When it comes to conflict management, the idea of the Third Element is something that's been on my mind for many years.
It's about looking for a third thing that connects two opposite parties.
The duality of "me versus you" has quite an intensity to it while a triangular relationship - me, you and the thing - has a more gentle and less confrontational feel to it.
The Third Element is the thing that we're both interested in or the thing that we both can look at (and that lessens the intensity of looking straight at each other).
For example, most people will probably find that it isn't very easy to just walk up to a complete stranger on the street and start talking to them.
If, however, that person has a dog it's suddenly a lot easier.
Because we can both talk about the dog: "Oh, isn't he cute? How old is he?"
Without the dog, it would be much more awkward to have a conversation.
The dog is the Third Element. Having a toddler has a similar effect of enabling two strangers to enter into contact.
So in a situation of conflict, one might ask: Where's the dog?
Where is the dog in this situation that can help us to come together?
What is the thing we're both interested in and that, therefore, connects us?
In the context of organisational change, for instance, where might that dog be that can bring management and staff together and help avoid potential conflict?
There are probably many dogs to be found, for instance, the fact that all sides want the organisation to survive.
That's something all can agree on.
The dog doesn't always have to be pretty: globalisation, capitalism and competition are realities that can be the Third Element that management and staff both face together.
So rather than "staff versus management", the new way of looking at the situation is that both staff and management are facing a world that has changed fundamentally, and it is this new world - the Third Element - that is forcing both sides to change.
Looking at it this way can change the dynamic between the two sides, and soften it.
The notion of the Third Element also comes into play in less constructive ways: Bitching about a third person seems to enable two people to bond easily - but does it lead to meaningful relationships?
Or what about the example of American foreign policy: Was it really such a good idea to support the Taliban against the Russians just because they shared the same enemy?
I believe that relationships where the only third thing that connects people is a shared enmity or dislike for something - and no shared positive values - are ultimately less beneficial or satisfying... it's better to keep looking for positive dogs... woof!
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