Category Archives: Communication

The Insidious Triangle: Should you avoid triangulation?

“Mo’ Air” — Jonny Moseley by Mimi Stuart ©

Have you ever felt uneasy when a friend complains about his or her partner? Triangulation involves one person complaining to a third person about a primary relationship in order to vent anxiety. They are not trying to gain insight into how to deal with a problem.

Why do people triangulate?

Triangulating someone into your angst-ridden relationship temporarily relieves anxiety. People who feel helpless to change their relationship patterns sometimes seek to relieve their frustration through criticizing and complaining about their partner (mother, son, friend, etc.) Through the power of secrets, they may also temporarily feel connected to the person they are triangulating — a connection that may be lacking in the primary relationship.

However, the temporary feeling of connection and release of anxiety are like the effect of a drug — short lived and you always need more to get the same relief next time.

Insidious

Triangulation is as insidious as mold growing in the walls. While it’s hard to see the destruction, eventually the structure crumbles. In the end, complaining and listening to complaints is emotionally exhausting and corrosive. Being asked to take sides rather than having a dialogue is draining, futile, and brings everyone down.

The worst is when a parent complains to a child about the other parent, which puts terrible pressure on the child. Children generally want any kind of connection they can get with a parent, even if that entails becoming the parent’s confidant. But they pay for their parent’s emotional venting with growing disrespect for the complaining parent and feelings of guilt for betraying the other parent.

Complaining about family or close friends erodes all three relationships within the triangle. Trust fades for someone who complains about others behind their backs. Respect also diminishes for someone who listens compliantly to endless fault-finding.

Interlocking triangles

Often, when anxiety overloads the initial triangle, one person deals with the anxiety by triangulating others into the process, thus forming a series of interlocking triangles. For example, a mother complains about her husband to her son, who then complains to his sister, who then complains to her father. Each person’s alliance is dependent on other people’s anxiety and inability to relate directly to the person with whom they are experiencing problems. This is not a good foundation for life-enhancing relationships.

Life-enhancing relationships

The key to sustaining healthy relationships is to learn both to handle anxiety and to speak calmly and rationally directly to people about one’s feelings, needs and expectations within the relationship. Instead of blaming either ourselves or others, it is far more helpful to become aware of our own participation in the relationship dynamic. Awareness of how we perpetuate negative patterns through our tone of voice, behavior, talking too much, not speaking up, etc. is a prerequisite for change, growth, and wise decision-making.

Avoiding triangulation

We should avoid taking sides, but remain in contact with both sides. We can express neutrality and objectivity, or use humor while relating to the mature part of the person venting. Here are some examples:

“I think it would be more helpful if you talked to him about how you feel, rather than to me.”

“Since we can’t change her, let’s figure out how you might have participated in this situation.”

“I value my friendship with both of you. So, I would prefer not being in the middle.”

“I’m sorry you’re suffering so much, but I feel uncomfortable when you tell me such private details of your married life.”

“I don’t feel qualified to give you advice. I think this is something you might bring to a therapist.”

“I think I know how this story is going to go. Do you see a pattern in the situation? Maybe you could do something differently.”

Conclusion

Venting through triangulation diminishes you and those around you. Instead, if you focus on improving yourself and understanding others, everyone will benefit. Asking others for help in how to deal with a situation or to improve a relationship is very different from triangulation, and can be a good way to gain insight into your relationship dynamics. The key is to be open to feedback about your own behavior rather than just venting about someone else.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Compassionate Confrontation:
“He said he’d spend more time with me, but has not followed through.”

"Taurus" by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

When a person who has agreed to a behavioral change does not follow through, the ability to confront that person with compassion is essential. No matter how justified your anger, a hostile confrontation or withdrawal will only result in more frustration and distance.

The goal of a compassionate confrontation is to generate mutual understanding before taking action. Starting with this kind of dialogue is far more effective than letting your anger take over.

