Conflict is an unavoidable aspect of life, and understanding the roles we play within it is crucial for navigating difficult situations. The Karpman Drama Triangle, developed by Stephen Karpman, M.D., identifies three roles we often take during conflicts: Victim, Persecutor, and Rescuer. Recognizing these roles and their respective antidotes can help us approach conversations and conflicts more effectively.
The Victim Role: When playing the victim, we feel powerless and oppressed, blaming external factors for our problems. Victims tend to avoid taking responsibility for their actions.
The Persecutor Role: This role involves criticizing and blaming others for our issues. The persecutor voice can be directed outward or inward, often escalating the conflict.
The Rescuer Role: Rescuers try to save the victim from their problems, whether it’s an internal or external conflict. This role enables avoidance of responsibility and focuses on soothing discomfort.
The Karpman Drama Triangle can be found in various conflicts, such as personal relationships, family dynamics, and workplace disputes. To break free from these roles and transform conflicts requires that we utilize the antidotes and employ courage and curiosity.
Empowering the Victim:
- Become a self-advocate.
- Let go of negative self-blame.
- Set clear expectations and healthy boundaries.
- Take responsibility for your actions.
Encouraging Self-Care for the Rescuer:
- Recognize that it’s not your job to save others.
- Breathe through discomfort and practice non-judgment.
- Ask questions to support awareness.
- Set healthy boundaries and take responsibility for your actions.
Cultivating Compassionate Curiosity for the Persecutor:
- Remember the difference between intent and impact.
- Apologize for unintended harm.
- Notice unrealistic or unspoken expectations.
- Let go of attachment to the choices and actions of others.
- Set healthy boundaries and take responsibility for your actions.
- By applying these antidotes, we can transform our roles in conflicts, leading to healthier communication, stronger relationships, and personal growth.
How it goes Wrong
A workplace disagreement between two supervisors can easily demonstrate the Karpman Drama Triangle. Let’s consider a scenario where Supervisor A feels that Supervisor B is not allocating resources fairly between their teams. Supervisor A takes on the Victim role, believing that their team is being intentionally disadvantaged by Supervisor B. They complain to other colleagues about the perceived injustice, fueling resentment and negativity. Supervisor B, in response, adopts the Persecutor role, accusing Supervisor A of being overly sensitive or misinterpreting the situation. Feeling defensive, Supervisor B becomes increasingly critical of Supervisor A’s management style. Meanwhile, a third colleague steps in as the Rescuer, attempting to mediate the situation and smooth things over without directly addressing the core issue. This dynamic perpetuates the cycle of blame and avoidance, preventing the supervisors from finding a constructive solution.
The Antidotes at Work
The supervisors must first recognize their positions within the Drama Triangle to resolve the conflict using the antidotes for each role. Supervisor A (Victim) should work on becoming a self-advocate, setting clear expectations and boundaries, and taking responsibility for their own actions. They could initiate a calm, open conversation with Supervisor B to discuss their concerns and propose potential solutions. Supervisor B (Persecutor) should practice compassionate curiosity, acknowledging the impact of their actions and working to understand Supervisor A’s perspective. By letting go of defensiveness and setting healthy boundaries, they can collaboratively address the issue. The third colleague (Rescuer) can shift their focus to self-care and setting boundaries, stepping back from their role as a mediator and instead providing a supportive, non-judgmental space for both supervisors to express their concerns. Through this process, the supervisors can effectively transform their roles, leading to a more productive and positive resolution of the conflict.
What might a Coach Do?
Any coach working with this scenario might utilize their expertise in facilitating communication, supporting self-awareness, and promoting personal and professional growth to support the supervisors in applying the antidotes.
The Karpman Drama Triangle can be transformed by shifting each role towards a healthier alternative. The Victim will need to move towards the Creator role, focusing on self-advocacy and personal growth. The Persecutor will need to transition to the Challenger role, emphasizing empathy and understanding. Lastly, the Rescuer will need to become more of a Coach themselves, empowering others with holding the space, not taking sides, and being curious, while practicing self-care. By embracing these new roles, everyone can foster healthier, more constructive relationships.
A coach might encourage open and honest dialogue between the supervisors, focusing on active listening and empathetic understanding. By creating a safe and non-judgmental space, the coach could support the supervisors in expressing their experience in the situation and concerns without fear of blame or retaliation.
The coach might work with each supervisor individually, supporting self-awareness and recognizing roles within the Karpman Drama Triangle. Through powerful questioning and reflective exercises, the coach could invite the supervisors to identify their behavioral patterns and explore alternative ways to approach the conflict. Understanding that each supervisor probably has a goal, and their actions may not bring them closer to that goal.
Furthermore, the coach could support the supervisors in developing skills and strategies for effectively implementing the antidotes in their interactions. For the Victim, the coach might assist in building assertiveness, effective communication, and boundary-setting skills. For the Persecutor, the coach could focus on fostering empathy, emotional intelligence, and conflict resolution techniques. For the Rescuer, the coach might help them develop self-care practices and establish healthier boundaries in their professional relationships.
By working collaboratively with the supervisors, the coach can empower them to take ownership of their actions, adopt a growth mindset, and transform their roles within the Drama Triangle. This process often resolves the current conflict and equips the supervisors with valuable skills and insights to constructively and harmoniously navigate future disagreements.
It is important to recognize that all people tend to take turns participating in the three roles of the Karpman Drama Triangle: Victim, Persecutor, and Rescuer. We might move between these roles in a given situation as the dynamics change. Understanding this fluidity helps us recognize when we are engaging in unhelpful behaviors and can encourage us to shift toward healthier alternatives.
By being mindful of our actions and interactions, we can consciously choose to embody the Creator, Challenger, or Coach roles instead. This self-awareness allows us to break the cycle of the Drama Triangle and build more supportive and empowering relationships with others. Ultimately, cultivating this awareness in our personal and professional lives will lead to more effective communication and conflict resolution.
These antidotes are loosely based on: The Power of TED, by David Emerald; Barbara Whitfield’s work on Victim to Thriver; and my own experience and work with the 3 roles.
Lyssa deHart, LICSW, MCC, author of StoryJacking: Change Your Dialogue, Transform Your Life and the Reflective Coach, is a Confidence Coach, Certified Mentor Coach, Coaching Super-Vision Partner, ICF PCC Assessor, and coaching educator. Using her understanding of the ICF Core Competencies and her knowledge of Neuroscience, Lyssa works with Professional Coaches to expand the capacity to partner with their clients through how they show up and hold the space for those with whom they work.
Lyssa is the creator of the Power of Metaphor Certification Program. Giving coaches new ways to tune their ears to hear the powerful metaphors their clients bring forward and discovering how to leverage the important metaphors to create stronger agreements, build trust and safety, allow the client to lead, and ultimately evoke powerful embodied awareness.
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article originally posted on Dec 2, 2019. Updated April 23, 2023.