There’s the victim, the persecutor, then suddenly a rescuer makes their entrance to defend the victim by entering into a battle of wills with the persecutor. It’s common in stressful situations at work and is known as the “drama triangle” or “Karpman’s triangle”, after the psychologist who proposed the social model and called attention to its harmful effects on individuals, groups and organizations.
Let’s take a closer look at the concept, so that you notice when the unfortunate triangle starts occurring and suggest effective conflict-resolution methods.
1968, the year of analysis
Stephen Karpman published his famous article “” in 1968, and highlights the “psychological game” that takes place between two individuals when one positions him or herself as a victim of another, and asks a third person to intervene on their behalf and take their side. The allies then form an entity which the original persecutor sees as an attack. The persecutor then becomes the victim, and reproduces the same pattern, either by getting one of the two coalition forces back on their side, or by calling on a new third party for support. Conflict escalation is guaranteed, along with deceitfulness, deep-seated misunderstandings and other dilemmas of loyalty.
This model of conflict decay is reflected in transactional analysis, a school of which Karpman is one of the most famous representatives. The trend, driven at the end of the 1950s by the psychoanalyst Eric Berne, involves analyzing the intrapsychic dynamics which permeate relationships between individuals and social relations. To put it more simply: what happens inside “me” when I interact with others and how does what “I” do influence my environment?
The “psychological games” theory
The school of transactional analysis suggests that infernal “psychological games” are like board games to be played indefinitely until one of the players wins and the other loses; unless the board, pawns, dice and cards are sent flying across the room in an outburst of fury because someone is trying to cheat or isn’t following the rules!
These “psychological games” include the “ball trap” which involves asking for help during a difficult period, while systematically putting forward a series of inaccessible conditions when solutions are suggested: “I could talk to him, yes, your idea might work. It’s a good idea of course… But now isn’t the right time. And I’m sure he wouldn’t listen to me anyway. How can you possibly communicate with someone so twisted?”.
Another “psychological game” is known as “the dog handler”, which involves passing off abuses of authority as legitimate requests: “I don’t enjoy being so hard on him/her. It’s to benefit the team. And if I don’t lay down the law, who’s going to take charge?”.
And what about “making a scene” or “emotional racketeering”, which involves taking over an entire conversation by expressing dramatic individual emotion (red-faced anger, uncontrollable tears, giggles, etc.) just to avoid or delay facing a problem and dealing with it.
Unconscious, yet dangerous
The theory of “psychological games” calls to mind unmanageable personalities, egotistical and/or dishonest people who only seek their own benefit in every interaction they have. That might be a bit of an exaggeration, because above all, transactional analysis emphasizes that these “psychological games” can also be unconscious AND dynamic.
They really are unconscious, because the people who become involved in them don’t usually have bad intentions: more often than not, they start playing these unhealthy games because they have exhausted their own mental resources before they were able to address the difficulties in their relationships: “I thought I could get by on my own, I tried to take steps towards reconciling with the other person and I ended up banging my head against the wall. And I just wore myself out, so now it’s gone too far, I’ve lost all my confidence, it’s too late to sort all this out”. And it is not uncommon that as well as suffering because of the situation in which they find themselves, people are also sad to see that it brings out the worst in them.
These “psychological games” are dynamic because they always involve relationships between individuals, as well as individuals in isolation. The relationship becomes a minefield, a war of misunderstandings, muffled resentments and unbearable frustration. There are (at least) three “wounded” parties: the two people who are in conflict and the bond which still exists between them but is damaged as each day goes by. And that damage is consolidated by the acute attention that the “players” give to the situation. But the tally of direct or collateral victims can grow exponentially, as new “players” enter the scene, with good intentions (helping to resolve the conflict, supporting the person they perceive to be suffering the most, etc.). These people may be are unaware of the underlying needs that they hope to satisfy by making themselves allies or rivals (recognition, positioning, creating a special relationship with one or getting back at the other, etc.). In the end, a vast and tangled of web is woven, trapping myriad toxic relationships.
Preventing Karpman’s triangle
Make way for emotions!
