Conflict with “problem people” has a virtually universal theme and direction: It almost always appears to be headed for a “zero-sum” outcome.

The boss is bent on unreasonably squeezing more work out of you. You`re determined to stand your ground, and not let it cave in under you. You`re braced for a “winner-take-all” fight, come hellfire or firing on the spot.

Or, perhaps you`re like my Connecticut cardiologist friend, John, who recently told me a story about how, many years ago, he had a patient-management eureka moment—an epiphany—while struggling to cope with a truly peevish, cantankerous, utterly disagreeable and disagreeing patient.

It looked as though somebody was going to win, somebody else was going to lose—or maybe both of them would lose. But he instantly discovered that it didn’t have to turn out that way in that instance or ever again, and that it doesn’t always or ever have to be that way.

What he discovered then is that what is perhaps the best alternative to confrontation, capitulation, stalemate, antagonism and residual resentment is, fortunately, also very easy to implement: triangulation.

Triangulation instantly transforms former or potential enemies into allies and maybe even friends, by transforming combat and competition into harmony, collegiality and other cooperation through engagement with a common cause.

Triangulation as Acquired Skill or Innate Talent

You may already consistently or occasionally be using triangulation as a key tool in your conflict-management kit. Triangulation may be something you instinctively grasp and apply, or it may be a technique you’ve acquired through learning, if not study. Because it is so simple to comprehend and master, and because its entirely positive results are so obvious and quick, employment of triangulation as a conflict preventive or resolution can quickly become a healthy, adaptive reflex response that others will perceive as smart instinct and intuition.

If you are already triangulating to prevent, escape, control or otherwise transform situations with potential or actual conflict, the following analysis will confirm that you have been on the right track and making the right moves. If the concept or experience with applying it is new, you are about to acquire a powerful people-skill that, as a tool, is invaluable in managing any relationship—professional or personal.

But what, in its simplest terms, is “triangulation”?

The Art, Science and Philosophy of Triangulation

Essentially, triangulation is nothing more than transforming a 2-person, 2-group, or person-group (potential) conflict into a positive “triad” interaction and relationship, by identifying a 3rd element in the interaction that can serve as a “target” or focus toward which all negative feelings or expectations can be shifted.

Expressed in even simpler terms, triangulation is a technique and process for transforming (potential) strategic adversaries and emotional enemies into allies—even grateful allies united with you in common cause against what you have identified as the “real enemy”.

How it works is perhaps best initially explained through the real-life example drawn from the experience of a friend of mine, Giselle, a young assistant office manager with a global firm, whose boss had been making unreasonable demands for more productivity—demands that were utterly impossible to meet.

Prior to her seemingly inevitable head-on collision with her manager, I advised her to triangulate and to shift from framing the upcoming meeting as a confrontation between the two of them to framing it as a collaboration against a third victimizing or otherwise problem force and factor.

I told her that the way to do that is to look at the bigger picture in which she is not the only victim—a picture in which the manager is also a victim of pressures that she, the manager, is merely passing on and down. This shift in perspective would not be enough; it also had to be applied in the upcoming meeting if triangulation was to succeed, which is precisely what she did.

Instead of digging a defensive trench or her own professional grave, she engaged her boss with empathy: “I completely understand how cost pressures and downsizing have created a very difficult situation for both of us.”—as an allusion to stress created by the pressure to increase productivity per employee. Shazaam! Everything changed from that point on. The pressure was off.

Indeed, Giselle was pleased to tell me that she and her manager have since then become very good friends as well as collaborative colleagues working together to find reasonable ways to manage pressure from above. In Giselle’s case, a shift to a different position within the company sidestepped what was shaping up to be an ugly confrontation, with both professional and personal ramifications.

Why did this triangulation succeed? There are several reasons, some subtler than others:

  • Giselle was careful to avoid being inflammatory, accusatory, aggressive, defensive or supinely acquiescent, which are very big and predictable gaffes in zero-sum formats—the Four Horsemen of the Conflict Apocalypse, if you will.

One of the key corollaries of triangulation is that if you must use “you” in potentially zero-sum, conflict situations it, reserve it for sympathy, empathy, encouragement and/or positive acknowledgment of your ostensible adversary.

