I’m using my blog posts this year to explore a question that emerged from my encounter with Luke 19:42 last year: What are the things that make for peace? You can find the rest of the series here.
I heard a story this week about a school principal that made me smile. If I had kids, I might want to send them to his school just based on this one anecdote. As the new school year began, the principal let parents know from the outset: “If you have a conflict with someone from school this year, and if you come and talk to me (the principal) about it, I’m going to ask you one question: ‘What did that person say when you talked to them about this?’ If you haven’t talked to them yet, then I’m not going to talk to you until you do so.”
What a champ! I wish him well as he attempts to build a culture that models healthy conflict resolution.
How much grief could we avoid for ourselves and others if we followed this one simple rule? Do you have a problem with someone? Talk to them about it! It seems so simple. But why is it so hard for most of us to do?
One explanation I find really helpful: it’s all about triangles. When we’re feeling negative emotions toward another person (anger, sadness, fear, frustration), the most common reaction is to bring a third person into it. Peter Steinke puts it this way: “When A is at odds with B, the most anxious of the pair introduces C (third party) to reduce anxiety between A and B.” 
That may sound a little complex, but consider this familiar story:
God (A) confronts Adam (B) about eating the fruit. Adam blames Eve (C).
God (A) confronts Eve (B) about eating the fruit. Eve blames the snake (C).
The snake doesn’t get a chance to defend itself, but we can imagine what it might say. (“The devil made me do it”?)
Does this work? Absolutely! Adam will not be alone in accepting responsibility for his actions! But now his spouse also knows that he’s willing to throw her under the bus whenever he gets in trouble … so I’m guessing that’s not great for the long-term of their relationship?
Blame-shifting like Adam and Eve might accomplish the short-term goal of alleviating negative emotions for a moment. However, it also locks those negative emotions into the relationship for the long-haul. Adam’s feeling a little shaky in his relationship with God, and now he’s introduced that same shakiness into his relationship with Eve. The only way to get those negative emotions out of the relationship, and re-establish the conditions for peace, is for someone to take personal responsibility for their relationship.
Triangles appear in a number of different ways:
We can imagine the principal mentioned above has heard some variation of this one: “My child’s teacher did X in class last week. What are you going to do about it?”
One of my favorites as a minister is this one: “Preacher, I’m just looking out for you here, but some people are saying…”
For those in positions of authority and responsibility, like a school principal or a church leader, triangles can be particularly dangerous. Because it can often sound a lot like a request for help (i.e. “Mr. X used to be my friend, but now is being entirely unreasonable. Could you just talk to him for me and try to straighten him out?”). And isn’t helping people exactly what we’d like to do?
The practice of “De-Triangulation” is all about accepting responsibility for your own relationship with someone and encouraging them to accept responsibility for their own relationship with another. Don’t let yourself or someone else be placed into the “C” position. Don’t talk about people, talk to people. The principal above is a great example of this practice in action.
Can you imagine a world in which this was our default mode? Can you even imagine a school in which this is the default mode? I hope our principal friend soon finds out, but I’m glad he’s starting with himself. How about a church? How much unnecessary conflict and grief could we avoid by simply taking personal responsibility for our relationships and expecting others to do the same?
If all that sounds too lofty to expect, maybe we can start by asking each other a simple question whenever one of us slips into blame mode: “What did that person say when you talked to them about this?”