The damage itself caused by the drama triangle is normally enough to convince people that prevention is better than cure. And that means accepting the role of emotions in our relationships. As indicators of satisfied or unmet needs, emotions have their own brand of intelligence, as long as you know how to identify them! Watch out though, because fear can be mistaken for anger or surprise for joy! And vice versa. That’s what happens in the movie Inside Out, which is based on how we deal with our emotions (its title is Vice-versa in French!).
It’s also important to hear the signals sent out by our emotions: what does fear say about the feeling of being threatened for who you are and/or your legitimacy or of being mistreated? What does anger say about the feeling of being ridiculed for your values and/or being the victim of injustice? What does joy say about the feeling of fullness? What does disgust say about the feeling of losing desire and/or hope? What does sadness say about the feeling of disappointment and/or mourning? What does the surprise say about the feeling that a whole new world is opening up and/or that a whole belief system is no longer working for you?
Acknowledging and accepting emotions is a matter for individual people, in their heart of hearts. It is also a concern for society as a whole, and for an organization which must take emotions seriously and understand that they indicate needs. But care must also be taken to ensure fair treatment: emotions are not always expressed in the same way by more extrovert people, or by those in the highest positions because of their status or their network, etc. who allow themselves to express themselves more easily, and are therefore more easily heard.
Open, respectful and loyal communication: the foundations of healthy disagreement
A lot of psychological games can be prevented by making sure that people communicate with each other, especially when there is conflict: discussions must be open, respectful and loyal. This means that everyone needs to make an effort and say what is bothering them. It’s also important to say it primarily to the right person, i.e. the one who is also involved in the relationship, and not to third parties who have no other power than to listen and/or offer support because they only hear one side of the story.
It’s crucial to be honest: talk in a direct manner, taking care to avoid unnecessary euphemisms, innuendos or other pollutants that might come to mind in bad faith. However, being honest doesn’t mean going on the attack: how you express yourself is key. Keep the tone polite and recognize the other person as an individual in their own right rather than simply as an employee doing a job, or as having pre-conceived personality traits.
It’s also important to take care not to cause unnecessary harm: that’s a difficult exercise when the people on the other side of the conversation may be extremely sensitive. But by sincerely affirming your intention to improve the relationship and by making a commitment to contributing as much as the other person, you are already one step closer with your olive branch. There is one condition, however: you need to keep your promise, as well as any other promises that are made during the conversation. That’s the foundation of lasting trust!
How can you get out of the triangle once you’re caught in it?
The role of mediation
Sometimes, despite a corporate culture that promotes the values of high-quality communication, and the best efforts made by management to make communication a daily focus, a team may get caught up in a drama triangle. So how do you get out of it?
First, by taking fast action, especially to prevent the propagation of “psychological games” in the work environment! As soon as you have identified the situation and before it gets any worse, the protagonists should be invited to a face-to-face discussion so that each party can hear the other person talk about what is not working in their relationship.
If necessary, a third party could be there to manage the conversation, by acting as “mediator”: not to judge the situation by proving one person right or the other one wrong, or by blowing a figurative whistle like a teacher at the end of recess, but rather to accompany the parties as they express their needs and then help to develop a solution that will be acceptable and appropriate for everyone involved. During this process, the “mediator” must help the individuals to explore their reactions in each role: what do I do when I feel like a victim? How do I react when a victim calls on me to “rescue” them? What happens inside me when I find myself in the position of persecutor?
The winner’s triangle
The mediator can also accompany the protagonists as they work towards shifting their position. That’s the approach recommended by Acey Choy, whose idea is to transform the drama triangle into a “winner’s triangle”:
- It starts with the victim becoming “vulnerable”, i.e. accepting a temporary weakness but gaining strength by being responsible for finding a solution.
- The persecutor becomes “assertive”, which means being in a position to put forward a point of view and express needs, while treating other people well.
- The rescuer becomes caring”, i.e. aware of the existence of a relationship in which there is suffering and recognizing it, while leaving the people involved to work on resolving “their” conflict under fair conditions.
Marie Donzel, for the EVE Program. Translated from French by Ruth Simpson.