Arrange a Meeting

It is important to avoid simply jumping into a difficult conversation. You will be much more effective if you arrange a meeting with the following parameters in mind:

1. The meeting takes place in a safe place,

2. With adequate time for full discussion,

3. Without other people or the children around,

4. Not right before going to bed, and

5. Not when either of you is exhausted, has been drinking, or is hungry.

Ask the other person to agree to two conditions:

1. To give the discussion a certain amount of time so that neither of you will leave before the time is up, and

2. To avoid attacking each other and interrupting. If you are attacked or interrupted, don’t get angry. Just say, “Hey, let’s do this without attacking or interrupting each other, like we agreed.”

State of Mind

To effectively confront someone, you have to start the conversation when you’re emotionally able to manage your stress and reactivity. You have to resist blaming or judging. An effective discussion starts from a position of appreciation, that is, you have to find a way to value and understand the other person and to convey that you want what is best for both of you.

To know what action to take, you will need to have a full understanding of what’s going on. Keep your emotional focus on valuing the other person even if you don’t like what they are saying. It is crucial not to take things personally when they speak from a position of fear.

Communications Professor Dalton Kehoe suggests that in a situation where you’re hearing negative attacks to view yourself as a matador with a raging bull coming at you. Simply step aside rather than stand in its way.

Starting the Discussion

Ranting may temporarily relieve your stress but it has a damaging effect on dialogue. The whole point is to get a deeper understanding of the other person’s view of the situation. In fact, you will often be surprised by the the other person’s point of view.

To start the discussion, you can say, “I think this affects both of us.” Describe the situation briefly and factually, being as neutral as you can. For example, “Two months ago, I asked you to spend more time with me. You agreed to come home earlier, but haven’t.”

State your concern with only one sentence, so that the other person doesn’t shut down or become defensive. For instance, “I’d like to be in a relationship where we enjoy more time together.”

Active Listening

Then ask how the other person views the situation. “How do you see it?”

Be sure to actively listen to gain understanding. Don’t become defensive. Try to understand the other point of view, even if you don’t agree. Encourage a full explanation of their view without interjecting judgment or arguing back.

To neutralize the unhelpful tone of a confrontational discussion, take the negative content and re-frame it without the negative emotion. Reinterpret what’s being said into neutral language.

For instance, if he says, “I work like crazy, and get home to your nagging me to do more work,” you can re-frame it by saying, “I’m so sorry that you feel annoyed by the way I approach you when you come home.”

Your Point of View

Once you have gotten the full story and the other person has run out of emotional heat, then you can ask if they will listen to your perspective. Again keep it neutral and descriptive so as to gain their understanding. Keep it calm and brief.

Once May Not Be Enough

While this is the most effective method for dealing with conflict, it may take a few times before there’s enough trust built up for the attacks and defense to diminish. At that point, people may become more comfortable in being open and honest to themselves and each other.

Solution

Do not rush to solve a problem when you only understand part of the story. Once there is true understanding, problem-solving becomes a relatively easy and minor part of the discussion. Problem-solving can only occur when people really understand the problem from both points of view. The solution then becomes obvious, although it may still be painful. Life often demands that we adjust our dreams and hopes to reality. But first it is crucial to find out what the other person’s reality really is.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD


Recommended and Reference: “Effective Communication Skills” by Professor Dalton Kehoe from The Great Courses.


“I dread facing this problem.”

“Tournament of Champions, Kapalua” Steve Stricker
by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

“No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking.”

~Voltaire

Once in while you will luck out and a problem will resolve itself on its own. Usually, however, running from a problem causes it to mutiply into a large number of troubles.

Why run from problems?

Why do people dread handling problems? They may want to avoid disappointing others; they may shudder at the idea of changing their lives; they may recoil from admitting that past choices have not turned out as expected. Ultimately, it is anxiety and fear that prevent us from confronting our problems.

Tension intensifies

It is not easy to face problems head on. Yet, the longer we wait, the greater the anxiety and fear of confronting the problem becomes. It is astonishing how the angst of avoiding difficulties will intensify with inaction, becoming worse than the difficulty of actually dealing with the problem itself.

