Triangulation is one of the most common forms of social manipulation tactics. It happens in work environments all the time. It is the favorite tactic that haters use for their own devices. And the reality is that we have all engaged in this tactic at some time or other in our lives, some of us chronically. Triangulation occurs when instead of communicating directly to someone that we have a conflict with so as to create resolution, we go to another third person with the subconscious or even conscious desire to get them on our side, against the person we have the conflict with. We may use them as an in-between to relay information to the person we have the conflict with. But this is not the same as using an intermediary, because the subconscious intention in triangulation is to divide. We are using one person against the other. Subconsciously, we think our only way of maintaining our self-concept of being a good person, is to get other people to validate that we are the good one in the conflict. The way to do this is to get that person to have an issue with the person we have an issue with too.
We have decided that the best way to get someone to side with us against someone is to make ourselves look like the good guy and to make the other look like the bad guy. Even if we are the one who is in fact creating the problem in the first place, we will play the victim. Even more commonly simply not see that we are the one who is being the bad guy in a scenario, but is pointing at the other to save our self-concept. The one who looks like the victim is always seen as the good guy in human society and so people have come up with several strategies for looking like the victim, even when they are not. I went into this dynamic in depth in my videos titled: Triangle From Hell (The Victim, Villain, Hero dynamic) and The Victim Control Dynamic (Escaping Control Drama in Relationships). I highly suggest you watch those videos to gain full awareness of these patterns.
Most people have no idea that they are being triangulated and there is one glaring reason why. People who are skilled at triangulation as a means of manipulation will never make it obvious that they are trying to turn someone against someone else so as to get their own needs met. Instead, they will gaslight and lie and do and say anything that makes it look otherwise so as to never have their tactic, which is often highly subconscious, be seen. And the most common camouflage that they use is: Other people’s insecurities.
We are incredibly skilled when it comes to creating transactions so as to get our own needs met. To create transactions, we have to be able to sense exactly what people’s needs are. We feel if we can meet those needs, our own needs will be met in exchange. But here is where the ground is fertile for manipulation. When we have unmet needs, it means we have insecurities. For example, if someone needs desperately to be understood, that same person has insecurity about being misunderstood. Therefore, if we are going to triangulate well, we are going to play that person’s insecurities against the person we have a conflict with at the same time as giving them the impression that we are going to meet their unmet need. This is especially easy to do when people are lonely. When this is the case, all we have to do is to give the person we are subconsciously trying to triangulate the impression that they can have closeness with us through opposing the other person. It is to find unity through a common enemy. It is to use division with someone as a way to gain closeness with someone else.
The reason that a person being triangulated will hardly ever see that they are being triangulated is because the person who is triangulating is rarely ever going to create a new problem with the person they are triangulating people against. Instead, they will camouflage their intentions by using a wound or insecurity or unmet need that they can feel already exists between that person and the person they are triangulating against. They are in essence capitalizing on a crack that already exists to make it a grand canyon. This gets the person doing the triangulating the validation in their feeling of being a victim and the validation that their claims against the one being triangulated against are credible. But the person being triangulated isn’t aware of any of that, they simply feel that this crack existed before the conflict occurred between the triangulator and the one being triangulated against. So they don’t attribute the Grand Canyon to the triangulator at all. Instead they will own the triangulator’s conflict as their own conflict with the other person. They then become a defender. The small issue that they, themselves did not directly resolve with the person, now when fueled by the triangulator, becomes a forest fire. The one doing the triangulating has successfully managed to camouflage their own agenda, like a chameleon, in such a way that the person being turned against the person the triangulator has the conflict with, mistakes the agenda for their own.
Here is an example: We have person A, B and C. Person A has a conflict with person B. So, person A goes to person C about that conflict. Person A knows that person C feels insignificant to person B. Therefore, person A begins to complain about how insignificant person B makes him or her feel and suggests that person B really should value and prioritize person C more. Person A then proceeds to give person C the impression that they value them and will prioritize them. This fuels the pain between person B and person C. Person B will then act as a carrier of that conflict between person A and person C. Person B will be convinced the true victim is person A. Person B has been manipulated into identifying with person A. Person B will then defend person A and try to resolve the conflict for person A, when what they are really doing is standing up for themselves against person C but indirectly. Person A has successfully played person B against person C. And they can continue to do this over and over until they have accrued an army and divided everyone against the person they have the conflict with.
If someone grows up in a dysfunctional family, this kind of chess game will be so much a part of the social dynamics they learned in the household that this entire behavior will be totally subconscious and will feel normal to them. Chances are, they were triangulated against a parent or siblings and chances are that other people in the family were triangulated against them. They never learned that any other way of social interaction was possible when conflict arose.
If you want a good example of triangulation, watch Season 4, episode 1 of the TV show Law and Order Criminal Intent. This episode is titled: Semi Detached. But what should you do to avoid triangulation and to make sure you are not triangulated?
Figure out what you need then meet those needs and meet them directly. The first thing to understand about triangulation is that it is a manipulation and manipulation is all about needs. There is nothing malicious about manipulation even though it can destroy lives. Manipulation only occurs when a person feels they cannot get their needs met directly and so they must get them met indirectly. To understand more about this, watch my video titled: Meet your Needs!