  • She distinguished the messenger from the message: The bearer of bad news—in this case, her manager—doesn’t have to be a bad bear or bear the brunt of any resentments or counter-attack.
  • Giselle was able to redirect and harness whatever negative feelings and dark energy the manager had accumulated or prepared toward her (and vice versa) and for the meeting by shifting the locus and focus of the problem from herself or her manager to a “tertium quid” —a third way or third thing, as a means of escaping getting impaled on the horns of the zero-sum, “one wins-one loses” conflict dilemma.
  • In technical psychological terms, Giselle utilized the principle of “reciprocal inhibition”: to prevent or end undesired behavior, reinforce behavior incompatible with it. If you don’t want your child to bang on the piano, interrupt the pounding to sit and teach him a song to play. Your praise and the sense of accomplishment will be powerful rewards for behavior that precludes pounding, instead of playing the piano. Giselle played that principle masterfully, by reinforcing her manager’s collegial behavior and thereby inhibiting her looming adversarial responses.
  • In philosophical terms, Giselle had tacitly acknowledged and applied the doctrine of “determinism”: We are all puppets dangling unawares from taut cosmic strings tugged and yanked by forces beyond our control, if not also our understanding. The nicest thing about determinism is the sympathy, mutual understanding and empathy it fosters.

As for my cardiologist friend, John—who was exasperated by that obstreperous patient’s adamant resistance, suspicions, refusals and ornery contentiousness regarding everything from his options to the consequences of inaction,  he took an intuitive leap and blurted out, “Are we having an argument here?”

At first blush, this may not seem like much or triangulation—but it is: The real obstacle, problem or enemy was neither him nor the patient. It was “the argument”, which John was implying had taken on a life of its own at the expense of both of them—especially at the expense of the patient’s prognosis.

As John recounted it, the patient’s demeanor dramatically morphed into more accommodating, receptive, calm and understanding behavior and attitudes. John added that the technique proved to be very successful over the years, despite its deceptive Zen simplicity.

Triangulation: “Bad Faith”?

In thinking this subject through, and in talking about it with Giselle and one of her friends, Marlene, who is also young, French—and, of course, intellectual as well as charming, I imagined what the French icon of existentialism, Jean Paul Sartre, the “Being and Nothingness” guy, would make of triangulation, having suspected that he would trash it for being “inauthentic”.

In keeping with his beliefs and evocative illustrations, such as that of a couple in a restaurant displaying “Bad Faith“, I imagined Sartre comparing Giselle’s and John’s triangulation with this simple story of his:

A woman having lunch with a man on a first date is taken aback when he reaches for and caresses her hand that is resting on the table. Like Giselle and John, she doesn’t want to provoke anything, but also doesn’t want to give in. So, what does she do? As Sartre describes it, “neither consenting nor resisting”, she allows her hand to become “a thing”, an inert object—inanimate matter, rather than an extension of her will and responsibilities—including truthfulness and decisiveness, which serve to test and define our existence.

In Sartre’s anti-materialist analysis, that woman was guilty of Bad Faith—of evasion of her existential responsibility and not being true to the truth, including the awful fact that we and only we are will, not matter, and must decide everything and anything in order to exercise, validate, acknowledge and accept the burden of our existential freedom.

So, my guess is that had Sartre, the arch anti-determinist, been in John’s and Giselle’s shoes, he would have regarded the pressure from above and the argument that hovered over the consultation with the patient as excuses or a kind of “false focus”—much like the puppy that a shy couple will pet together on an awkward first date, almost allowing their fingers to touch, but not quite, instead.

By the same token, shyly or deviously hiding behind the seductive lyrics of a sappy karaoke tune is also a Bad Faith evasion, concealment, stifling and denial of true intentions and hopes.

Accordingly, if this interpretation of this imagined Sartrean negative response to triangulation is accurate and convincing, what should you do when triangulating is both possible and tempting as a way out of conflict—especially when focusing on the 3rd thing seems like Bad Faith?

Do what Sartre would do.


Just don’t choose triangulation…

…even if that would be a free choice and a free expression of your indomitable free will.


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