Five Steps to Breaking the Drama Triangle

| | General Leadership
Five Steps to Breaking the Drama Triangle

Michael Bungay Stanier is a coach and best-selling author whose passion is coaching organizations toward doing Great Work, instead of just good work. Here he shares some thoughts on improving communication and interaction with others, which can help all of us do more great work, no matter what our roles or job titles may be.

We’ve all got our routines and habits, some of which are useful in the workplace, others, well, less so. An interesting (but totally unhelpful) pattern that many of us fall into is the Drama Triangle.

The Drama Triangle, a practical interpretation of transactional analysis developed by Stephen Karpman, assumes that, at least some of the time, we’re playing less-than-fantastic versions of ourselves with most of the people with whom we interact.

When this happens, Karpman says, we’re bouncing around between three archetypal roles — Victim, Persecutor, and Rescuer — each one as unhelpful and dysfunctional as the other.

It’s easy to think of people at work who fall into each of these categories. Picture them: the colleague who feels that everything is unfair (Victim), the arrogant one who often takes over everything (Persecutor), and the hero who tries to fix every stressful situation (Rescuer).

Chances are, you can think of instances where you too played these roles, even though you probably tend to favor one over the others.

The reality is you’ll probably continue to fall into this role-playing pattern; but there are a few things you can do to break the cycle quickly so that whatever you’re confronting can get done more efficiently, without the aggravation that comes with the Drama Triangle:

1 – Recognize the Drama Triangle

Accepting the pattern of the Drama Triangle is the first step in changing it. If you know how to recognize it, you’ll get better at breaking the pattern and understanding what caused it. Once you see the pattern, you can help break it with the next step in this list.

2 – Ask “How Can I Help?”

By asking how you can help (instead of jumping in with what you assume will be helpful suggestions), you avoid falling into Rescuer mode. You’re asking a question that will help your colleague make a direct and clear request, and you’re avoiding doing it for them. This question can be scary for some because of the (understandable) fear that you’re about to be thrown a lot of extra work, so be blunt in what you’re offering and decide what you can both do to help each other.

3 – Be Blunt . . . But Be Careful

When you ask “How can I help?” basically you’re asking “What do you want from me?” And that doesn’t sound too inviting. Asking questions well takes a certain finesse. You don’t want to come across as whiny (Victim), aggressive (Persecutor), or smothering (Rescuer). Know your audience. Some colleagues will respond positively to a straight-to-the-point question, whereas others may need to hear something a little lighter. One way to soften the question is to add, “Out of curiosity…” or “Just so I know…” or “To help me understand better…” or even “To make sure that I’m clear…”

4 – Ask “And What Else?” (aka, the best coaching question in the world)

Asking “And what else?” keeps you quiet — it’s a self-management tool for keeping your advice giving at bay. It also keeps people generating options and uncovering new ideas. This helps break the cycle as you and your colleague figure out what really needs to be done, without jumping from Victim to Persecutor to Rescuer in a matter of mere minutes.

5 – Listen

We’re all quick to jump in and provide answers. Most people are trying to help when they do this. If you’re asking the right questions in the right way, the right answers will come — but you need to take the time to really listen to those answers in order for them to be useful.

By removing yourself from the Drama Triangle, you’ll find that there is a way to offer help without becoming a Rescuer, just as there is a way to ask for help without becoming a Victim, and a way to request something of someone without becoming a Persecutor.

When someone asks a question, don’t just give them the answer, or worse, provide them with nothing. Instead, break the usual cycle, ask questions, be clear and, above all, listen.

For a four-part video series about the Drama Triangle, visit the Box of Crayons website.


Michael Bungay Stanier Michael Bungay Stanier is the Senior Partner of Box of Crayons, a company that helps organizations do less Good Work and more Great Work. Box of Crayons is best known for its coaching programs, which give busy managers practical tools to coach in 10 minutes or less. Download free chapters of Michael’s latest book The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever here.



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