End Drama Triangles at Work

It’s frustrating for leaders to find themselves in conversations that don’t seem to end. These circular encounters, whether with a direct report, a peer or a boss (even a customer) waste your time, and leave you feeling unproductive. You know there is problem when you actively avoid people. Notice your sinking feeling of déjà vu when certain people show up in your office. “Here we go again, the same old story.”

When the storytelling is prevalent and familiar, you may be caught in what is commonly called a drama triangle. This way of interacting is so prevalent that when you learn about it you see it EVERYWHERE. In the drama triangle there are three people (positions):  victim, villain and hero. And what happens interpersonally is that as one person takes on a position, the people around them jump right into the open spots.  You fall for this when an employee comes to you complaining about the latest change order from the top (victim of corporate villainy) and you jump in to become the hero. Or when a peer asks the boss for resources that sit in your budget, and you become the victim to their villainy, then going to your peers looking for a hero.

What’s interesting is that we each like one particular role in the triangle; it just comes naturally to us. And, the stories that we begin to spin from that place get in the way of our ability to have healthy and productive conversations.

This month I’d like to share with you a few tools that can help extradite you from triangular, unhealthy dramas, and also actually stop the cycle in its tracks. I want to give credit for these new learnings of mine to the brilliant Julie Westeinde of Breakthrough Learning Associates in Ottawa, who taught me the concept of Healthy Conversations based on her work around non-violent communications.

  1. Advocate for personal accountability.  Many leaders wish those around them would take more accountability.  Our ability to do that is actually predicated on if our leaders and peers allow us the space to do that.  If you agree that we are all responsible for our own well-being, you need to be more aware of leaving the space for people to step up to that. There are times when it’s a gift to help someone else. Often, though, our helping is not as pure as all that. When we become the Helper, we can create a role called the Helpless in the other person ((another way to express Hero and Victim.) Help is helpful when it enables another person, and when the option to refuse the help is also explicit.  
  2. Make requests, not demands. Remember that we all have choice. This sounds so primary, and yet it is a fact that people routinely forget. Listen to how many times people at work say, “I have to” or “I should” throughout the day.  In North America, we rarely are without choices (although our options may be limited).  Given certain options, we may decide to take no action or make a sacrifice. These are choices too.  Everyone you are in contact with is making choices. Speak to others with this knowledge.  Make requests instead of demands.
  3. Step out of the triangle. When you hear language that sounds like part of a victim- villain-hero story, be careful not to fall into it. You can even say to others “I’m not going to be the (role) here.”  As a leader, you can coach staff to move out of the triangle and be sure not to collude with them. Ask questions such as, “What if you weren’t a victim in this scenario – what would you do differently?”  or “What if you didn’t need to be the hero – what would change?”  
  4. Use healthy communication. If we move out of the drama triangle, we need to replace our drama stories with something else.  The best alternative to storytelling is truth-telling. Crisp, clear communication, which is authentic and rooted in personal accountability, works well. This means saying what you are observing, what feelings are created from that observation, and what you need. Take ownership for what you need by using the words “I” and “me” and “my”.  If you have been academically educated, you may find your training has stripped all the first-person voice from your messages. Write and speak in the first person.  It reminds you of your choices, it sounds more authentic and powerful, and it helps others to see that it is okay to take personal accountability.
  5. Listen for authenticity in others. Communication skills are hard won, and many people struggle to articulate their innermost feelings and needs.  Leaders who listen deeply and without judgment make it safe for honest discourse.  First be a model of healthy communication. Then look and listen for clues that tell you something important is being unsaid. Ask questions about the unspoken feelings and guess at what the unmet need is. Express appreciation when others take a risk and share their feelings, needs and requests. When you decline a request, do it respectfully and being authentic about why you choose to do so.

For more on this topic, read Marshall B. Rosenberg’s work on Nonviolent Communication. Special thanks to Julie Westeinde, Breakthrough Learning Associates at [email protected]

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