What do you do when you find yourself in a relationship triangle, torn between two people who don’t get along? It can be quite trying being the peacemaker or that neutral party; sometimes you’ll rather stay out of their fight entirely.

Unfortunately, you often can’t just lie low and wait for the squabble to tide over. While it is still tricky to intervene, do make sure that you avoid taking things personally, as it will affect your ability to handle the situation objectively.


You may be stuck in the middle but it doesn’t have to end badly;
find out how with tips from Singapore experts. Image: Corbis

Easier said than done, right? Three Singaporeans share their experiences of being caught in the middle; we ask Singapore experts on how to handle the following situations.

1. TORN BETWEEN TWO BEST FRIENDS
Entrepreneur Mandy Ng, 37, was caught in between two friends that she’d known since college. A petty remark at a restaurant started the fight and it escalated into “childish, accusatory emails”. The trio has stopped hanging out as a group and Mandy now feels awkward about being alone with either of them; while one has asked her to intercede, the other chooses to gossip about the former whenever Mandy is out with her.

THE EXPERT SAYS: “How you deal with this situation is important, because it’s when you can prove whether you’re a trustworthy, honest and reliable friend,” says counsellor Hiroko Kobayashi.

WHAT YOU SHOULD DO

  • Neutrality is recommended. Make it clear that you care about them and want to be there for them, but you won’t take sides because they may attempt to pit you against the other or put you in the middle to solve the problem for them. They need to solve the issue themselves and your involvement may worsen things.
  • Listen, but don’t reciprocate if one gossips to you about the other, as it might backfire on you. If you feel the need to agree with the friend who is bad-mouthing the other, ask yourself why you feel this way. Is it fear of losing the friend, or losing that sense of belonging? Are they bad-mouthing you when you’re not around?
  • Re-assessing your relationship: If one of them wants you to stop meeting the other, is it because of her controlling nature, selfishness, or does she feel threatened about losing you? Ask yourself if this is the kind of friend you want. It’s usually during an argument that you see a person’s true colours. You may realise that you are not meant to be friends, especially if the argument gets very serious and starts affecting your own well-being. If this is the case, give yourself some space and allow things to cool down and heal before reassessing the friendship.
  • Remember that you can control no one’s actions or choices except yours. You can only support them without passing judgement and let them come to their own conclusions. In the end, their choice to stay friends and resolve the issue will be made with or without you.

2. CAUGHT BETWEEN TWO BOSSES
Graphic designer Carmen Low, 30, feels frustrated by the opposing views of his direct supervisor and his big boss. “The proper procedure” given by the head doesn’t meet the practical demands of the clients but no one can proceed without the go ahead from the people in senior management.

As such, Carmen and his team can’t get on with their job since there have been no finalised instructions. While Carmen has voiced his opinion, he has neither taken sides nor decide on a solution himself.

THE EXPERTS SAY: You should steer clear of the conflict and not take sides – it is not your task to solve this situation. It’s also important not to be negative about one boss or complain to one about the other. Instead, make work your main priority.

WHAT YOU SHOULD DO

  • Listen politely but don’t comment on it: “If one boss rants about the other, listen politely but don’t comment on it, then change the subject,” says Hega.
  • Meet with your bosses and discuss the matter, including deadlines and resources, and let them agree on the most efficient way to handle it. They should be specific about the desired results of the project, how to achieve them and give this to you in writing. Jonathan says that “it’s also a good idea to create a master list with all the duties, deadlines and priorities for the project and have your bosses agree on this before you start working on any of the tasks.”
  • Make the process of solving the current problem as objective as possible. Start by sitting down with each boss independently. Try to understand their position, why they want things done a certain way, and what the risks and benefits of each solution are. Is the situation part of a bigger issue that you don’t yet know or understand? Objectively weigh the pros and cons of your available choices, and come up with additional options if possible.
  • Once you’ve spent time evaluating the possibilities, return to each of your bosses. Explain your thought process, the situations you considered, the criteria you used, and the possible options you arrived at. Offer them your preferred recommended solution, and then get their feedback. Make them part of the process in coming up with the final solution.
  • Do not take it as your responsibility to solve the situation. If that doesn’t work, under no circumstances should you bow out and ask your two bosses to sort it out among themselves. Says executive coach Paul Heng: “Do not be subordinate to both bosses. If your solution lands you in a Catch 22 situation, be firm, repeat what you’ve said and add: ‘Please let me know the decision and I will act accordingly, thank you.’”
  • Maintain your composure and keep your emotions in check. In the event you are threatened with dismissal or other forms of detrimental action by one or both of your bosses, approach the HR department to seek advice or intervention.

