The Dreaded Drama Triangle
This comes from the work of two authors, really, David Emerald and Stephen Karpman. Stephen Karpman's the first one to coin the term the drama triangle and these roles. And then David Emerald and this great book The Power of TED, The Empowerment Dynamic. Highly recommend you pick that up. I actually just read through it again a few days ago. He really took Karpman's work and evolved it to the place it is now. So I'm gonna share some of the roles and constructs that these two guys have put together and how it plays out, particularly when it comes to innovation. So here we have what Karpman would call the drama triangle. And in the drama triangle there's three roles: rescuer, persecutor and victim. And these roles, they're behaviors, they're not stations in life. You can play one or more of these. And a lot of people never actually evolve beyond these roles. And these roles are really dangerous for a reason I'll share with you in a moment. And to do that, I'm going to give you a specific...
example. The first one from work, and the second one from home. And the first one's actually a real example from me from work a few years ago, and it went something like this. I'm entering a meeting five minutes late. And my boss, who's mid-sentence, turns and angrily says you're always late to meetings. This can't keep happening, you're making everybody else wait and it's ruining our flow, and you're making everybody else have to wait for you, not cool. And I, like, shrivel inside, right? And after pausing, I say it's not my fault, I was in another meeting, it went over. It would've been rude to leave. There was nothing I could do. Victim. And then I pause, and we get through the end of the meeting and we meet in the hallway outside, and then this magic trick happens. You know, the only reason I was in that meeting is 'cause you voluntold me for that committee. So if anybody's to blame here it's you boss, because I was stuck in that meeting. I'm stuck in too many meetings because we're constantly signing up for more work than we could do because we don't have enough resources. And the boss says there's really nothing I can do. I take the commands given to me from on high. We're tryin' to do the best we can with the resources we have, there's nothing I could do either. And then there's the pause, and one or more of us do this thing. Hey, I know, boss says to me, I know you're tryin' to do the best you can, but I really would like you to try to make the meetings on time. Hey boss, I know you're trying to do the best you can with the resources we have, I'm just overwhelmed. I'll try to do better in the future. Alright, so there's scenario one. Somebody played persecutor, somebody played victim. Then we're reversed, and then somebody rescued, and somebody else rescued, and there's something that didn't happen that we'll get to in a minute. Okay, round two, this might be you. You get the text from your spouse at 4:30. And the text says honey, what time will you be home? And you look at your watch and you say it's 4:30, I should be outta here by 5:00, it's a half-hour drive, honey I'll be home at 5:30, okay. And then this thing happens where you get busy, you get in the flow, something happens, somebody interrupts, and you look at your watch and it's 5: and you're still at your desk. And you're like oh dear. So you run to the car, you're not walk. And you don't make any contact during this period. 'Cause any contact sans road noise means you're not actually making any progress. So you get in the car, you get on the road and then and only then, you make the phone call. And you say honey, I'm really sorry but something came up and I'm running late. And he or she then says you always do this. You don't think of anybody but yourself. There's other people waiting for you, it's so unfair. You always do this. And you say there was nothing I could do. My boss came in, a topic came up, an email came through, a crisis erupted. I am powerless, I'm at the behest of the machine. And then you pause and you say you know, you're the one with the more flexible work schedule. You should be able to sort of flow and ebb and flow with these things. Why are you so upset that I'm just getting home a little bit later than normal? And he or she says, you know, we're all waiting for you. The kids are hungry and now there's nothing we can do but wait and be upset. And then there's the pause, or maybe even a hang up. And then the call back. I know it's really important to you that we get together for family dinners. I'm sorry I'm late, I'll try to do better. I know you work really hard and I know that you have a really demanding job, I'm sorry I yelled at you. And what didn't happen in these two examples? Well let's take it a little differently. What happens the next Thursday and then the next Thursday, and the next Thursday, and then the next meeting, and the next meeting, and the next meeting. It happens on and on again for all of eternity, both of those things, why?
There's no resolution, there's not even an attempt. Nobody is even trying to solve this problem, either one. There's no real, nobody's generating ideas, nobody's trying to solve. The victim plays victim, the persecutor persecutes, the rescuer rescues and voila, crisis averted until the very next one, which happens the next day or the next week and the next month, and so on and so forth. And in fact I experienced this one for nine years about once a week.
It's scary when you're saying this, it's like you too.
