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Monday 7 March 2016

Challenge taboo triangles

Occasionally, when asking your collaborators about other people and organisations which could potentially become involved, you may be made aware of 'taboo triangles' associated with creating certain acquaintances and relationships. These occur when currently collaborating people or organisations feel uncomfortable with or even unable to countenance a certain person, group or organisation being invited into their existing relationships. 

It is worth exploring the reasons for and stories behind these warning signs or taboos. Are they valid? Are they erected by traditions that have become unquestioned rules? Are they in reality a barrier which seeks to restrict access to some form of power, influence or sought after resource? Are they based upon assumptions and preconceptions rather than reality?

Above all, are they worth taking the risk of challenging or even ignoring?

Very often, transforming taboo triangles into not only permitted but also thoroughly exploited triangles of trust and influence can transform a competent collaboration with adequate influence and resources into an outstanding one with strong influence and/or high quality resources.

Here are some examples of where taboo triangles have been successfully challenged:

The anti-apartheid movement gained significant ground when Nelson Mandela and PW Botha challenged the taboo triangle involving themselves and the South African Government. For a very long time Mandela's relationship with the Government of South Africa was faceless and impersonal: the state arrested him, passed judgement on him, imprisoned him and continuously endeavoured to control his life and that of his followers and supporters. As soon as another relationship was added, creating a triangle between Mandela, the State and a human representative of the State in the form of President Botha, trust was increased. Mandela and Botha were able to use these reinforced foundations of trust to influence the Government of South Africa towards majority rule.

Staying with South Africa, when President Mandela created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission he challenged the taboo triangle formed by bringing together the State, the victims of apartheid and those who had committed crimes against these victims and violated their human rights. This state sanctioned, very open, emotional and difficult dialogue was crucial for building trust and cooperation between historically opposed communities and enabling the establishment of an effective democracy through which the benefits of economic and social development could be realised.

During the troubles in Northern Ireland, formal meetings between the UK Government and loyalist and republican prisoners had been avoided for fear of legitimising their actions; such meetings were, at least officially, strictly taboo. This lack of contact, however, had left the prisoners' power and influence unacknowledged and, paradoxically given the prisoners' incarceration, uncontrolled: free to cast an inhibiting shadow over the peace talks involving the UK Government and the loyalist and nationalist parties of Northern Ireland. The power and influence of the prisoners was a silent but ominous presence hovering above the negotiating table and preying upon the minds of the negotiators. Mo Mowlem, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, challenged the above taboo by meeting directly with loyalist and republican prisoners. By visiting the prisoners, Mo Mowlem acknowledged the power and influence of the prisoners and explicitly involved them in the peace process. The power and influence of the prisoners having been acknowledged and taken into account, a triangle of at least adequate trust and influence was gradually created between the UK Government, the prisoners and the Northern Irish political parties. The ominous silent presence above the negotiating table had been transformed into an active force that would help move the peace process towards a successful outcome.           

Sometimes taboo triangles can lie hidden within the complex cultures of and interactions between professions, only becoming apparent when someone tries to create one. For example, creating a triangle of influence between a doctor, patient and nursing staff should enhance the care given to the patient. However, traditional professional boundaries, assumptions about functions and leadership roles and perceptions of the appropriateness of professional interactions between medical and nursing staff can limit the formation and effectiveness of these triangles. Indeed, nursing staff who seek to create them could be labelled as counter-cultural trouble makers who do not know their place and are disrespectful of those perceived as higher-up the pecking order of professions. However, where these taboo triangles are successfully challenged they transform into triangles which create trust, increase the influence of key professionals and enhance the care given to patients.

Another example of a taboo triangle that was effectively challenged again comes from Africa, this time Ethiopia. A civil society support programme managed by the British Council sought to eliminate discrimination based upon social caste. It could not be truly effective in meeting its aims, however, until those it engaged with from within the discriminated against castes were willing to challenge and change their beliefs about and behaviours towards women and girls. These beliefs and behaviours caused additional discrimination within communities already discriminated against and made engaging with women and making them part of the initiative (and part of the discussion leading to solutions) effectively a taboo subject.

By reaching out to women and girls and providing them with safe access to education and other services, the project was gradually able to challenge the taboos surrounding the place and involvement of women and girls within their communities. This eventually created a powerful triangle of influence between the castes affected by discrimination, the British Council and its partners running the initiative, and potentially influential but previously disengaged segments of the disadvantaged castes.

A similar challenge to a taboo triangle took place in Columbia during a project seeking to enhance the economic opportunities, well-being and quality of life of coffee farmers. This time, the taboos and traditions surrounding the place and role of women within traditional farming communities was challenged through the style and approach of the training and education sessions farmers were required to attend in order to benefit from the initiative.

The training was informal and family orientated; women and children were encouraged to attend and play a full part. This gradually changed the nature of family dynamics and relationships, initially by giving women and children more recognition and influence within the family and then, developing on from this, within the family farming businesses. A new triangle of trust and influence had been created connecting the farmers, the project and the farmers wives and children.

This triangle of influence was important because it resulted in specific activities and outcomes that may not have happened without it. For example, the farming communities decided to invest some of the additional income generated as result of the project into building a nursery. This provided security and early education for children and also freed-up time for mothers and older children to help with the farming business and/or improve their educations. It is reasonable to assume that the enhanced influence of women and children within the family businesses was significant in the making of this decision.  

Very extreme Taboo triangles can sometimes be challenged and made acceptable and productive, especially where there is some pressing and mutually experienced need or problem.

For example, it is in the interest of almost every country to do all they can to safeguard their national economies through protecting the flow of international trade and commerce, especially given the instability of the world and the regular formation of conflict zones, e.g., within Eastern Europe, the Middle East and various parts of Africa

A powerful way of achieving this is to ensure that global Internet connections are made resilient and reliable by constructing alternative routes. One such route lands in Tel Aviv in Israel, travels across the West Bank (a zone of conflict between Israelis and the Palestinians), through Jordan and the Gulf of Aqaba and on to the Red Sea. This alternative route for Internet traffic helps assure connectivity with the whole of the Eastern Hemisphere, safeguards the economies and commerce of a large number of countries, and enables the uninterrupted progress of overall global trade.

Here, the urgent need to safeguard Internet connectivity and the economic activity it enables has overrode any taboos associated with cooperation between otherwise hostile countries (in this case the taboos associated with a triangular relationship involving Israel, Palestine and a private Internet company). If the levers of influence are strong and pressing enough, seemingly impossible triangles of cooperation (if not full trust and influence) can be created in the most unexpected of places. And once created, they stand as evidence that, given powerful enough incentives, such relationships are not only possible but also capable of producing significant and valuable results.

Key to challenging taboo triangles and making them acceptable is identifying and engaging with those who constitute them. In some cases, such as creating the above Internet route, this is relatively straightforward given the context and obvious necessity for cooperation. In other cases, such as the Northern Ireland example given earlier, it is not. Sometimes, some of those needing to occupy a corner of the triangle will not immediately take their place or be aware that they have a place to take. In these cases, potential participants in the triangle need to be educated, resourced and given the confidence to become involved (as with the coffee farmers example), or they need to be sent clear and unambiguous messages about the necessity and urgency of their involvement (as with the Northern Ireland example).      

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