30 min
By: ENC Leaders

Episode 9: Leading in Anxious Times, Emotional Triangles

Emotional triangles or triangles in relationships contribute to us getting stuck in anxiety. Let’s learn to identify them, respond to them, and “detriangulate.”

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Show notes:

1:53 – The triangles of relationships

  • Emotional triangles or the triangles of relationships: They help you know the difference between a valid need and a healthy connection in a relationship or overstepping into someone’s responsibility or someone overstepping into your responsibility.
  • All emotional systems are made up of triangles. A triangle is a relationship of three people that should only have two people in it.
  • Triangles are not necessarily good or bad, but when there’s anxiety, the triangle can help the anxiety flow, it gets locked in, and we get stuck in continuous, chronic anxiety.

4:28 – Examples of triangles in action

1. When you don’t want to tell someone what you think, so you pull in a third person instead of just sharing your point with the person you wanted to talk to in the first place. It might help in the short term, but it doesn’t help build trust in the long run.

2. It could be the flip side: Someone makes use of a third party (or a “ghost mob”) to communicate their message to you. You end up anxious, not knowing how to respond.

  • It’s not bad to consult with someone on an issue, but we don’t use the situation or other people to give up our responsibility.

3. A team member doesn’t want to confront another team member so they talk to a third party about it. This third party provides relief by allowing grievances to be aired, but the person who is doing the offending stays oblivious.

  • This ends up being a cycle: Whenever the offended person has a problem, they go to their “savior” to rant and feel better.
  • This is one of the most classic forms of Triangulation (look up “the Drama Triangle”): the Persecutor, the Victim, and the Savior. All three play a part in maintaining the triangle.

Triangles are normal. But when they go wrong, they spread anxiety while disempowering us from taking responsibility over ourselves.

13:08 – What makes triangles go wrong?

1. When you can’t stay emotionally neutral. When you hear something bad about a teammate and it affects the way you interact with that person, even though you weren’t the one offended.

2. When it steps over or makes us give up our responsibility. We either disempower the one who’s being the victim, because we keep saving them instead of letting the Holy Spirit move through them. Or we disempower ourselves when we play the victim and run to someone to save us, when God gives us the power to act.

3. When we are hindering two people from having a real relationship by getting in the way.

  • Many children are triangled by their parents’ issues.
  • Many friends are triangled into other friends’ fighting.
  • Teammates are all triangled when they all know about the issue between two people.

We always have to ask: God, what are you telling me to do? How should I respond?

Pastors, church leaders, small group leaders, volunteers—we are very prone to this, because people pass us their problems all the time. It’s difficult, but participating in triangles doesn’t solve the problem.

The most powerful leadership is when we empower to people to take responsibility for themselves.

17:15 – Jesus in triangles (examples and quotes from The Leader’s Journey by Jim Herrington, pages 61 to 63)

  • “[Jesus] refuses to become part of the anxiety that resides in the relationship between others.”

1. Luke 12:13–15: “When a man asks Jesus to arbitrate a dispute between himself and his brother over an estate. Jesus chooses to stay out of that one and calls the man to examine his own motives of greed.”

2. John 21:22: “Jesus refuses Peter’s attempt to focus his attention on John, instead keeping the spotlight on Peter’s own relationship with him… Notice how he deals with the other two parties personally and focuses on maintaining his own position with each.”

3. Luke 10:41–42: “Jesus’s simple response to an anxious Martha effectively removed him from the triangle she was forming to change her sister’s behavior He called her to examine her own priorities and to allow Mary her choices.”

19:56 – Detriangulation

  • “When we become aware of our participation as the third person in an activated triangle, our aim is to stay emotionally connected to the other two players while attempting to remain emotionally neutral about the symptomatic issue.”- Jim Herrington, The Leader’s Journey
  • I’m still the game, but I’m not emotionally triggered by the issue that’s triggering both of you.
  • “Detriangling is remaining connected to each of the other corners but not getting in between them. When emotions are running high, this may be a bigger challenge than we imagine. The effort to detriangle is an effort to ‘differentiate’ ourselves from the emotionality of the other two, not an effort to distance ourselves from them.” – Jim Herrington, The Leader’s Journey
  • Differentiated, not distanced. — “I hear you, but I don’t need to respond like how you are responding, because I need to hear from God and do what He’s telling me to do.”
  • Casting our anxieties to God is really the breakthrough move.
  • “The most strategic role in the system is that of the calm observer. Someone needs to be in the position of being able to see what is going on. Shouldn’t it be you, the leader? As anxiety in the system rises, so must our resolve to remain composed. As leaders, when we focus on the process, we learn not to automatically take sides on the presenting issue. Stay alert; the togetherness force will become intense, calling for you as leader to arbitrate. Instead, you must learn to stay focused on God, your principles, and your reactions. You must also learn to avoid taking responsibility for the relationship of the other two. Only by doing so can you ultimately be helpful.” – Jim Herrington, The Leader’s Journey

What does this quote tell us?

1. Don’t automatically take sides.

  • “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” – Proverbs 18:17

2. “The togetherness force will become intense, calling for you as leader to arbitrate.”

  • A togetherness force is a herding mentality.
  • Are you not being given room to step back and consider? Are you not being given the time to check? If you feel this as a leader, you know there’s anxiety somewhere.

3. “Instead, you must learn to stay focused on God, your principles, and your reactions.”

  • What is God telling me? Maybe God is speaking through this person. Maybe it’s just their anxiety triggering mine.

4. “You must also learn to avoid taking responsibility for the relationship of the other two. Only by doing so can you ultimately be helpful.”

  • This is ultimately empowering them.

26:00 – Statements to hold on to

  1. I don’t need to do what other people are forcing me to do. I need to ask God what He wants me to do now.
  2. Disentanglement doesn’t mean disconnection.
  3. When I take responsibility for my life and allow you to take responsibility for yours, we will enjoy healthier relationships.

27:55 – Identify common triangles in your life. Start by asking these questions—

  1. Where am I shirking my responsibilities and looking to someone else to do them?
  2. Where am I playing the part of savior and assuming someone else’s responsibilities?
  3. Where am I getting in the way of two people who should be relating more directly with each other?

Other resources mentioned in this podcast:

  1. Episode 5: Leading in Anxious Times, A Series Overview
  2. Episode 6: Leading in Anxious Times, The Leader’s Emotions
  3. Episode 7: Leading in Anxious Times, The Leader’s Responsibility
  4. Episode 8: Leading in Anxious Times, The Leader’s Relationships
  5. Pastor Seth Trimmer’s podcast episode with Steve Cuss: Sources of Anxiety

The ENC Leadership Podcast is hosted by Joseph Bonifacio.

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