It can be as distressing as you and your boss disagreeing over an aspect of your project management or as mundane as a couple arguing about whose turn it is to take out the wheelie bin on a wet and blustery December night. Disagreements flare up and when unchecked trundle headlong into bitter feuds which lead to both parties holding siege on their viewpoints. We all know that even (especially?) close relationships be they personal or professional are fraught with frissons of disagreement. When they are left unsolved they can fester into open sores that spoil and threaten an important relationship.
How can we as coaches, co-workers, family and friends elicit empathy that enables two individuals locked in disagreement to move forward? Systems coaches, Dr Faith Fuller and Marita Fridjhon, who have over 20 years experience working with relationship systems, developed a useful tool called The Third Entity Exercise. It simplicity belies its potency and I have found myself using it increasingly following their training in the fundamentals of systems coaching. Fuller and Fridjhon clearly outline the process below and issue the caveat that this tool should only be used for mild disagreements.
What is it? How is it used? Think 3 angles, think triangle. The coach walks the client/coachee/friend/co-worker through the following four steps:
1.The first angle of the triangle is the coachee’s personal corner. The coachee stands here, with coach beside them and the coachee speaks directly to their partner/work colleague/boss/direct report (for the purposes of this article the term partner will be used) at the opposite end, telling them exactly how they feel, what they think. The client holds fast to their opinion. They are literally and figuratively in their own corner.
2. The opposite angle of the triangle is the partner’s corner. The coachee now stands here, with the coach beside them and the coachee speaks from the position of the partner. The coachee holds fast onto their partner’s opinions and feelings and is literally and figuratively in their partner’s corner. If as the coach, you hear the insidious voice of the coachee, take the coachee back to their corner and let them vent until they are ready to stand in their partner’s corner gain.
3. Now move with the coachee to the apex of the triangle, between both individuals and a slight distance away. This is the third entity, the relationship system. The relationship between coachee and their partner. The relationship is a ‘living, breathing entity with the wisdom of its own’. At this juncture, the coachee is encouraged to become the relationship and to look at the two individuals locked in conflict and ask: ‘What does it feel like to watch coachee and partner? What do you know that coachee and partner don’t? What do coachee and partner need to do?
4. The final step is for the coach to walk the coachee back to their corner and ask them what is new for them now. What action would they now take to repair the relationship?
I have found the following when using this exercise as a coaching tool:
- There is an almost instantaneous aha moment for the coachee. The realisation of what went wrong in the relationship and why.
- It is an empathy-building exercise that enables the coachee to stand in their partner’s shoes while not having them walk a mile in it.
- It allows venting and the inevitable’ he said’, ‘she said’
- When standing at the apex, with its emphasis on the relationship, there is a non-blaming stance that opens the door to a resolution and a quick win
- It gives voice to the all-important relationship
- It downsizes the content of the argument and upgrades the value of maintaining and improving the relationship
Sudhana Singh is the Director at Imbue Coaching. Follow her on Twitter @ SudhanaSingh