Three Pillars Method

Most cultures teach us to be socially kind, generous and forgiving. While this is a generally good social approach to have, we are rarely taught when to stop. The Three Pillars Method fills in a heuristic for how we can determine when this default social behaviour stops being useful and we need to change tactic.


  • We use The Flag Method and Toxic People Framework to assess their behaviours, Amber and Red Flags are challenged on the assumption the person is nice/good
  • Green Pillar: A person who generally grows and learns from this is often friendships material, but there are limits
  • Amber Pillar: We allow for the right to have a bad day, but only three strikes in 6 months
  • Red Pillar: Some things are unforgivable, no second chance


Humans are Social Animals – we are stronger as a group than individuals. For groups to work together requires working through conflict and difference so that we can cooperate. A functional society leans on the Presumption of Cooperation, that is, it needs to have the majority of its members working cooperatively for the greater good of the society.

As such, most people are socially good most of the time.

Three pillars on a grassy hill, green, amber and red energy on the inside of stone blocks. It is a stormy day and a ray of light shines down on the pillars.

To maximise cooperation, a functional society prioritises enculturing forgiveness, second chances, assuming that bad behaviours are just a mistake and defining kindness in terms of keeping people. Keeping people happy runs the risk of People Pleasing and Conflict Avoidance which we covered in in people struggling with Rejection Sensitivity [Link].

We have covered the Flag System for assessing a person’s individual behaviour as Good (Green), Concerning (Amber), or Problematic (Red) in The Flag Method [LINK]. In the Toxic Peope Framework [LINK] we covered when to shift from assuming a decent person has made a mistake through the spectrum to assuming the person is malicious.

The Three Pillars Method is used for people who are either in the Green Zone or Amber Zone. This does not apply for people who have earned their way into the Red Zone.

We covered the Zone Framkework here [LINK]. In brief, we simplify most people into 3 zones bassed on the trend of individual behaviours via The Flag Method. From their behaviours, they earn themselves a place out of Amber Zone (new, aquaintance or formerly Green Zone), into either Green Zone (they ahve earned tust ) or the Red Zone (they have earned distrust),


When interactions with people go well, we don’t need to focus much on the nature of the relationship – whether that is with family, friends, aquaintances or work colleagues.

The Three Pillars Method is a toolset for when interactions don’t go well. Generally using a transactional view of realtionships isn’t a good way to make friends, but it is a great way to check relationship health when something goes wrong. A transactional view looks at friendships more in terms of Economics, considering that the goal of a social interaction is a net social gain.

The parts of an interaction then are:

Event – The entire interaction from begining to the end

Action – This refers to the actions taken that led to the outcome. Actions speak louder than words. Words can add context, but should not ignore the actions.

Cost – This is rarely financial. Cost is any kind of resource such as social esteem, effort, personal items, pain and time.

Outcome – The best effort to look at the objective outcome result – was it good or bad?

The Three Pillars

What many societies don’t do is teach us a reasonable limit to forgiveness and thus how many “second chances” should a person actually have. How do we know that the nature of the relationship needs to change? When do we know when we need to walk away? How many times do we give someone a free pass?

The goal of the Three Pillars Method is to provide a good cognitive heuristic to solve this. A cognitive heuristic is a set of guidelines in a framework that works most of the time in most situations, speeding up and guiding decision making.

1 – Green Pillar

Similar to the Toxic People Framework [LINK], we begin by assuming a person is essentially good and means well. With this assumption, when an interaction goes poorly, and our self examination {Social Scripts [LINK]} shows that the error was likely the other person, we confront them about it.

When we say confrontation, we do are not talking about being aggressive. Aggression is a very rare tool to use. We are going to raise to the person who did the action that led to a problematic outcome about our perception of the event with the assumption that this outcome is a mistake rather than their intention.

Our goal here is to be solution seeking and we are assuming their cooperation in finding what went wrong that led to the unwanted outcome. There are a few methods to doing this, such as Helping Another [LINK]. It is important to allow for a person to not be ready to recognise that they had a part in the bad outcome and need some reasonable evidence and self reflection – I would want to have this if someone approached me with such a claim. It is also important to recognise that sometimes bad luck happens and no one is actually at fault.

A reasonable person, someone who we would want to have in our Friendship and Aquaintance Circles {Social [LINK]}, is generally going to accept good faith evidence and take an opportunity to grow by developing better skills, having specific areas of caution and essentially being a mature person about this whole social interaction business.

