Conflict, Ghosting, and Triangulation

I recently learned a new term called “ghosting” that teenagers are using. It means that if a friend hurts your feelings, you silently decide to never talk to them again without them knowing. Essentially, the old friend becomes a “ghost,” leaving them feeling alone and confused. Ghosting is happening in person and on social media. It is hurtful and I have worked with a number of teen girls coping with being ghosted by a friend. 

Friendships are important during the teenage years as teens build their own identity. As they are building deeper friend relationships, it is normal for differences and conflicts to arise and teens often need some guidance navigating what to do next. In my office, I have noticed that it is common for teen girls to be conflict avoidant, especially after a disagreement. Our girls have been socialized to make everyone happy and not hurt other people’s feelings from a young age.

In my experience, I have seen that instead of talking directly to the friend who hurt their feelings, teen girls tend to talk to another friend who was not originally involved in the conflict, and “ghost” the other. When a third teen is pulled in, I call this triangulation and how rumors get started and more hurt gets spread.

I often draw this diagram for students in my office when they are having trouble holding conversations with their friends. 

Friend #1 and Friend #2 are having a conflict. Instead of to talking to each other about their feelings, they talk to Friend #3. Friend #3 thinks that they are being helpful by listening to both friends or giving advice, but actually Friend #3 is making the situation more complicated and is in a tough position. Friend #3 wants to support both friends, but often does not have the language to say, “I really think you need to talk to each other. I support you, but I can’t help solve this conflict. Go talk to our friend directly.” 

When this happens, I have separate conversations with all three students involved and help them to understand their role in the conflict, and how to be accountable. Sometimes, Friend #1 and Friend #2 have different Friend #3’s and this is how the situation really gets distorted. It goes from a two person conflict to a full blown friend group telenovela. (Insert unicorn Emoji with mind exploding here. Am I right?)

For Friend #1 and Friend #2 who are having the disagreement, I encourage a mediation meeting with an adult. When we have the mediated conversation, I am clear about the process and the expectations for both students. I also let them know that I am there to support both sides while they are talking to each other. I tell them that it is ok to be emotional and I encourage vulnerability. My opening statement in the mediation is usually something along these lines.

“Thank you so much for agreeing to meet with each other today. It shows that you care for each other and want to make things right. I am here to support both of you.”

From here I set the guidelines for the mediated conversation. 

“Each of you will have the opportunity to respectfully speak your truth. Speak from the I perspective and from the heart. When one person is talking, make eye contact with each other and listen. When they are done speaking their truth, the other person can ask clarifying questions. Then we will switch, and the other will listen and have the chance to ask questions. Once both of you have said your piece, we will decide together where to go from here. The goal of this conversation is to bring clarity to the situation.”

I also like to remind students to pay attention to their bodies and notice how they are feeling. Taking deep breaths when talking about a conflict is important. I make sure students know that if they are feeling overwhelmed and need a break, they can raise their hand and we will pause the conversation to get a drink of water.

Usually a conversation like this lasts about 10 to 15 minutes depending on how large the conflict. Once both students are in a good place and have felt heard, an apology typically happens naturally. If it doesn’t, I may prompt the students to talk to each other about how they will be accountable for their actions in the future. If we are in a situation where students decide to go their separate ways, I let them know that that is ok too and give examples of what that looks like. 

“I am not asking you to be best friends. If some time passes and you do decide to be friends again, that is great, but I know relationships grow and evolve. What I do ask you to do is that while you are here at school, you are cordial to each other. Say hi in the hallways, but you do not have to hang out together at lunch. If you are in a class together and get paired up in a group project, you do have to work together in a professional manner.”

From here I ask if there is anything Friend #1 or Friend #2 would like to say in closing and by this time both have bonded over wanting to get out of my office and away from adults as fast as they can. So, I close with a confidentiality statement.

“What we talk about in my office is confidential. You are welcome to talk to each other about the conversation, but do not share this with other students. You are also welcome to talk to a parent or trusted adult on campus about our conversation. Please make sure you uphold this agreement so we can all move forward.”

“Thanks, Coach!”

And then they scurry down the hallway.

Let’s go back to Friend #3. They also need some coaching. 

When I check in with Friend #3, I let them know that I understand that they are trying to be a good and supportive friend, but I gently tell them that being the sounding board for both friends is not helpful, and actually makes the situation more difficult. The conflict between Friend #1 and Friend #2 isn’t their business. I help them realize that in this situation, the right thing to do is set a boundary and say “I am here for you, I know the conflict you are dealing with is really hard, but I think you should talk to Friend #2 directly.” We usually practice saying this outloud a few times or role play in case they are in this situation again. I let Friend #3 know that if the friends keep talking to them about it or do not respect the boundary that there are adults on campus who can help support. 

Ghosting and hurtful triangulation is a communication strategy I would like to see left in the teenage years. My goal is to encourage teens to talk to each other instead of talking about each other. Talking to a third person outside of the situation is only ok if it is for support and to figure out what to do next. It is not ok to ignore the issue all together so it gets worse. In this article, I use the example with teenagers and friends, but it is my hope that this will translate into adulthood. We want our teens to have direct conversations with future colleagues and bosses in the workplace and also at home with future family members. Very few people love conflict, but learning to deal with it directly is a skill. The more we practice, the easier conversations become.

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