We Are What We Make

Communication, Relationships, and Meaning

Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Using the “Triplet”

Conversations can take turns we did not intend. Suddenly, we findourselves confused, angry or trapped. We ask, “What just happened?”

Let’s look at a request made by employer A to her employee B:

A (1st turn): I know it’s already 4:50, but I need the draft of the executive report by tomorrow morning.

B (2nd turn): But I have tickets for a concert tonight.

A (3rd turn): Well you will have to make a decision about what is more important, the concert or your job.

So what exactly is happening between A and B? Employee B is feeling trapped and anxious. Although we might empathize with the employee who may miss a concert he’s been waiting months to attend, employer A is actually trapped, as well. Feeling captive within the dynamic of a difficult conversation is quite common.

Our conversational patterns influence our behavior and shape our interactions.We notice these patterns in our communication with not just anyone, but with the people who matter most to us: our family, significant other, boss, or colleagues.

There is a concept in communication called the triplet. It is an A-B-A exchange with three turns that can shift a dialogue in turn three. The current third turn sounded like a threat to the employee, which puts him between a rock and a hard place. Either choice will lead to an ultimatum, resentment or sabotage.

The responsibility of creating a dialogue that promotes more mutually beneficial outcomes lies with both parties. When we co-construct episodes that create better patterns, we foster better relationships. We have more self-determination or agency over our communication than we may think. We cannot directly control another person’s response to us; we can only try to control our own response to them.

Consider the same conversation as above, but with the employer taking a different third turn:

A (1st turn): I know it’s already 4:50, but I need the draft of the executive report by tomorrow morning.

B (2nd turn): But I have tickets for a concert tonight.

A (3rd turn): I know it is last minute (and I apologize for that). What are some ideas you have about how you can go to the concert and complete the assignment for tomorrow morning? I am open to hearing your suggestions.

Asking for ideas, invites a shared problem solving approach. The employer provides an opportunity for the employee to have voice showcasing flexibility, while there is still urgency and an expectation the assignment will be done within a specified time frame.

The demands of challenging conversations cannot always be alleviated in a triplet. There are many factors that shape the direction in which a dialogue may move including history of the relationship, power dynamics, cultural orientations and communication agility. The key to fluid and productive communication is in the process of co-creating constructive patterns of speech; this can begin by being more aware of how we take the third turn in our conversations.

Beth Fisher-Yoshida, Ph.D., CCS, is a Facilitator, Educator, Mediator and Executive Coach, who partners with clients to improve communication and relationships.

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