As an executive coach, I find that clients often use the 80 / 20 rule for managing their most challenging staff. They spent 80% of their time managing 20% of their people – the difficult ones – and often ignore their loyal, effective, highly-performing team members as a result.
Working with people in Professional Partnerships – partners who have worked together for many years – I find myself acting like a marriage guidance counselor. As an NLP coach, I often hear clients heaping blame on their actual life partner, or despairing of their relationship.
The drama triangle
A model I find hugely useful in all the above is the Drama Triangle, created by Stephen B Karpman, based on Eric Berne’s concept of psychological games.
The easiest place to watch the triangle in action is in actual drama; in films, TV programmes and even the news. The Persecutor (or baddie) abuses an innocent victim. The Hero comes to the rescue, but things go wrong, and he or she finds themselves turned into a Victim, for a while, at least, until the ‘tables are turned’.
This is the plot of all of the James Bond films, with this cycle repeated numerous times throughout the movie, with ever more entertaining props – circular saws, sharks circling in tanks and so on.
But the Drama Triangle is serious business.
How the Drama Triangle works in coaching
In coaching, the client often presents a narrative of how they started with seemingly good intentions – the Rescuer role. They see the bad behaviour of another person and ‘help them out’ by making alibis, keeping secrets or cleaning things up.
They give that person a ‘last chance’ to get on the right path. They labour under the false belief “If I do this, they will change”.
Nothing does change, of course, and the Rescuer slides into self-pity and changes roles to the Victim.
This change of roles is where the drama really kicks in, as it provides a boost of energy.
The new Victim asks themselves the question “Why does this keep happening to me?” Their anger can begin to mount. Finally they may switch roles to the Persecutor, when they become harsh and judgmental – wanting to punish the person they originally sought to rescue.
This may show up as being overtly abusive, or it can be ‘passive aggressive’. Sometimes the original Victim may even punish the Rescuer by blaming their own behaviour on them: a game that Berne called “See what you made me do!”
After some time, the new Persecutor may begin to feel guilty and move back to the Rescuer role. And so on and so forth, perpetually switching roles round the triangle.
These patterns are usually born out of dysfunctional family origin. But their hidden objective here and now is to gain energy.
Rising above the triangle
If you find that a client is stuck in one of these patterns, teaching him or her the Drama Triangle can help them understand what is going on, and rise above the power of the triangle. They can learn to spot the ‘game invitations’ from out there, and, most useful of all, understand their own motivations for getting hooked into the ‘game’. However irritating the ‘other’, it always takes two to tango. (This can be the hardest learning of all.)
In romantic relationships, the roles tend to be what is called co-dependent: people are initially attracted to each other for the purposes of playing these games. For the relationship to improve, having specialist couples counseling is the best way forward.
What the participants need to do is to find better, more positive ways of gaining energy, through enjoying intimacy (which doesn’t just mean sex, but deep sharing of thoughts, values, experiences and feelings) rather than through intense conflict.
Is life’s drama a good thing?
I still don’t know whether the high level of drama pumped into our lives by the media is a good thing or not. All modern cultures seem to need a constant diet of drama, from TV series, movies and newspapers.
Is this an unhealthy craving, like all that sugar in our food? Or is it what the philosopher Aristotle called ‘catharsis’, a way of getting their drama artificially so that they can then get on with real life in a healthy way, enjoying the benefits of highly effective work relationships complemented by supportive and loving relationships at home?