Triangulation (Argue Better 2021 #6)

Photo by Rafael Garcin on Unsplash

This is the sixth in a series called “Argue Better 2021” about how we can improve how we argue, discuss, and engage with each other. If you missed the previous entries, you can find them here: first | second | third | fourth | fifth

In the previous post, I mentioned 3 tools to keep at hand when you’re having your discussion or argument. It’s time for the second tool, triangulation.

Discussing controversial topics can feel like a battle between two sides. Going head-to-head with someone activates all sorts of non-constructive emotions: it makes the conflict personal, making it easy to slip into ad hominem attacks. It puts your ego at risk, making coming to an agreement or changing your mind feel like losing.  One glance at the US Congress will show what happens when every topic is framed as a battle between two opponents.

Triangulation is a way of re-framing the conversation: instead of treating this as a person-to-person debate, you figuratively turn, stand side-by-side with your partner, and face the problem together. You, your partner, and the problem – a triangle. Now there’s a way for everyone to “win,” and the problem is what gets defeated. The most important part of triangulation is the mental stance. Every time you feel yourself getting irritated, frustrated, or mad at your partner, and especially every time you feel like insulting their stupid haircut and that ugly t-shirt they always wear, remind yourself that you are on the same side – the side of solving the problem. I do this just by literally thinking to myself: “They aren’t my enemy, we are on the same team.”

You can bring your partner into this mindset by framing things verbally: “We both see this as a serious problem, let’s figure it out together,” or “We’re on the same side here, we both want the same things. We just have different approaches for how to get it.”

Statements using “we” and “let’s” help build that sense of togetherness. And you may have noticed that these statements can serve double duty to build agreement.

If geography and pandemic rules permit, you can even triangulate physically. I’m a big fan of whiteboards; nothing beats writing the problem up on a board, actually standing next to each other, and looking at the issue. The physical triangulation supports the mental framing of teamwork, as opposed to, say, setting up a table where you sit across from each other and give each other dirty looks. Boxing rings are also poor settings for constructive discussions.

It bears noting that some people use triangulation for nefarious purposes. Narcissists, for example, when criticized, may try to blame someone else and bring you onto their side against that person. It just goes to show you that triangles, like any powerful tool, can be used for evil as well as for good. You do not want to follow the path of the dark side and triangulate by choosing a scapegoat. Make sure you are triangulating with the problem not just scoring points with your partner by turning the conflict against a third party.

Triangulation and building agreement may feel weird to you. In American society, we don’t really train our kids to have this skill. Perhaps I’m shortchanging our educational system, but it seems like we either throw kids into group activities and expect them to teach themselves how to work together, or we train them in antagonistic techniques, like debate. While training to take either side of an argument can help you see that each has valid points, the fundamental assumption is that there are always two opposing sides and the goal is to “beat” the other one. Why not instead teach techniques for how to identify shared values, bridge differences, and work together?

So get your “let’s” and “we” statements ready, and go practice triangulating.

Next up: Exploding labels


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