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One of the challenges that we face in our lives is that we can find ourselves entangled in emotional drama and conflict. Psychiatrist Stephen Karpman called this The Drama Triangle.  At the heart of it, is conflict involving three people.

This can be seen in families, within groups of friends and in the workplace. It involves what Karpman termed the Persecutor, the Victim (at the hands of the Persecutor) and the Rescuer, rescuing the Victim.

The Persecutor is the villain blaming the Victim. They can be controlling, superior and even aggressive.

The Victim is often seen as the underdog. They feel rudderless, unable to make decisions or solve problems. They can spend their lives feeling ‘poor me’. They may seek out Persecutors and Rescuers to absolve themselves of responsibility for their failure rather than stand on their own two feet and try and solve the issues for themselves.

The Rescuer goes to the rescue of the Victim. They can be perceived as the hero and can feel guilty if they don’t get involved. However, they can perpetuate the Victim’s feelings of helplessness. Rescuers value being needed by others. Their actions of wanting to help can also be an avoidance of their own problems.

Both the Victim and the Rescuer can become co-dependent, perpetuating the emotional entanglement and becoming the prop to each other.

An accomplished accountant James* came to me. We discussed a range of issues from work relationships to work life balance, but I always felt there was something troubling him. As his trust in me grew, he became more open. We would always agree an objective for each coaching session and work towards that. On one occasion, James wanted to discuss a family dynamic. His son had decided to drop out of university and was now living at home. James described him as lacking purpose, being lazy, unwilling to find work and uncommunicative. These behaviours were counter to the very strong work ethic of James.

The relationship deteriorated.  His wife took the side of her son, assuring him that this was just a phase.  As the months went by, the dynamics seemed to get worse. James became more frustrated and was increasingly inclined to lose his temper. He dreaded going home from work some days. And he was taking his negative mental attitude into work where his colleagues found him grumpy and snappy.

We discussed the drama triangle. He immediately identified himself as both persecutor and victim.  The roles can easily switch. He was absolutely clear that he wanted to pull back from the arguments and the anxiety.

I encouraged James to try and look at the dynamic in another way. I floated the idea that he should see himself in a different role: as an Encourager and Challenger (rather than persecutor) and that he should work with his wife.  They would need listen to each other and present a united front allowing their son to start to take small steps forward.

James was very receptive to this. We discussed him talking to his wife about her playing the role of a ‘coach’ as a positive alternative to a rescuer. Rather than reinforcing the victim role, she could use her skills to enquire, be curious, listen and encourage resilience. And rather than taking sides, she could encourage their son to start to make some decisions for himself.

James worked on losing the persecution label to become the Encourager and Challenger. His aim was to encourage his son to think differently, so he could learn and grow. Rather than criticizing or blaming, an Encourager and Challenger helps to inspire and help find and believe in purpose.

Finally, we talked about the positive alternative for their son – from Victim to Creator. Supported by his mother as coach, and with encouragement from James, their son could start to think about purpose, what he wants in his life and the steps he needs to take to achieve that.

The dynamics began to improve and their son joined James in one session. I facilitated an open dialogue – as usual with agreement upfront on their desired outcomes.  They defined these as:

  • how can we improve our relationship and what were the barriers getting in the way?’
  • ‘how could his son make his father proud of him?”

The coaching continues.

*not his real name

Leadership Coaching and Development | Game-changing Behaviours and Impact | Adaptability | Resilience | Non-Executive Director | Chair |

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