Posted by: aphr | December 17, 2009

Tolerance triangles

We do not have to be best friends with everyone, but wouldnt it be nice to get along at least?

If Bob does not get along with someone, there is psychological pain involved. That is why Bob hardly ever reflects on the situation. “Bob + Alice = –” is all he sees.

Usually however, there will be a reason for this, like say Bob and Alice are neighbors. Alice might like to listen to techno music at night while Bob likes to sleep then. So we could look at the tolerance triangle Bob — Loud Techno Music ++ Alice.

Tolerance Triangle Grid

We see how the conflict is understood via context and abstraction.

Trinagles are usually either marked ++ on all sides or they have exactly two negative edges.

See how the — between Bob and Alice is part of an understood context now?

What is this good for? Easy: it is now not a personal problem any more. It is no use to say: you suck. Ist much more constructive to say: your music disturbes my sleeping. Of corse the problem is not solved yet, but we have made a step. Further abstraction might help even more. The triangle concept give us a very intuitive visual aid to analyze the situation. That we call them tolerance triangles might help reminds you of a great way to solve the conflict after drawing them all 🙂

Of corse this is an incredibly easy example – trying to  uncover the triangles behind your real conflicts might be a lot harder. I’d still give it a try.

Tolerance triangles are also related to Bias and Errors in Attribution, the most prominent mistake being: If we see someone else giving a very small tip, we attribute his behavior to his person -> he is greedy! Whereas we never attribute our own behaviour to our person, but we always attribute it to the situation. If WE give a small tip, the food must have been bad.



  1. Hi,

    thank you for your update. Nice view on problem solving. I think I always do this intuitively without drawing triangles


    • Hey Martin,

      obviously most people will not draw diagrams :))

      – and many will have decent conflict management, especially since they have been facing various conflicts throughout their life and humans tend to learn to cope with just about anything they repeatedly face… Still, when I heard about the triangle-thing, for me it was one of these “wow, one should tell people” – moments, because visualization can be quite a powerful tool here, even more so because people who are upset are sometimes hard to reason with.. 🙂

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