by Rev. Kenneth Gordon Hurto, Lead Executive, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life Staff
“Until you can think in threes, you do not understand (leadership) systems.”
---Dr. Murray Bowen
One of the major shifts in human understanding has been a move away from seeing ourselves as solitary, independent agents in charge of our destiny toward a more complex awareness that who we are is a direct function of who we are with. We are relational creatures. Everything about us is shaped by our connections (or disconnections) with those around us.
This begins, of course, when we are born. Indeed, it is the first question of faith: Will the world accept, honor, and care for me? Over time, depending on how others treat us, we learn whether we are OK or not-OK, whether we fit in, or can count on others. Every time we meet someone new or enter a new situation, we replay this big question: Is it ok for me to be, to stay here?
Our long childhood means we are especially affected by parents. Indeed whole generations of family “stuff,” for good or ill fills our emotional backpack. It is perhaps better to think of ourselves as “embedduals” rather than “individuals.” That the world may reject us, or leave us, or hurt us, or even love us is as much a source of anxiety as knowing we live but someday to die.
As Unitarian Universalists, we affirm the worth of every person. We talk about accepting one another in our totality (warts and halos). But two people encountering each other soon will find there is tension between them. It is hard to keep a balance between being a Self and being Together. After all, each brings varying needs for closeness or independence. Each values things differently. Each has unique ideas and aspirations. This distinctiveness is often inviting and at times frightening:
- Can I be me if I am not wholly like you? What if I want something you don’t?
- I want to be close, but I fear losing me in our “us.”
- Or, I fear losing our “us” if you get too independent.
As a two-legged stool is easily tipped, tensions arise in any one to one relationship. Then, our first (and, Murray Bowen would argue, inevitable) step is to pull in a third party to stabilize things. It might be quite transparent: “Michelle and I disagree about (something), don’t you agree with me that it would be better (to do what I want)?” Or it might be a subtle attempt to shape your perceptions, as in “Hey, Nikkos, did you know that the Minister has a gambling problem?” Even groups get out of balance. Think of all the Hatfields & McCoys stories where one group feels deeply threatened by another, ends up in a fight of some sort, and pulls civil authorities into the middle.
Our Leadership Experience or Presidents Convocation leaders will recognize this as triangulation: An attempt to ease tension between persons A and B, by getting another, C, to take sides. Triangles ease tension; hence, their ubiquity. For instance, I complain about my wife at work; I get irritations off my chest, and go home not even remembering last night’s tiff. Gossip is often like that, a kind of social grooming where we play out relationship games of “Ain’t It Awful.” The next time you read an Ann Landers-type advice column, you have a lab for watching triangles at work — think of all those letters complaining about siblings or parents or ex-spouses! All too often triangles become a way of avoiding one another or even for ganging up on those we dislike.
Leaders need to think systemically, relationally all the time. When a parishioner comes to a Board member with a complaint, the Board member will absorb some anxiety and begin to fret. Sometimes the member feels a need to “fix” things, particularly as it relates to church staff (even more so as it relates to the Minister). When you start carrying someone else’s emotional water, when you feel caught in the middle, you’ve been triangled. Now, no need to feel bad about that; as noted, it’s inevitable for leaders.
The question is: How to manage and step out of the triangle? Managing triangles typically has some identifiable steps.
- Let’s take a typical member complaint brought to you about another member or staff person. The first thing to notice is you are being triangled — that is, the anxious member wants you to alleviate some of that anxiety by siding with them or taking their problem as yours. Just noticing helps you manage.
- The second thing to ask is “Whose problem is this really? Is it mine?” Often Board leaders are sought out simply because the member does not know where else to go. Sending a member to someone who can actually address their concern is one kind of de-triangulation.
- A powerful way to step out of the triangle is to listen slowly, carefully, ask clarifying questions to ensure you understand what the issue is, and then to say, “What would you like me to do with this matter?” Quite often, the anxiety is relieved if the person just feels heard. “Oh, nothing, I just needed to blow off some steam about this. Thanks for caring.” We all do that sort of thing about our parents, children, spouses, co-workers, and so on.
- However, sometimes, the person needs direct help. That’s when to employ our usual litany:
- Have you spoken directly to A about your concern?
- If they say “no"t or don’t know how, you say, “Well, would you like me to come with you to talk with A. I’m confident we can work this out.”
- However, as triangles often overlap, a single issue can be part of several. Before you know it, a whole bunch of folk are worrying. As anxiety increases, we seek out ever more people to be on our “side.” This is the stuff of conflict in any relationship system. A good sign that you’re caught in messy triangles is that you are just plain baffled and feel unexpectedly anxious about what to do. Murray Bowen said, when that happens, don’t just do something, stand there. Here’s the truth: sometimes things work themselves out if a leader does not add to the confusion with her/his own anxiety — usually expressed as needing to referee, taking ownership of the problem, or offering lots of help.
I need to stop here; this really is the material for a whole day’s workshop. However, I want to lift up a good kind of triangle: It’s called consulting. When a neutral party is invited into a tense relationship and temporarily holds the tension until it is bearable, people can begin to think through their differences more effectively. The consultant does not absorb the anxiety, but holds ontology enough for people to take their problem back and begin working on a resolution.
Your UUA staff do this kind of intervention in matters small (how to effectively do a program budget) and great (major conflict). Our Southern team is comprised of individuals with considerable skill in many areas of congregational life. If you are feeling tension and are becoming triangulated, that’s a good time to pull us in. We’ll be your coach and help you find the way to an easier, more loving encounter in congregational life.
As always, breathe, deep and slow!