So let's dig into these roles. And these are not stations in life, these are just roles you play in the moment of drama, of conflict. Victim is, by the way, the core of the drama triangle. This whole thing doesn't exist without the victim. And these are people that are willing to not take responsibility. So they fail to take responsibility, they're driven by fear. They're probably amygdala hijacked to some extent, and so they're in fight, flight or freeze. Not necessarily adaptive responses to what's happening. They feel hopeless and powerless, broken, not fixable. They feel the world is an unfriendly place, that it's out to get them. And they really love rescuers. So they seek people that will enable them with language that absolves them of all responsibility so they can just throw up their hands and say woe is me. And some people never graduate. You might know some people in your life that are stuck here 24/7. The language they use, they're all out to get me. Classic, it wasn't my fault, it's never their fault. Why does this always happen to me? There's nothing I can do. Nothing ever works out for me. If I do that, then this bad thing will happen. If I leave the other meeting early, everybody's gonna be mad at me. No chance of solving, no framing that allows for ideas to be generated, and nothing ever gets solved. So, have you ever complained? Me neither, but if you ever have that means you are actually playing victim. Any time you complain you are playing victim. But, there is a golden silver-lining to this is when people complain, they care. When people stop complaining it's actually even more scary. 'Cause people stop complaining about a problem or issue, they probably stopped caring, and that's much more dangerous. But if they complain, that means they still care. So that's a good thing, but the victim language, the voice of complaint, and this will continue in perpetuity as long as somebody's willing to play victim. So the ancillary roles here are that of the persecutor. So these are fault-finding, blaming people. This is your fault, they assert their superiority. They make themselves feel bigger while making you feel smaller. They tear you down, they don't build you up. And they're often, frankly, victims themselves that are acting out based on their own victimhood. And they are the great place for the victim to place their blame. Language here is, you can't do anything right. This is all your fault, classic persecutor language. You are, fill in the blank, stupid, useless, pathetic. Terrible, terrible persecutor language. Once again I'll have to do it myself. There's something wrong with you, these are all classic persecutor lines, and when people get hijacked these kinda words can come out even between people that love each other. So really dangerous language, hurtful, and leading to no good outcome. Rescuer, you know, rescuer's it's such the hero role. We are raised to think of rescuers as heroes and sometimes people are truly in dire circumstances where they need to be rescued, but this is relatively rare these days. What's more important is they enable people to rise above whatever their challenge is, rather than just straight-out rescue. And the rescuers, they sort of do this to give themselves an emotional rush or high. They feel better about themselves. But they help the victim stay small, they enable them. They foster dependency and they can easily switch. Rescuers can easily switch into persecutor, it's a really slippery slope. I'll share with you the language how that happens. You know, their favorite line and the favorite victim recipient line is there was nothing you could do. All blame is absolved, no responsibility. Voila, you're magically erased from any part in whatever just happened. It wasn't your fault, let me help you. Poor you, I've got this. Seems like I have to do everything around here. I'm tired of doing everything, can't you figure it out yourself? And suddenly you've slipped in to persecutor mode. So you see how all these roles just can rotate around. And again, core to the drama triangle is nobody solving. Nobody's attempting to solve. There's no actual attempt to solve this recurrent problem. So this is the construct that Karpman came up with many, many years ago, and I think it's really, really a powerful way of thinking about it. The most important thing about the drama triangle is recognizing when you're in it. If you can catch yourself 'cause you're complaining and you know you're being the victim, or if you're raising your voice and starting to point your finger, pretty good chance you're being a persecutor. And if you're feeling this sort of warm, gushy feeling 'cause somebody's struggling and you're not giving them any accountability, you're probably rescuing, which is a form of persecution in and of itself. And parents these days I think are horrible are rescuing. My generation was sort of the opposite, we were basically sort of ignored as children and to find and fight our way through all kinds of life's obstacles. But now kids, you know, fall on the playground and they're picked up before they even know if they're hurt. It's pretty dangerous in terms of enabling all kinds of bad behavior, so. Let's think about this, we'll do a little facilitation. If there's anybody online you can feel free to share as well. Do you have a go-to, do you have a go-to? It's one these, sorta your place to go? Do you have one that you start, do you get stuck in any one? I will say that probably of the three, my worst is rescuer. I like to rescue, even when I was in the workforce and had to give feedback, I would do this thing where I would give tough feedback, and then apologize right afterwards. Like, totally undermined everything I just said. You know, wish you could do this better, here's the standards we hold you to, and I'm sorry if this came across as harsh. It just undermined everything I just did. Rescuing is really, can be very subtle, but it's usually not a effective nor useful thing to do. So anybody have a go-to in the studio audience or online?
If I don't say victim, my wife will probably kill me. That's me being a victim. But rescue or victim, that whole thing, that resonated with me. I'm gonna help you, help you, help you, help you, but you're not helping yourself. Oh, woe is me, look how hard I'm working trying to help you, help you, help. You know, that kind of thing? Yeah I'm good at that one, yeah.
Hey, we develop these skills over time. It's not like you get good at this over night. Anybody else, yes, Mark?
So I'm looking at all these and they're scary and I recognize them all. One thing I've always had a hard time with is when the people come back with all those excuses and I struggle with that. The reverse of it is there are other people that take responsibility, they love it. But then there becomes a level of, they recognize, it's something you said that was so interesting is it's not necessarily a resolution either. It's great that they've said or say you're right, I screwed up, I'm really sorry. I guess that's what's coming next is the resolution.
Yeah, I mean I'm sorry is not a solution. It's just a way of decreasing the tension in the present tense, but for recurring things no. I'm sorry might be a resolution for a single problem, right? I screwed up, I'm sorry. But recurring problems, then there's nobody solving. So that's the sort of fundamental difference is drama, as constructed by Karpman and Emerald, is a recurring pattern, not just a one-off. I'm sorry can actually solve lots and lots of problems, just not recurring problems, does that make sense?
A group dynamics where, you know, the workplace or you're with a group of people that you see daily, and what you're talkin' about is that you find yourself falling into a pattern that repeats in not just marriages but.
Entire groups can play these roles. I mean, the classic is like sales, marketing and IT, right? They won't sell it, they won't build it, it's too expensive, woe is us here in marketing, we can't do anything 'cause nobody will let us. And then, you know, IT comes in and is like you're always trying to push stuff through that we can't do. And then, you know, the CEO steps in and says hey, we're doin' the best we can here. Why can't we all just play nice and get along and rescues, and there's no solution, no solution.
They group in numbers too, you know. So victims feel more empowered because there's more of us that feel that way.
And what I'm gathering from this or what you were saying is it's all very fluid, so people can, okay, wow.
Yeah, you can rotate around, you can do it bunch of times. I've certainly done that more than once in my life.