Back to basics: The Triangle 1

A story is told of legendary Packers football coach Vince Lombardi, whose toughness and demand for excellence turned the losing Green Bay football team into a championship organization. The story goes that after a particularly dismal practice he halted the drills and called the players together. He announced that they needed to start from the beginning, by paying attention to the fundamentals. At which point he held up the ball and said, “Gentlemen, this is a football.”

One fundamental of Bowen Systems Theory (BFST) is the triangle. Sometimes we tell struggling novices to the theory, “If you understand triangles you’ve got 90% of the theory.” Recently I was interviewed by author and consultant Margaret Marcuson on the topic of triangles. It afforded me an opportunity to go back to basics and think about this fundamental concept. In the next few blogs I’ll share portions of that interview and the prompting questions from Margaret. Here’s the first:
How would you define a triangle?

A triangle is a concept used to describe a relationship structure, or dynamic, between persons. In BFST the concept is used to identify how relationship dynamics manifest anxiety, or, how relationships get patterned. The basic structure of a triangle is simply three persons, or, two persons and an issue. I think what’s important to understand about triangles is that it is the dynamic at play within the triangle that is more important than its structure. Too often people focus on the individual parties in the triangle, or, an issue. But it is the systemic dynamic in the triangle that is important to understand.

For example, most families are structured the same: parent, parent, and child. Or, spouse, spouse, and issues. That structure obviously sets up the system for a triangle: parent-parent-child. But the natural structure becomes significant when the dynamic of anxiety becomes a factor. It is less helpful, for example, to focus on the personalities of the parties (Bob the dad, Mary the mother, John the child) than it is to focus on the emotional process at work in the triangles that happen in a family system that involves parents and children.

The same is true in a congregational setting. One natural triangle is Pastor-congregation-leadership issues. It is more helpful to focus on the systemic congregational dynamics of that triangle than it is to overfocus on the personality of Beth the pastor, the blue-collar congregation, and the ideas about the pastoral role of leadership.

From, Perspectives on Congregational Leadership: Applying Systems Theory for Effective Leadership, by Israel Galindo. See the new Perspectives on Congregational Leadership blog site.

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About igalindo

Israel Galindo is Professor and Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at Columbia Theological Seminary.
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2 Responses to Back to basics: The Triangle 1

  1. John Rosenberg says:

    Israel, Thanks for the pieces on triangles. I discovered your blog through mutual friend and colleague, Margaret Marcuson. One small quibble: I don’t believe Vince Lombardi ever coached in Pittsburgh. His professional coaching career was with the NY Giants, the Green Bay Packers, and a brief stint with the Washington Redskins before this death. As someone born and raised in Wisconsin, I was required to know this in order to graduate from high school. Perhaps it serves as an example of a classic triangle: me, my hopes for a normal adult life, and the Green Bay Packers. I could never understand the relationship between the Packers and normal adulthood. I could only focus on my relationships with each of them respectively. Am I getting it? jpr

  2. Thanks for the correction, John. Indeed, it’s the Green Bay Packers, not Pittsburgh. An interesting mental slip–I guess I’m still thinking about Pittsburg’s Stanley Cup victory—wife and son are fans so had to live through countless hours of games (including pre- and post-game shows) and conversations about Pittsburgh. Correction made.

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