Ever been sidelined by a conversation in which one person tells you how much another person is upset with you? Perhaps two people you care about—volunteers on your team, co-workers, siblings—are fighting and both want your advice on how to approach the other. Maybe a board member heard from a mother how much her student dislikes a small group leader, leaving you totally unsure about whom to speak to first. Or a co-worker shares with you his mistrust of another ministry leader with the disclaimer that he’s “just venting” or “it’s not a big deal.”
You’ve been triangled.
Each of these situations is an encounter with emotional triangles. In his book A Failure of Nerve, author Edwin Friedman defines an emotional triangle as “any three members of any relationship system, or any two members plus an issue or symptom.” He even suggests, “There may be no such thing as a two-person relationship.” Emotional triangles are inherent in any organization and require systems thinking to navigate with wisdom and humility.
There are some common principles for how emotional triangles operate. Emotional triangles…
…form out of discomfort and conflict between people.
…function to preserve themselves and oppose all intentions to change them.
…make it difficult for people to change their thinking or behavior.
…transmit a relational system’s stress to its most responsible or focused member.
This final rule is key for ministry leaders to grasp. Emotional triangles suck leaders in, regardless of the leader’s emotional capacity or desire to jump into a conflict. Getting caught in the grip of an emotional triangle (or multiple emotional triangles) is a common source for leader burnout and failure. In fact, Friedman goes so far to say that burnout doesn’t come from overworking, but from getting enmeshed in other people’s issues.
Here’s how getting triangled works: Person A (the leader) gets entangled in the emotionally-draining relationship between persons B and C, either due to a sense of responsibility for them or because they’ve placed their unhealthy emotional focus on A. Unfortunately, A has no direct control over the relationship between B and C. Yet A is still emotionally affixed to their relationship. Person A can’t “fix” B and C, but feels responsible for saving them, nonetheless.
It can feel empowering, even flattering, to be asked to help with these emotional conflicts. Maybe Matthew 18:15–17 comes to mind—aren’t I just restoring a brother or sister in Christ? But this isn’t Matthew 18 in practice; it’s simply emotionally-draining relational dysfunction.
So what can ministry leaders do to handle emotional triangles? Here’s Friedman again:
"The way out is to make the two persons responsible for their own relationship, or the other person responsible for his or her problem, while all still remain connected. It is that last phrase which differentiates de-triangling from simply quitting, resigning, or abdicating. Staying in a triangle without getting triangled oneself gives one far more power than never entering the triangle in the first place."
In other words, stay in the triangle without becoming a “third wheel.” Easier said than done, right?