HYCS #10 – Defusing the Consulting Triangle

HYCS #10 – Defusing the Consulting Triangle

The triangle is the source of all that goes right and wrong with human interaction.

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Word Count: 951

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Assignment Time: 10 minutes

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Like a dark planet that deforms the orbits of nearby stars, the unacknowledged third thing is what turns straightforward interactions into a confusing mess.  Every conversation has a triangle. Consulting relationships have this one:

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How the Consulting Triangle Works

Every triangle has a “hot leg.”  This is the relationship that has become so hot to handle it requires a third person to manage.  In the consulting triangle, the third person is the consultant.  The “hot leg” is the relationship between the client and their need.  The biggest pitfall for the consultant is to become responsible for the relationship between the client and their expressed need, rather than helping the client have a better relationship with that need

Here’s a request I get from time to time:

“I know it’s last-minute, but can you facilitate our annual offsite tomorrow? “


The triangle is between me, the client, and a successful meeting.  The hot leg is between the client and the meeting.   Inserting me as facilitator serves to help the client stay distant from their responsibility for the meeting.   It cools the hot leg by passing on the client’s responsibility for the success of the meeting to me.   If I say yes to this request, the client will feel much better, and I’ll feel much worse

Working the Consulting Triangle

Triangles are a fact of life for all of us.  Many of my client’s innocently try to “triangle me in,” that is, to put the responsibility for the hot leg on me.   The role of a consultant is to help their client approach that hot leg and cool it down for themselves.   My job is to help my client get back in his own business.  Once I understand that I am an innocent bystander, it’s natural to be relaxed and curious about that hot leg. That will help my client relax too.  That way we can get to the bottom of what I can and can’t do for them.  Here’s how that might sound:

“That is last-minute!  How did you decide you needed a facilitator?”

“It took so long to finalize the speaker’s list and all the talking points, it just slipped away from us.”

“I can see how that could happen.”

“Can you help us out, just this once?”

“What were you hoping I could do for you?”

“We need some kind of moderator to keep us on track.”

“So a timekeeper.”

“Yes, and someone who can keep us focused and not go off on tangents.”

“Someone to keep you on time and on track then.  That makes sense. Most of that work is accomplished before the meeting, not during it.”

“It is?”

“Sure.  Just like most of the success of your meeting depends on getting the right speakers with the right content in the right order.  You don’t expect to get all that worked out the day of the meeting, right?”


“It’s the same with facilitation.   When I facilitate a meeting, I plan the agenda so that presentation alternates with interaction, breaks come when they are needed, small group activities build on presentations, and all speakers are extensively prepped so they don’t lose the group.  Everything builds focus, accountability and cohesion.”

“I sure wish we’d talked to you earlier.”

“Me too.  Next year, please call me when you start your planning.  I’d love to help make next year’s meeting your best ever.”

“So you can’t help us tomorrow?”

“I can suggest some ground rules and roles that will help the day go better.    Would that help?”


Getting Out of a Triangle

When you care more than your client does, you’ve been triangled in.  That means the new hot leg is between you and your client’s need.   All the pressure has gone out of your client’s relationship with what they need and landed on you.  The difficulty here is that you more responsibility for the situation than you can use.  You don’t have the ability to affect the situation.  Only your client can do that.

It’s much easier to avoid the hot leg of the triangle in the first place than it is to give it back. But, it’s not impossible.  It’s going to take speaking up on your own behalf and on behalf of the work you’re involved in.

1. If you’ve agreed to do something that you now realize you can’t do on your own/within the timeframe, say so.  Now.

“I’ve made a mistake.  These flyers take three times as long to proof as I thought they would.  I’m going to need help.”

2. If the situation has become too big, complicated or gnarly for you, say so.

“Enforcing your internal policies and procedures is not something I’m not comfortable doing. Let’s talk about what would work better.”

“Confronting the saboteur won’t have much heft coming from me.   Coming from you however…”

3. If the time frame is drowning you in stress, speak up.

“Three days?   Not without divine intervention and a lot of arm-twisting from you.  I’ll give you the list of things my boss has to agree to put on hold.  I’ll start as soon as you’ve got her agreement.”

The best way to give the hot leg of a triangle back to its rightful owner is to get back in your own business.  This is as simple as making a neutral observation about what is true.

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Your Assignment:  Start looking for the basic consulting triangle.  Identify the hot leg.  Where it’s between you and your client’s need, start writing down phrases you can use to shift that.