He Said That You Said…

He said that you said, and then I thought…

I am certain you have experienced this. John walks over to your group and says, “Sarah, can you believe what Sally did to me again? She… “ so you listen. Maybe you even add something to the conversation, “That’s not all John, I heard…”

What you have just experienced is what is called “Triangulation.”  Triangulation is nothing more than two or more people talking together about another person instead of working out any issues they have with each other.   It can be destructive to an organization, impede performance and productivity, and just make people mad. In the literal sense, it is a form of conflict. Workplace conflict can be productive; it can also be destructive. Knowing how to manage and correct these situations is a critical workplace skill.

Today, we tend to describe these types of conflicts as simply personality issues and then bury the matter from our involvement. That isn’t necessarily the best way to resolve the matter and eliminate destructive conflict.

So what to do?

If you are John, correcting this is pretty easy. Become aware that this is what you are doing and stop doing it. Develop a direct relationship with Sally to resolve the matter. If you decide to sound off to another person, like Sarah, don’t be disrespectful or critical of Sally. Instead, take the approach of “this is what is happening; can you help me develop the right way to talk with Sally?”

Suppose you are Sarah, and John is telling you all about Sally. In that case, you can help stop this by assisting John in accepting his responsibility or role in the conflict. The following steps are a good approach:

  • Let John get the issue out of his system and calm down.
  • Listen closely to what John has to say. In no way make any comment that could be seen as reinforcing what he is saying or that is derogatory about Sally.
  • Restate to John what you heard him say. The expression “This is what I heard you say” Is a good way to begin this. When you are finished, ask if you understood correctly.
  • Help John restate his concerns in order not to exacerbate the situation when he talks with Sally directly. For example, instead of saying “Why does it always have to be your way?” get him to him to say “Is there any flexibility in how we do this?” The key here is to help John develop a tactful way of expressing his issues without becoming aggressive.
  • Suggest to John that he look more closely at his relationship with Sally. Coach him to look close enough that he can determine what his part in the conflict between he and Sally is.

Once John gets to the point that he can specifically identify what the issue really is instead of simply blaming Sally. You can prompt him to speak with Sally directly. If you are in a position in the organization where you can assign specific expectations, you should do this. But, you have to support them when they meet those expectations. For example, if you tell John to be direct with Sally and he does so, then Sally comes to you complaining about John’s directness; you must remember that this is what you instructed John to do. If you are not in that type of role or position, then you should still encourage that directness, but you should respect any decision John makes on how to address the matter. This usually means that John has chosen to avoid the discussion. Whatever you do, do not allow yourself to get drawn into this situation over and over again.

The following are some key communication practices to avoid triangulation:

  • Make triangulation avoidance a part of your culture. In your onboarding emphasize the importance of addressing issues head on and not through others.
  • Coach or mentor those who struggle with a more direct approach so that they can deal directly with the issue. If need be, become a part of any formal meetings or conversations, use these opportunities to develop employee’s.
  • Don’t become part of the triangle. Provide feedback quickly and directly.
  • When individuals or teams become dysfunctional, facilitate direct communication sessions. Make it clear to all sides that they are affecting the whole organization with their triangulation and related dysfunction.
  • This is not the place or subject for creative channels or methods of communication. These can add additional dysfunction as well as time and cost.
  • Create structured opportunities for real dialogue across all levels of the organization.
  • Reinforce the culture by promoting and rewarding those who demonstrate these attributes.
  • Encourage appropriate disagreement and conflict that builds success and productivity.
  • Encourage open and direct communication in your workplace through appropriate policies involving email and other forms of electronic communication.

Remember, triangulation isn’t a personality issue. It is simply a communication method that creates conflict that the participants need to manage and turn into something productive.