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The drama triangle: How to escalate a conflict

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The drama triangle and its destructive dynamics

Conflicts usually escalate according to the same embroidery pattern: the drama triangle. What happens then – and how you can prevent it – is shown in this and the next article on the subject of conflict management.

Who doesn’t know that?

A conflict escalates into a drama: The parties involved leave the factual level behind – and in the end there is frustration and long faces instead of understanding and solutions. You have probably asked yourself what you can do differently in such a conflict to find a solution or what you can do to ensure that you are understood. But communication quickly becomes a minefield, because whatever you say at a critical moment, it usually only makes things worse…
An example that you may have already experienced:
Something has gone wrong in your company: In order to do your job, you would have needed data from employee X. But X did not provide the data. This has caused you difficulties, but it is not your fault. They are annoyed because X has obviously not done his job properly. You speak openly about this grievance, address the responsible employee X and make no secret of the fact that you are disgruntled. The person addressed is contrite and tries to justify his actions. And his office neighbor is already on the spot, jumping into the breach, defending her colleague and making you feel that it is you who is doing something wrong. But you were right, weren’t you?
There were destructive communication patterns at work here that we have all struggled with before.
Good news: There are ways to get out of such a communication fiasco. To do this, it is first necessary to take a look at the structure of such conflicts. The drama triangle shows us a classic conflict structure.
 
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How do conflicts become dramas? – The drama triangle

There are communication patterns that play out in a similar way in a wide variety of contexts. Stephen Karpman M.D. recognized this interaction system and called it the drama triangle. The drama triangle is a valuable tool for clarifying unproductive communication processes. It is a helpful tool for recognizing and presenting a relatively straightforward communication pattern.
In 1968 Karpman published an article in which he analyzed roles in fairy tales, stories and dramas. These role patterns are the basis of the drama triangle. He found three roles within conflicts, which he called persecutors, victims and rescuers. In order to enter into a relationship with others, each of the people involved – as in a drama – takes on one of three roles, which they can change during the course of the conflict. Karpman’s theory has won awards and is now an important basis in transactional analysis, a branch of humanistic psychology.

The three roles of the drama triangle

The drama triangle and its roles: Persecutor, victim and rescuer

– The pursuer

The pursuer criticizes and assigns blame. This is often perceived as an attack. The pursuer is sure to be right. Something often frustrates him.
Remember our example at the beginning: something went wrong in your company, which was frustrating for you. They go after the presumed “culprit” for this. In this example situation, you have taken on the role of the chaser. The inner monologue – unconscious or semi-conscious thoughts are typically “It’s your fault. You didn’t try hard enough”, “You’re wrong, I’m right. You should do what I say” – but the blame can also be directed at oneself: “I messed it up for all of us.”

– The victim

The victim finds himself helplessly in an unpleasant situation for himself.
Imagine this: You feel powerless, desperate because you have been unfairly criticized or think that you are in this situation through no fault of your own. Perhaps you also think that you can’t do something or that you are even in a hopeless situation. Typical thoughts here are: “Why does this keep happening to me?”, “Life does what it wants to me.”, “But I can’t help it.”, “I’m not good enough.” The victim often gets people to help them; they are often looking for a savior, they are needy and suffer openly and for all to see.

– The savior

The rescuer intervenes in the conflicts of others in a helping and partisan manner.
He makes the victim’s problem his own. He has good intentions, cares about others and is willing to help – and to a greater extent than those he is helping want. In doing so, he sometimes loses sight of his own problems, his own life. Someone has criticized your colleague? “Well, you have to do something about that!” – You stand up for him. – However, the rescuer usually fights the symptom rather than offering help for self-help. Do you have a computer problem? The rescuer is more likely to say: “Leave it – I’ll sort it out!”. Then he will fix the problem instead of teaching you how to help yourself. Inner monologue here is: “Poor person – I’ll help her.”, “If the person would do what I say – then she would be happy.”
 
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How do drama dynamics affect conflicts?

The drama triangle is graphically represented as an upside-down triangle. At the bottom is the victim, who believes he is in an inferior position; at the top are the persecutors and rescuers, who each feel superior. Rescuers and persecutors confirm the role of the victim – and vice versa: for example, the rescuer attests to the victim’s hopeless situation and innocence and the victim attests to the rescuer’s nobility and competence. In this way, we confirm our beliefs and those of others.
Although there is always one role with which we prefer to enter the drama triangle, the roles are often changed very quickly when the dynamic picks up speed.
One example:
A team of service employees feels badly treated by their team leader, who often reacts grumpily and moodily. From this victim role, the colleagues turn to the next higher superior during their boss’s vacation and tell him how demotivating the team leader is and how badly he is taking care of morale in the team. The department head who is approached as a savior is happy to take on this role and promises to resolve the matter for the employees. When the team leader returns from vacation, he has to report to his superior and is given a telling-off. (The head of department has now become the pursuer). The team leader feels betrayed by his team, is offended and hurt in the role of victim. At the next opportunity, he confides in a colleague (as a rescuer) who has also had an issue with this head of department. Together they confirm that this boss would not work at all.
 
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As you can see, the drama dynamic is in full swing.
Basically, everyone is trying to prove that they are the biggest victim, that they have been wronged. In most cases, the “players” in the drama triangle cannot be convinced that the other person is suffering greater injustice than themselves. In the end, everyone feels like a victim of the situation: frustrated and helpless.
This may all seem perfectly normal to us, because this type of dynamic is a common one. However, these dynamics are destructive in nature. When one of these roles appears, it develops a suction effect. Almost automatically, other participants tend to take on the next roles in the game. With each new turn, the conflict becomes sharper and more difficult to resolve.
So there are plenty of reasons to get out of the drama triangle.
In our next blog post, we will give you practical tips on how to get out of a drama dynamic.
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Caught in the net.
Here we have a few relevant links for you:
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The authors

Kassandra Knebel
Susanne Grätsch
Berliner Team