How we confront difficulties defines us

Heartache, hurt, and hurdles are part of life. No one handles all challenges with ease and grace. Yet, it is our struggle with those very challenges that chisels our character. In grappling with dilemmas, we discover what is meaningful to us. Through difficult discussions and decisions we fashion our own identity.

Facing our problem does not equal making snap decisions

Facing problems does not always require rushing to action or making quick decisions. Some dilemmas need time to resolve appropriately. There is a key difference between black-and-white problem solving—either making a snap decision or avoiding the problem—and making a wise and thoughtful decision. When we avoid black-and-white thinking, we learn to view the world in its many shades and colors. Sometimes we need to take time to consider the various complexities of a particular circumstance to figure out what to do.

When we face problems with seriousness, openness and courage, we are no longer a slave to the dread that debilitates us. By acknowledging the past but not dwelling on it, we become capable of changing ourselves and our lives. By facing difficulties, we open up the realm of new possibilities. By completing unfinished business, accepting and forgiving ourselves and others, we become free to move on.

“No man is free who is not master of himself.”

~Epictetus

by Alison Poulsen, PhD


How to have a productive argument: “You’re simply wrong.”

"Poetry - Arnold Palmer" by Mimi Stuart ©

“Poetry – Arnold Palmer” by Mimi Stuart ©

To resolve conflict, solve problems, and influence people, you have to be diplomatic and strategic. Argue with the idea, not the person.

1. Find common ground. Start with the part you agree with.

“I understand where you’re coming from.” Or

“Yes, I have also found that…”

2. Find out the reasoning for their perspective.

“That’s an interesting way of looking at it. What makes you feel that way?” Or

“Tell me more about your position.”

3. Separate the idea from the person.

“The issue I have with that idea is that…”

4. Show concern rather than insistence by showing a compassionate side. Watch that your body language and facial expressions don’t convey superiority.

“My concern is…”

5. Broaden the other person’s perspective by posing a question. Even if someone doesn’t concede your point during the discussion, they may start considering it if you are not aggressive about it.

“Don’t you find…?” Or

“What if someone…?”

6. Don’t insist on resolving the issue now.

“Let’s think about this some more and see how we can fine-tune our ideas.”

Being strategic and diplomatic is not manipulative. It will allow you to hear what the other person has to say and you may learn something yourself. If you are soft on the person and curious about the issue at hand, you both might end up with a more nuanced solution than either one of you imagined.

by Dr. Alison Poulsen

How to express anger effectively: Nonviolent communication

Everyone has reasons to get angry once in a while. But if you lose your temper or become mean and hostile, you are not going to improve your long-term relationships. When you lose your temper and attack another person, that person is likely to feel horrible and defensive rather than receptive and compassionate toward you.

So how can you express anger effectively, and what can you learn about yourself from your anger?

What emotion is hiding beneath the anger?

Often the fear of abandonment or of losing love and connection is what is fueling the anger. Sometimes it is a feeling of being insignificant or unappreciated that underlies the anger.

Frequent triggers to anger include not be listened to, anxiety, or feeling powerless.

Uncontrolled anger backfires and often causes the very thing you fear. For instance, you may fear abandonment. Yet when you become angry and possessive, you push the other person away.

Self-reflection

1. Recognize your feelings before you explode in anger. When you feel a mere irritation, it’s easier to do or say something calmly than when anger has built up.

2. Know what you need to do for yourself rather than expect another person to do something for you. Don’t expect others to read your mind or to satisfy your desires and needs.

Sometimes you do need to express your anger to another person. Here is how we change powerless hostility to personal power to inspire transformation:

Marshall Rosenberg’s nonviolent communication:

The most important component of this four-step process is that the intent shown through tone of voice is to treat the other person with respect while respecting our own needs. Without a calm tone and demeanor, it will be difficult to be effective even with the right words.

If you’re too angry, let the other person know you’ll discuss this later when you’re calm.

1. State the facts. Express the facts neutrally and factually without exaggeration and without saying “You never” or “You always”.

2. Express your feelings. “I feel angry/ sad/ defensive/ lonely.” Saying you feel angry is very different than expressing hostility and anger through yelling. Make sure your feelings aren’t in fact judgments. “I feel that you’re a jerk” is not a feeling.