3. YOUR MOTHER-IN-LAW KEEPS PITTING YOU AGAINST YOUR MAID
Desiree Wong, 29, a hotel executive, has had her maid, Tandy, work for her household for three years. Desiree finds her a trustworthy and responsible worker but her mum-in-law would complain about what Tandy did or didn’t do. Desiree thinks that her mum-in-law is acting out of jealousy and she usually has to mediate when Tandy and her mum-in-law argue. Tandy has since threatened to leave. Desiree resents the expectation to take sides on the matter and the extra stress that this issue has given her.

THE EXPERTS SAY: “Avoid taking things personally, as it will affect your ability to handle the situation objectively. Be aware of your emotions and where they’re coming from, before addressing the issue,” says counselling programme manager Sarah Poh. If you already have some negative emotions towards your mum-in-law, the conflict may amplify these emotions and skew your assessment of the situation.

WHAT YOU SHOULD DO

  • Choose the more pertinent issues to address – put yourself in their shoes so you can empathise with them and handle the situation in a sensitive manner. Talk to each party respectfully and help them see the other’s point of view, without putting anyone down.
  • It is unhelpful to take sides. Siding with your maid may break the trust between you and your mum-in- law; she may feel disrespected and this may also put your husband in a difficult position. Siding with you mum-in-law may cause your maid to feel unappreciated and as a result, affect the quality of her work.
  • Find out why your mum-in-law is unhappy with the maid: Explore what she would like to see changed and what areas she is willing to accommodate. To help her maintain a sense of dignity, assure her that giving way does not mean that she is in the wrong, and that everyone has a different style of doing things.
  • Hear the maid’s point of view: Validate her emotions and appreciate her intention to do her job well. Assure her that the way she does things may not be wrong, but people have their personal preferences.
  • Ask your maid if she can follow your mum-in- law’s instructions in some situations to minimise conflicts. In addition, address her threat to leave, as this attitude can be interpreted as being disrespectful to your mum-in-law. Firmly but gently remind her that this attitude is not helpful or productive. If the conflict cannot be resolved after several attempts to mediate and is affecting the atmosphere in the home, you will have to make a decision to change your maid.
  • Get hubby’s help: Involving your husband may not be a sign of bowing out. It will be helpful to talk to him about the tension at home. He may be able to help, as he knows his mother better and may be able to deal with her directly. You can also get your hubby to talk to his mother while you talk to the maid. Getting his support will strengthen your relationship and prevent possible misunderstandings when you communicate with your mum-in-law.

Paul Heng is the founder, managing director, and executive coach at Next Career Consulting Group, Asia. The head office is located at Far East Shopping Centre 545 Orchard Road #08-07A, Singapore 238882; Tel: 6323 6626; website: www.nextcareer.net.

Hiroko Kobayashi is a counsellor from The Counselling Place. Locate the centre at 7500A Beach Road, #04-323, The Plaza, Singapore 199591; Tel: 6887 3695; website: www.thecounsellingplace.com.

Jonathan Kwan is the principal of Kwantum Leap Career Coaching; email: info@kwantumleapcoaching.com, Tel: 8305 6236, website: www.kwantumleapcoaching.com.

Sarah Poh is the programme manager for counselling at Focus on the Family Singapore, a non-profit organisation that provides counselling services for families and youths. To arrange for an appointment, call 6336 1444 or focus@family.org.sg; website: www.family.org.sg.

Hega Schultz is the director of HS Coaching & Consulting, a career and business coaching located at Gallery Helios, 38 Petain Road, (S) 208103; email: info@hs-coaching.com, Tel: 6689 7675, website: www.hs-coaching.com.

This article was originally published in SimplyHer July 2011.