All going well, our friends, family and selves grow from conflict and we become a better group because of it.


All good rules need a reasonable limit. In this case, if you are frequently having a conversersation with someone to confront them about something that has gone poorly, even if they are truly growing from it, this may not be a relationship of equals. A common threshold for the number of conversations around this before this relationship should come under scrutiny is perhaps 5 confrontations in 6 months.

A consideration that this may raise is that perhaps you are their mentor or teacher rather than a friend / aquaintance. Is this what you want? Are you comfortable with that? Or do you need to have a conversation about that with them? An imbalance like this can strongly impact on a relationship and this needs to be acknowledged and boundaries set in place.

This doesn’t count if this is the point of the relationship, such as a parent, mentor, coachor teacher.

2 – Amber Pillar

Aka the Bad Day Clause

Everyone has the right to a bad day, where we don’t want to acknowledge that we could have done better, and we have the right to be fairly unapologetic about it. So long as our bad day didn’t lead to outcomes that are more than reasonably uncomfortable, and that this is an anomoly in our usually good track record, then it is lovely to be given that flexibility.

In reasonable receprocation, it is good for us to allow that someone else is having a bad day and they aren’t being someone they’d be proud of later either. When we confront them about what they’ve done, and they don’t engage in a reasonable process to be held accountable and make changes, perhaps we can let this one slide.

“Perhaps” has some important caveates.

  • Credit: For someone to have earned this, they need a fairly good tack record of being decent, civil people, who in the rare times that they make a mistake or are part of a problem, they do a reasonable job of learning and growing.
  • Mild enough: The action the person did resulted in an outcome that was minor enough that it isn’t going to be too personally expensive to shrug off and effectively ignore. If you find yourself shocked by what happened, or wondering how you are going to get through this “cost”, then this is not a mild consequence.
  • Rare: The use of the “bad day clause” (whether they claim to use it or you internally label shrugging this one off using this clause) is an anomoly in someone’s behaviour. We need to set a reasonable limit before we need to escalate this new trend. On average, 2 freebies in 6 months seems fair. A 3rd “bad day clause” should trigger the cold hard look.

Cold Hard Look

When this is triggered, we need to take our rose tinted glassess off and take a cold hard look at what is going on. This often involves fact finding, reviewing more of the past than the last 6 months, checking in with friends, and then confronting the person.

When we confront them, we want to give them an opportunity to explain to us what is going on. There may be some good reason why they are acting out of their usual character, and it may be that they need a good compassionate friend right now. If you have the resources to be that compassionate friend and their explanation checks out, then perhaps that person can be you.

However, if their story seems odd, and the facts don’t support their claims, or there are other anomolies in their behaviour that you now realised that you glossed over, then this may be an indication that this person is a perpetrator of Relationship Violence [LINK], using false promises and hollow words to con you.

The purpose of the Cold Hard Look is that there is enough evidence of concern to no longer presume the best in the person, while there is also insufficient evidence of concern to presume malice – we are looking to see what is objectively real as much as possible.

3 – Red Pillar

Aka Get Out Now or The ‘Nope’ Clause.

Some things are just wrong. Some things are not forgiveable.

Sometimes, even if we discover that the person was equally a victim of circumstances, we just can’t see them the same way again – that is, we have profoundly lost trust of them. In this rare circumstance, it is important to recognise that we will always wonder if they really are a hapless victim.

We do not need to give this person a second chance. We do not need to give them an explanation.

For this kind of situation, there is no free pass, no Bad Day Clause, no redemption.

What happened was unforgiveable. It didn’t stretch a friendship, it broke it.

In this circumstance, do not seek to redeem the friendship. Do not feel obligated to explain, teach or help them through their process.

In this circumstance, the most important thing to do is to protect yourself, protect the vulnerable, and protect your community.

The next most important thing to do is to heal from this.

The last most important thing to do is to ensure that you do not let this person back into your life now matter how much they claim to have grown {the Perpetrator Reformation Fiction [Link]}.

If the person is a Perpetrator of Abuse, take a look at our section on Domestic Violence [LINK] and Escaping Abuse [LINK].

After Thoughts

While this method is presented in a fairly flat and static way, this is a guideline only. It is important to recognise that the boundary between when to use which Pillar is fuzzy, and it is important for you to adapt these guideline boundaries to what works best for you.

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