Which Kind of Power Do You Need to Avoid Triangulation?

CAL Newsletter: Which Kind of Power Do You Need to Avoid Triangulation?

A Beloved Family Member (BFM) refuses all kinds of social media. Just refuses. However, BFM has friends on several sites. These Friends know I am related to BFM and message me to get to BFM. That’s triangulation.

The first time this occurred, I offered the friend BFM’s phone number and email. One such Friend, Frieda, said, “That’s so old school.”

“True,” I said. “However, BFM is not willing to be on social media. You want BFM, you call or email BFM.”

Fast forward six months, and Frieda asked me to convey a message to BFM. I said, “Here’s BFM’s phone and email.”

Again, Frieda gave me what-for. Again, I refused to carry the message.

Fast forward another eight months, and the same thing happened today. I reminded Frieda of the phone number and email. This time, I said, “Stop. I’m not going to convey the message. I’m not part of the Post Office.”

Frieda was not happy with me. That’s okay. I’m tempted to unfriend Frieda because she’s not much of a friend to me.

Frieda’s request is a small example of triangulation. Person A asks Person B to do something with Person C—instead of talking with Person C directly.

I bet you’re so surprised—I hate triangulation. However, I attempt to be polite when I deal with triangulation. At least, the first couple of times I do.

That’s because triangulation is an excellent example of needing to use power-with, not power-over. Even if your boss asks you to triangulate.

Why Do People Triangulate?

I’m not sure why people triangulate, but I suspect it’s partly about not feeling secure in asking for what they want. (See Ask for What You Want and When and How Do You Ask for What You Want?) When we don’t feel secure, we might feel as if we don’t have power in the situation. I wonder if people triangulate to “borrow” someone else’s power.

Mary Parker Follett coined the terms: “Power-over” and “Power-with.” Title-based power, as in organizations, is typical of “power-over.” Colleagues have “power-with.” In my experience, we choose different kinds of power depending on our context. Part of that context in organizations might be the reward system.

In families, I see all kinds of power dynamics. In my experience, guilt is an outcome of power-over. I suspect Frieda experiences family-based guilt regularly and other types of power-over dynamics.

However, power-with can offer us a gentle way to avoid triangulation—especially in organizations.

Who Asks for Triangulation?

If a peer, like Frieda, asks for triangulation, consider power-with responses. What can you do together? Can you support your colleague to ask for what they want?

If you catch yourself triangulating, where do you need the courage to ask for what you want? (You might like How Can You Use Your Fear or Vulnerability to Create Courage?)

What if your boss uses power-over to ask you to triangulate? Here are three possibilities:

  • Ask your boss what they want as a way to explore alternatives to triangulation. (That’s a power-with approach.)
  • Say no in any number of ways. (I’ve said before that No is a complete sentence.)
  • Explore options that create power-with: with your boss and the other person.

Remember, if you choose to go along with your boss, you allow your boss to use their power over you.

If you encounter triangulation, consider a power-with approach to stop triangulating.

This newsletter’s question of the month is: Which kind of power do you need to avoid triangulation?


You might enjoy some of my online workshops:

Read More of Create an Adaptable Life

If you only read the newsletter, I hope you also read the blog where I write a question of the week each week. Here are other links you might find useful:

Till next time, Johanna

© 2021 Johanna Rothman

3 thoughts on “Which Kind of Power Do You Need to Avoid Triangulation?”

  1. Johanna, while there are certainly valid points you make about triangulation and power (with/over), I think the issues of triangulation have been exacerbated greatly over the past five years in the USA, to the detriment of the entire country. Triangulation is a technique routinely employed by malignant narcissists as a quick and dirty way to get the narcissistic supply (attention, feelings of being important / powerful / worthy, etc) that they need to keep going.

    They find ways to create tension, and make people have the impression that the narcissist is the most important person in the room. At the same time, they use deception and misinformation (gaslighting) to ensure that the target is always off-balance, unable to trust the empirical evidence of their own senses.

    That said, psychologists agree that the best way to get out of the bind is a “counter-triangulation,” which means assembling multiple authoritative, trusted sources who can objectively state the reality of what’s under discussion (“Oh, really? What or who supports what you’re saying?” This is also what trained journalists do, except they call it “double-sourcing.” Single sourcing is not worth much more than gossip.


    1. Marsha, you are certainly correct that narcissists employ various kinds of triangulation. To be honest, I have yet to see multiple sources help when someone is determined not to change their minds. Sigh. (I totally agree with you re single-sourcing.)

      However, I think you hit on another way triangulation plays out: Whataboutism. When I hear a “whatabout” argument, I’m pretty sure the other person is deflecting me from a real discussion of the issues.

  2. Pingback: Which Battles Do You Choose to Fight and When? - Create An Adaptable Life

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