Community Management: Emotional Triangles, Accusers And Direct Dealing

It’s time to throw the yellow flag on an unprofessional and inappropriate behavior.

Imagine the following scenario.

You are part of an online community of professionals. One of your eCommunity colleagues comes to you and has a problem with another person.

Do you become part of the problem or part of the solution? What do you do?

The Accuser, The Listener And The Accused

Someone (the accuser) comes to you (the listener) to talk about another person (the accused) with whom they have a difference of opinion, a problem or a complaint. They want your advice. They need a listening ear.

The listener thinks they are helping. Ironically, the listener reinforces the problem by being a relief valve to the accuser. Then the accuser feels less compelled to deal directly with the accused.

Even worse, the listener often falls into the trap of reinforcing the accuser by heaping more blame on the accused. And worst of all, often the accused has no idea of the drama that’s unfolding.

The accuser’s real motive, regardless of what they say, is to rally support against the accused. They want to convince the listener that the accused has wronged them. They want to lay their conflict at the listener’s doorstep with the expectation that the listener will resolve it for them.

Such indirectness turns simple conversations into major dramas. And it destroys communities.

Emotional Triangles And Personal Fouls

By talking to the listener, instead of the accused, the accuser has committed a personal foul against the listener. They have created Triangulation.

Whenever we focus on something with another person other than that relationship, we create a triangle. Our focus becomes the third point in the triangle. It also becomes a bonding experience.

Triangles are very stable. Add to that triangle the pattern of blame and avoidance and you create a bond as strong as cement.

Systems thinker Edwin Friedman says, “The basic law of emotional triangles is that when any two parts of a system become uncomfortable with one another, they will ‘triangle in’ or focus upon a third person, or issue, as a way of stabilizing their own relationship with one another.”


Ultimately, triangulation is simply having an issue with someone and talking about it with somebody else. It occurs when two (or more) parties commiserate together about a third party, rather than working on their issues directly with the third party.

Triangulation also creates an us vs. them culture. Groups bond together in opposition to them. Blame and defensiveness fuels the triangulation. The pattern becomes an excuse and a crutch. It becomes a third-party offense as the listener is now also offended by the accused’s alleged actions.

When people focus their blame on them, their ability to see their own internal issues erodes.

In contrast, a systemic thinker seeks to understand how their own behavior influences other. And vice versa. A systemic thinker also throws a yellow foul flag with an accuser starts unloading accusations.

My Personal Rant About Whining And Direct Dealing

I have personally reached my limit on passive-aggressive indirection. No more whining. No more raised eyebrows. No more smug dismissals like, “Well, that’s interesting.” If I want to express myself or counter rudeness, I choose to do so directly.

Sneering and whining come from a feeling of powerlessness. And from the fear that powerlessness breeds. Thus, muttering at the water cooler, bellyaching at the bar, kvetching about overbearing others is a waste of time.

I believe in direct-dealing. Many corporate employee handbooks state so as well. It’s time for the accuser to have the courage and chutzpah to deal directly with the accused, not a third party listener. Act like an adult and you’ll be treated as such.

I think directness is a decision we each make and then steadfastly apply one day at a time. It doesn’t make the world any less annoying. But at least we are showing respect for self and other.

How can we avoid triangulation if we are the listener? What’s worked for you in helping others deal directly with those that have offended them?

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  1. Christina says:

    Hi Jeff! Great post – and the theme of your post definitely carries over to situations in real life in addition to eCommunities. Blunt advice, but very good reminders of how to avoid unnecessary drama and conflict. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Totally agree…it carries to real life as well. Thanks for reading and posting too.

      That’s a difficult situation for sure! Hope it works out for you.

  2. Inge Hafkemeyer says:

    Wow your timing is superb. This just happened to me in my “new/dream” job with a coordinator I was supposed to supervise & the VP I reported to. Basically started from day one and ended up being a no win situation for me. The VP/listener did not have the experience or maturity to stop this PLUS she “asked” for this type of input.

  3. Thanks for this post, Jeff. Definitely lots of triangulation going these days.

    This post prompted me to pull out a favorite book, “Crucial Conversations.” They say crucial conversations occur when (1) Stakes are high; (2)Opinions vary; (3) Emotions run strong.

    In these situations, 70% of the time, people retreat. Often they go silent — sometimes they go to that 3rd party listener you described and vent. Either way, there’s no progress on resolving the issue. In fact, the problem just grew bigger.

    This reluctance to go straight to the source spans beyond the workplace. Heck, I think we may need a grand scale intervention to get us all back in shape and dealing directly and respectfully with each other.

    Hmmm — how about the “No More Whining, Let’s Deal Directly” road tour 😉

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Yes, it is so true that often people retreat when faced with a conflict with another individual. I’ve seen some employer handbooks that are trying to minimize this type of damage by clearly defiing gossip and expectations of direct dealing. It’s something that must be supported and modeled by those at the top or it breeds a culture of distrust and whining.

      The road tour sound great. Could be the name of a great book too!

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