How to Avoid the Drama Triangle

Thursday, November 16, 2017

For better or for worse, we all play a certain role at work. Our best qualities have led us to the best moments of our career, but our less redeeming ones tagged along too—and likely continue to contribute to less-than-perfect workday interactions.

The Drama Triangle is a practical interpretation of transactional analysis developed by Stephen Karpman. The theory is that three roles come into play during a dysfunctional moment: the victim, the persecutor and the rescuer. Understanding these roles (and how to break free from them) is key to working better together as a team.

Think of a frustrating interaction you’ve had at work. Were you the victim (“my life is so hard”), the persecutor (“I’m surrounded by fools”), or the rescuer (“don’t worry, I’ll fix it all”)?

At a glance, you can probably identify which role you typically take on. In truth, you’ve likely played each of them at some point in your career (some people even bounce between all three in a single day). But chances are that one role is your default. What’s more, you’ve probably realized that these roles aren’t great for workplace relationships. Here’s how to avoid them.

Learn to Spot the Drama Triangle

It doesn’t take recognition alone to change the cycles we’ve created, but it’s a good starting point. Although you will probably, in any interaction, initially fall into one of the three roles, once you understand them and their cycles, you’ll be able to determine what initiated the chain. You can’t change a pattern without knowing it’s there.

Ask the Lazy Question: How Can I Help?


A person in the role of rescuer is constantly trying to do just that—rescue the situation. If this is you, instead of jumping in with advice and a willingness to do it all, ask “How can I help?” You’ll force the person you’re asking to come up with a clear request of you, which means you’ll still be there to help, but they will come up with the solutions. Be clear in what you offer; don’t offer to do it all, as that will lead you back into the rescuer role.

Be Straightforward but Tactful

As with any question, the lazy question can be taken badly if not asked well. It’s okay to ask how you can help, but you need to be clear about what you’re willing to do. You don’t want to come across as mopey (victim), aggressive (persecutor), or overwhelming (rescuer). Some people might respond well to a blunt question, such as “What do you want from me?” However, others might appreciate a little more tact. Figure out what works best for you and your coworkers.

Ask the Best Coaching Question in the World: And What Else?

The AWE question helps tame our inner advice monster. Instead of rushing in with suggestions, ask another question: And what else? It keeps the conversation going in a positive direction by generating more options, more ideas, more of everything. It also helps break the cycle among victim, persecutor, and rescuer because the conversation keeps moving forward--instead of making someone feel undervalued (victim), frustrating someone else (persecutor), or prompting another to jump in and take over (rescuer).

Listen Carefully

Most of the time when we come up with suggestions and advice, we’re just trying to help. But what helps more than offering advice is asking questions, and beyond that, listening to the answers. Not all cycles are bad. Get into a new pattern: ask good questions that elicit good answers—and really listen to those answers.

If you learn to spot the Drama Triangle and disrupt it by posing questions, you’ll be able to help people without acting like a rescuer, you’ll be able to ask for something without coming across as a persecutor, and you’ll still be able to ask for help without playing the victim.

About the Author

Michael Bungay Stanier is the senior partner and founder of Box of Crayons. It’s best known for its coaching programs, which give busy managers the tools to coach in 10 minutes or less.

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