“What is your part in this?

“Have you owned your part in conversations with Sinja?”

David says to Sinja:

“I wish I could do something to patch you two up, but it’s out of my control.”

“Can you increase your understanding of Janet?”

“How many years do you want to stay mad at her?”

“I think this a great challenge for you to take on.”

David refuses to get in the middle and instead puts the responsibility for the problem on Sinja and Janet. Over time, both employees begin making conciliatory moves towards each other.

Thinking about how to respond to the various triangles one encounters is an important part of coaching. Perhaps you’ll find, as I have, that the majority of coaching interactions reveal a triangle-in-motion: The coach, the coachee and the problem.

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