3. Express your need or desire. “I need support/ to be able to trust someone/ to have more fun.” Be careful that your needs are not specifically about the other person. “I need you to clean your room” is not as effective as “I need order and cleanliness.” Remember that you have to satisfy many of your needs yourself.

4. Make a specific positive request, not a demand. Don’t be too abstract, e.g., “I want you to love me forever.” Avoid negative requests, e.g., “I want you to stop being selfish.” An example of a specific positive doable request would be “Let’s go out to dinner Friday night,” or “Would you help me do the dishes after dinner.”

Rather than complaining or nagging, you’re giving the other person the opportunity to do something thoughtful for you.

5. Observe patterns. This is an added step to consider it your requests keep getting ignored. You don’t want to try to control other people. Yet if you see that a person is repeatedly ignoring your reasonable requests, desires, and expectations, then you want to change your expectations and perhaps limit your relationship with that person. By changing your expectations, you’re less likely to be disappointed and once in a while you’ll be surprised to find the other person treating you with more respect.

by Dr. Alison Poulsen

Read “Dealing with Angry People.”

Interrupted and Ignored by the Extroverts in your Life

"Effervescent" by Mimi Stuart ©

“Effervescent” by Mimi Stuart ©

“I am often the one who does most of the listening. I am introverted, and am attracted to extrovert energy. The beautiful, warm, interesting stories at first are a delight, but quickly start to overwhelm me as the relationship develops. Often, when I feel ready to talk, I am not listened to with the same attention, or even worse, interrupted and ignored.”

One-sided extroverts, one-sided relationship

Extremely extroverted people can be fun and interesting to have as friends, as they entertain and radiate energy. Extroverts generally like talking and being the center of attention. Since the extrovert’s vibrancy is enjoyable, and his or her dominance shields you from having to share your own ideas and thoughts, the dynamic of being ignored and interrupted by extreme extroverts may at first go unnoticed. In the early stage of the relationship, you may feel comfortable that there’s no pressure to reveal yourself.

Yet after a while it becomes frustrating and overwhelming to be in a one-sided relationship where most of the attention is focused on the extroverted individual. Extreme extroverts tend to be self-involved and often lack depth because they are generally not self-reflective. Thus, they tend to be disappointing as best friends, confidantes, or long-term romantic partners.

Developing balance

More balanced people, on the other hand, may not be as exciting at first, but they are often more capable of reciprocal interaction, showing interest in you, and enjoying two-way conversations, all of which are ultimately more stimulating and fulfilling in a long-term relationship.

When you are attracted to a person who is the opposite to your personality, it usually indicates a need for you to develop some of that trait. In your case, becoming a bit more extroverted might involve becoming more comfortable putting yourself out there and developing outgoing energy when you choose to. You can start with small steps—for example, by giving your opinion or telling a story rather than asking questions and prompting further monologues by the extrovert.

As you push yourself to become a little more balanced, and avoid being drawn in too closely into the orbit of super magnetic (i.e., self-absorbed) extroverts, you will develop more well-balanced relationships. If you get involved with people who are more balanced from the beginning, you are less likely to become resentful.

Dealing with extreme extroverts

When dealing with an extrovert who interrupts and ignores you, be direct and up-front. “Hey, I need to talk to you. Is this a good time?” or “You seem distracted. I was hoping to provide some input. When would be a better time?” or “I have something I’d like to talk to you about. Is now convenient?” It’s important that your tone of voice does not convey weakness, resentment, or anger. Be matter of fact. But don’t continue the conversation if you’re being ignored. While you cannot control another person, you can avoid giving up your power by no longer participating in a one-sided relationship dynamic.

In essence, my advice to an introvert who suffers frustration with extreme extroverts is threefold:

1. Develop relationships with people who are more balanced,

2. Do not be a passive co-conspirator. Challenge yourself to give your input, opinions, tell stories, and shine your own light rather than simply ask questions and listen, and

3. When dealing with an extrovert, speak up for yourself in a matter a fact way, without resentment or anger.

by Dr. Alison Poulsen