Deal with conflict when it is tiny and directly with the person we have that conflict with. Most of us hate conflict and so when it first occurs, we feel that little bit of resistance, but we don’t address it with the person when we are at a level 2 of discomfort. Instead, we suppress and give the other person the impression that we are fine. So the situation escalates until we are at a level 10. It is much easier to deal with a conflict when it is very small and it is much less scary too. The rupture is very easily repaired at that point. The more we repair those tiny ruptures in our sense of closeness, the more secure the relationship will feel. It will not be possible for someone to use our suppressed issues with someone as a way to triangulate us against them when we have already repaired them or are in a habit of repairing them because we will feel trust towards that person. We will also feel less inclined to get people to side with us so we feel capable of facing that conflict specifically because we have backup.
If we are being 2 faced, showing one face to the person we have a conflict with and another face behind their back, it is a red flag. We will most likely begin to triangulate people around them. Many of us are passive aggressive because we are afraid of conflict and feel intimidated by whomever we have the conflict with. But if we aren’t brave enough to deal with things head on and initiate dealing with them head on, we will begin to manipulate and by doing so, become a person we don’t want to be.
Try to figure out what someone actually needs and actually wants, both in general and what they want from you when they are coming to you regarding a conflict with someone else. What is their actual intent of telling you what they are telling you? Ask the person who is triangulating directly what they want out of telling you what they are telling you. Ask if if they are just venting or if they expect you to do something. Oftentimes you will be able to feel the truth of why, even if their words sound as if their intentions are good. If they are just venting, you should still encourage them to talk directly to the source. This questioning will help the person to think about what they are actually doing. If they want to be defended and sided with against someone, they should have to say that directly. There is a very different feel to a situation when a person is really coming to us to gain insight about how to resolve a situation and when a person is coming to us to relive anxiety and feel connected through division.
It is natural that in a conflict, we want support. It isn’t wrong to get it. The harm is done in what kind of support we want and whether we manipulate to get it. When you have a problem and run to someone else for support, you, like most people, want that person to agree that you were wronged. You also want that person to show you in some way that what the other person did was wrong so you can feel settled in terms of not being the one ‘in the wrong’ and therefore avoiding shame. This feels soothing and safe because when you do this, you are creating an alliance or a partnership with the person. An alliance that also makes you feel good about yourself. Regardless of whether you intended it or not, this creates a two people against one dynamic. This is very difficult to undo and you may be responsible for ruining several relationships all so you can feel that sense of alliance.
We often fall into the trap of thinking that everyone wants resolution. The reality is that resolution of conflict is not always the actual desire or need a person has. This is especially true if what someone needs in a scenario is related to self-esteem. When a person needs an increase in self-esteem, they will usually not want resolution as much as they want to be the good guy or want to prove they are better than the other person in some way. For this, they actually must keep the other person in the bad guy role to get that need met. Resolution in this case is contrary to their actual need.
Pay special attention to when one person says things about another person that either creates or fuels a problem between you and the other person they have the conflict with. Realize that 2 parties in a conflict often have completely different stories and perceptions about the same event. So getting information through only one party is a biased perception. And getting information through a third party is totally unreliable.
We can use any situation where we are being triangulated to get closer to the person being triangulated against. When someone is triangulating us, we will begin to feel insecurities about the person they have a conflict with. In essence, we will feel our own conflict with them magnified. At this moment, we should go directly to that person and address our conflict with them, but leaving the person who is triangulating and their issue out of it completely. For example, using the previous scenario, person B should come to person C and talk about their feelings of insignificance and feeling not prioritized. And that talk should have nothing to do with person A at all. By resolving this issue directly, we can remain a neutral party in the conflict between two people who are having a conflict.
Use an objective facilitator. Often times, if a conflict is too big, the use of an outside person who can’t be used as a tool against someone is the best way to go in order to create resolution. If triangulation has been used to split a group of people, a group meeting must be held with all of the people involved and hopefully with an objective facilitator. This disallows the person doing the triangulation from continuing to be the in-between in the relationships around them. Everything can then be put on the table at one time and because everyone is there to see what everyone else says directly, the door is closed to any misinterpretation or misrepresentation. No one is hearing things through any one else. The conversation should end with agreement on specific actions and behaviors they will take to avoid triangulating in the future.
There are very rare situations in which the best option for people is to separate. But no matter how hard it is, in almost every situation, our goal should be to resolve the rift between someone and ourselves so we feel close to them. Our goal should also be to resolve the rift between someone and whomever they have a conflict with, not enhance the rift. We need to be in the habit of direct conflict resolution to accomplish this goal.
It is very easy to fall into the trap of enhancing the triangle once you appear in it. The sad reality is that once one person decides they need support against someone they are in conflict with, you are part of the triangle, whether you intentionally chose to be or not and whether you like it or not. Whenever you are dealing with a triangle and you are in any role within that triangle, the question to keep in your mind as a north star is; right here in this statement or action, am I enhancing the triangle or am I helping to unravel the triangle?
- Develop empathy and compassion. The antidote to triangulation is empathy. In an initial conflict, usually both parties are victims in some way. For example, we may be the victim of someone not prioritizing us. But they might be the victim of extreme pressure which is why they aren’t prioritizing us. Empathy is not designed to negate our hurt. It is designed to make it so we can stay united and not locked into our own perception. Empathy will ensure that we do not cast ourselves or other people in any of the roles of the bad guy, the victim and the rescuer and simply deal with the conflict at hand as well as the needs that conflict is flushing to the surface. To learn how to do this, watch my video titled: Compassion and How to Cultivate Compassion.
Triangulation is something that we see in families, in neighborhoods, in cultures, in politics, in religions. It is part of human behavior. But it is part of human behavior that keeps you stuck and that divides us all.