In the 1950s the family therapist Murray Bowen introduced many ideas about systems. The concept of triangulation is one of the most applicable to congregational leadership. It is, in brief, when John is frustrated with or concerned about Mary, John looks to Jane to deal with this. In organizations that have had unhealthy experiences of conflict or where indirect expression of conflict is culturally normative (the Midwest!), triangulation can become deeply problematic.
If you find yourself in the middle of someone else’s squabble, you are being triangulated. If you find someone else wants you to take responsibility for their communication, you are being triangulated. Those who most habitually take the role of the responsible ones—and this is most of our congregational leaders—are most susceptible to being triangulated. From a systemic point of view, triangulation is a means of reducing anxiety. The more anxious a system, the greater the tendency to triangulation. Those who are most anxious will have the greatest tendency to triangulate.
- Look at your covenants. Building positive, direct habits of communication is a long process of culture change. Deal with specific instances of triangulation as they arise, but place your main effort on building positive direct habits of dealing with difficult communication. Include the subject wherever you talk about “how you do things here.”
- Start with modeling good practices. Make dealing with conflict directly—not through third parties—part of the covenant of the core leadership and staff core. Praise each other liberally for expressing conflict directly and dare to challenge efforts to triangulate.
- Do not shame. Call out problem communication. Redirect it in a matter of fact and non-accusatory way.
- Create pathways for real, direct dialogue. Build a self-understanding and positive self-image about capacity to convene real direct dialogue.
- Name the healthy practice. Say out loud “we are having this conversation this way because we are committed to direct communication.”
- Intervene in groups or with individuals who are not communicating directly. Invite those not communicating directly to face-to-face meetings and be explicit that their direct communication is important to the whole congregation. When those not communicating make efforts to do so, praise them lavishly.
- Look at your organizational structures. Beware of organization tools (anonymous surveys) or structures (ministerial relations committees) that tend to invite indirect expression of difficult communication.
- Beware cc. and bcc. Electronic communication can become vehicles of triangulation. Adopt an electronic communication policy.
- When you are triangulated. State in a non-accusatory way that you are uncomfortable. Invite the person to take their concern directly to the person in question. Listen by all means, but end the conversation by asking what they are going to do about it.
- Celebrate, celebrate, celebrate. Even with congregations with cultures of indirect communication many people have the courage to be direct. Point this out and lift it up.
Example of a Staff Covenant, First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee
We enter this covenant to forge and to maintain strong positive relationships for the staff and for the congregation in support of its mission and vision.
This covenant is intended to encourage and promote healthy behaviors in both the staff and congregation. It will give strength to our teamwork and cooperation. When necessary, our covenant will give strength to our making difficult statements and responses that honor the challenge of doing so. We ask for the congregation’s support in helping us to sustain this covenant.
We the staff of the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee, make the following commitments to each other:
- We agree to be respectful, honest, open and intentional in our communications, assuming good will and striving to be worthy of it.
- We affirm the gifts each brings to the staff and will seek to support each other in fulfilling our varied responsibilities.
- We will express and maintain clear personal and professional boundaries while respecting the boundaries of others.
- To maintain healthy relationships, our model for handling complaints or concerns brought to us by a staff member or member of the church community shall be:
- Ask the person to approach the staff member directly;
- Offer to go with the person to speak to the staff member;
- Offer to speak with the staff member, using the person’s name;
- If we agree with the complaint/concern, we may approach the staff member with the complaint/concern as our own; or
- The matter will be dropped.
- Privately and together, we will engage in constructive (not destructive) conversations intended to enhance team work, and we will deal in issues and behaviors, not personalities.
- Sensitive information will not be used or shared inappropriately.
- In our deliberations we accept the fact that differences of opinion are expected and welcome, but once we have come to a decision, we will all support it.