Monday, 6 July 2015

The Drama Triangle

Being a parent of two young, restless children on these hot, light nights tests my emotional and physical resilience to an extreme. They have both slept in the car on the way home earlier, of course, so have already enjoyed a 45 minute deep sleep. The calming-down effects of the usual food, bath, story routines are undermined by the intense sunshine and sticky skin under even the lightest of pyjamas. 

I know we don't live in a sub-saharan hot-spot, but it is well-documented that the Brits aren't particularly prepared for hot days and nights. And our Sussex home near the coast is built to insulate, which it does very well.

The children don't go to sleep until gone 10pm, and for the 3 hours prior to this there is a merry-go-round of irritability: tantrums, frustrated stomping about, apologies, hot cuddles, pleading, blackmail, angry outbursts, platitudes etc etc. It is a buffet of ill-advised behaviours.

But it is only ever later on, when everyone's defeated, that you properly start to reflect on what could have happened differently (clue: I am getting the car seats fitted with dashboard-controlled spikes so that they can't fall asleep in the back unless I say so). You think about the behaviours the children use to gain control of the situation in their different ways - and the behaviours my wife and I use to strive for firm fairness yet quickly lose ground to sheer exasperation. We are caught in Karpman's drama triangle and the only way out of it is someone eventually falling asleep. Probably the grown ups.

Dr Stephen Karpman's 1968 idea, was that conflict needs players and players need roles. The consequential objective of each role is just to have its own needs met - even if temporarily - in order to feel justified in its rationale/behaviour/feeling.

Karpman suggests that in each conflict there are three main roles:

  1. The Persecutor: happy to allocate blame and to ensure that other players know they are in the wrong. They are probably angry, accusative, inflexible and feeling very righteous. In order to have their needs met, they require The Victim; someone onto whom they can project their irritation.
  2. The Victim: The Victim takes the brunt of The Persecutor's wrath. The Victim feels hard-done-by, got-at, powerless, ashamed, unable to do anything. This is obviously a position of anxiety for most, but psychologically it can actually often bring some comfort. You know where you are when you are The Victim, and it's easy to seek the pity of others. If The Victim role feels natural to you, then you need to seek out The Persecutor (if you haven't already got one) but also The Rescuer.
  3. The Rescuer: a big ball of guilt, who needs someone to help, because when you're the hero to others then you don't have to deal with your own feelings of anxiety or displacement. The Rescuer appears to be The Victim's saviour from The Persecutor, but actually cements the others in their negative behaviours - almost giving them permission to stay as the bully or the bullied as it makes everyone feel that they have a purpose.

The important things about these roles, is that they are not fixed to an individual. In the course of a conflict, the players will move around the three corners of the triangle - first shouting the odds, then feeling got-at when they are challenged, and then rescuing their former adversaries when they then go on to feel vulnerable. It is a rotating pattern of behaviours that, ultimately, serves no-one. Even when the conflict is finished, everyone of those players is likely to harbour some resentment - even if their short-term emotional needs feel sated.

What does this have to do with always possible, I hear you grumble - and is this just a parent-child thing?

Well, it has everything to do with everyday organisational behaviours, with corporate, community and collaborative development and - in a way - it is to do with parent/child relationships, but often metaphorically.

In some leadership workshops that I co-ran in March with managers from the FE and skills sector, we explored the drama triangle and whether it had any impact on the behaviours of those running education institutions. Of course! The lists kept coming:

Classic persecutors: Ofsted, awarding bodies, DfE, angry parents, angry learners, disgruntled staff, pissed-off neighbours, local authority, politicians, social workers...

Victims: teachers, Headteachers, learners (again), disgruntled staff (again), neighbours (again), politicians (don't blame us, we've got books to balance)

Rescuers: teachers (again), counsellors, social workers (again), local authority (we really do understand...), colleagues, Headteachers, Ofsted, whiskey...

You get it.
This theory has been around for nearly 50 years and is used daily in the fields of 'transactional analysis', and the study and understanding of social and professional behaviours. But, it is one of the simple ideas that I think makes a lot of sense, and to understand where you are on in the cycle during any given 'drama' enables you to get yourself out of it.

As a manager, leader and consultant, I will always be very mindful about the sorts of drama triangles that are sapping my clients' energies - and situations don't often look or feel like a theoretical diagram can neatly sum them up - but dig a little and patterns emerge. The obvious examples are where company leaders feel that they have absolutely no control over the future of their organisation - because of cuts in funding, because customers are more demanding, because you can't get the staff, because the competition are just that bit bigger - and the sensitive conversation to have is about how long this feeling has been going on and whether actually it is easier to be The Victim because the narrative it provides displaces the need to do something about it. The belief that The Rescuer will be along soon (a grant windfall, a good bit of publicity, a stay of execution from the landlord/taxman/whoever, some good results) is sometimes enough to keep people going.

When you write it down, it sounds a bit irrational (I think) - but I would guess that 80% of small values-led organisations, schools, arts organisations, SMEs, charities, have this mindset for a big chunk of their developmental years.

Is there an answer? Well, self-awareness can bring some different ways of looking at things.

Much of the follow-up work to Karpman has focused on the idea of ridding the parent-child power games in favour of more adult-adult conversation. If one part of the triangle ceases to play along (much like if you remove one of the elements needed to maintain a fire), then the drama collapses. It takes one party to speak above the noise and call for a bit of perspective.

The idea is then that the energy given out in perpetuating the drama could actually be used for the long-game, reframing the action towards problem-solving behaviours rather than the emotional quick-wins. Of course, much easier said than done, but that's where some outside perspective can often help.

If it works, then The Persecutors become Challengers. They might still have a bee in their bonnet, and they might have a thing or two to say - but it moves from bullying to a more collaborative approach that relies on accountability and transparency. Most importantly, they are clear about what behaviours from others will enable them to feel less angry or critical - and to have realistic expectations about how these can be achieved.

The Victims become Survivors, understanding that purely to seek the validation of feeling vulnerable means it can never move beyond that point. The key is to identify, and then take, some action - still often with the help of others, but without the co-dependency. This may mean letting go of some strings.

The Rescuers become Coaches. Having some synergy with the Challengers, this role helps others to identify the behaviours they need to exhibit in order to get themselves out of their rut. The better the coach, the less direct rescuing they need to do.

Of course, this is just a framework, but it can help foster a dialogue within teams - especially when the proverbial starts to hit the fan. There are people who won't buy-in to it, and there a organisations who feel their natural harmony and problem-solving is the glue which binds them - which, if true, will lead to a thriving company much quicker than others. But it is rare that no-one ever finds themselves in this trap.

I will still blame my role as grumpy daddy on the car-journey sleeps and the fact that British houses are poorly designed for hot days. It's nothing to do with me, guv. Not my fault.

1 comment:

  1. I rather like this blog. The emphasis on moving from Parent-Child transactions to Adult-Adult transactions lands very comfortably with me. Thank you.