TIB #29: Escape the drama triangle by understanding these 3 communication roles

Written by Arno Jansen

Learn how to understand and escape the drama triangle model. The drama triangle is a model to visualize negative behavioral patterns in conflict situations. You can use this model yourself to recognize negative and destructive behavior in yourself and others. By recognizing these situations, you can escape the drama triangle.

In this article you will learn to recognize the roles in the model and how to escape the drama triangle and its negative grip. You will receive answers to the following questions:

  • How do you get into the drama triangle?
  • How do you stay out of the drama triangle?
  • How do you deal with a victim?
  • How do you deal with a prosecutor?
  • How do you stay out of the rescuer role?
  • How do you escape the drama triangle and move to the winner’s triangle?

What is the Drama Triangle?

The drama triangle consists of three roles in a conversation or situation, which lead to negativity and ineffective communication; the victim, the rescuer and the persecutor. The roles maintain each other and produce fixed patterns in communication.

Whatever role someone takes; it will not lead to a positive solution or situation. Also, it does not take exactly 3 people to fulfill the roles. This triangle full of drama can arise in teams at work, but also in partner relationships.

How to understand and escape the drama triangle

Recognizing the roles in the drama triangle is the first step to escape the drama triangle.

The victim

You can recognize someone in the role of victim by an attitude of powerlessness and passivity. The whole world is against the victim and the victim thinks he/she can do nothing about it. 

The victim cannot, does not want, does not dare, does not know how, does not have the means. In short: a victim is characterized by a great passivity and does not take responsibility for his or her own behaviour.

When a victim is offered help, it will be expertly declined. After all, that would mean that the victim can do something to improve the situation and can therefore take responsibility. The victim does not want that.

By assuming the victim role, the person in question will:

  • not make choices and decisions
  • avoid taking their own responsibilities
  • postpone or defer difficult questions and situations

How do you recognize the victim?

Typical words or behaviors for a victim are:

  • “Yes, but I can’t/don’t/don’t dare/understand…”
  • “I can’t help it because…”
  • Low self-esteem

The rescuer

The rescuer wants something or someone to save. A rescuer provides unsolicited help and advice. A rescuer tries to take over the burden and responsibilities of another person. That gives the rescuer a good feeling. It seems like good intentions, but the rescuer does not offer the right help.

By solving a victim’s problems, it is possible for a victim to remain in their role. At the same time, the rescuer feels good, because he becomes the hero of the day. In this way a pattern can emerge that sustains itself.

There is also a good chance that this behavior will make victims dependent on the rescuer, causing the rescuer to be indispensable.

The rescuer has the need to be meaningful to someone else. But by focusing on another, the rescuer can avoid his own problems.

How do you recognize the rescuer?

Typical words or behaviors of a rescuer are:

  • “Come on, let me do it”
  • “It is in your best interest if you…”
  • “You’d better…”
  • “What would you do without me”

The persecutor

The persecutor knows exactly how to point out where others go wrong. Blaming, anger and patronizing are part of the prosecutor’s role. An angry persecutor points rescuers and victims to their weak spot and wants to make them feel guilty. This behavior makes the prosecutor feel good. The prosecutor feels better than others.

When someone is in the role of persecutor does not contribute to a solution, but aims the arrows at the rescuer and / or the victim. By focusing on others, an accuser does not have to face his own problems, shortcomings or fears.

How do you recognize the persecutor?

Typical words or actions of a persecutor are:

  • “Didn’t I warn you?”
  • “Then you have to know for yourself”
  • “After all I’ve done for you, are you doing this to me?”
  • “Do you feel like it now? Because of you, we are now stuck with baked pears.”

The reaction of the bystanders

When all three roles are filled, a toxic cocktail of negativity is created. Both for those involved and for bystanders. Bystanders do not want to burn their fingers on it and therefore prefer not to interfere.

Roles in the drama triangle are interchangeable

The roles in the model are interchangeable. This means that a person can switch roles. This is how victim can quickly turn into persecutor:

“Surely you would chair that meeting so that I could finish my work? What good is that if I still have to take minutes myself?”

Because of the help, there is no longer a victim (needed), and before you know it, the victim has become the persecutor. But now the rescuer can respond to the accusations and switch to the victim role.

Or, the rescuer can also become a persecutor: “It’s great, after everything I’ve done for you, I’m getting to hear this?”. The rescuer can also switch to victim: “yes, but hum,….I couldn’t…”. You get the gist, I’m sure.

Where is the drama in the drama triangle?

None of those involved take responsibility for their own behavior. The Persecutor and the Rescuer feel superior than the others, while the Victim is feeling inferior. This way it is impossible to communicate as equals with each other. The result is a self-perpetuating pattern of negativity and powerlessness.

Often the discussion focuses on the content, rather than the process or the relationship, it becomes difficult to get out of this negativity. But luckily it is possible to escape the drama triangle.

Escaping the drama triangle

You can only break through a situation like this if you recognize it first. The roles and examples in this article have been exaggerated in order to properly illustrate the patterns and examples. In practice, the words and behaviors are often much more subtle.

As a bystander you can observe situations from a distance, without being directly involved yourself. But it is of course also possible that you yourself are part of this pattern of behavior. The drama triangle is so recognizable because we all have to deal with it from time to time.

When you are aware of your role, you can find a way to break out it and escape the drama triangle. Breaking through the drama triangle is done by consciously choosing your words and attitude.

A few tips:

  • Keep the real goal in mind, avoid politics and gossip
  • Avoid getting sucked into this roleplay by observing the tone and attitude of others
  • Take your own responsibility and encourage others to do the same.
  • Don’t make discussions personal.
  • Do not take over tasks or problems from people who are perfectly capable of handling them themselves.

In this way, negative communication patterns are broken and turned into constructive communication.

From drama triangle to winner’s triangle

The winner’s triangle is the positive counterpart of the drama triangle. In the winner’s triangle, the negative roles have been replaced by constructive and positive behavioral traits. Communication takes place in an equal way. Those involved deal with each other in an adult manner.

The positive version of the victim role is that of someone who is open and realistic. By knowing and accepting what you can and cannot do or know, you can also ask for help. Asking for and accepting help means that you do not shy away from your responsibility.

How do you stay out of the rescuer role?

The rescuer role changes to a coaching role. By asking how someone else can be helped, you can help someone else without someone becoming dependent on you. By asking, listening on the right level and understanding you help another to take responsibility.

In a coaching role, you deal with a victim in a different way: You can offer your help, but leave the decision to the person who asks or needs help. This is how a coach offers the right help.

The accuser becomes a solver. The blaming and pointing finger are replaced by an assertive and solution-oriented attitude. In this role, you help someone solve a problem without making them feel guilty.

The winners triangle is the positive opposite of the drama triangle.

The winner’s triangle helps to escape the drama triangle.

If you want to know more:  The drama triangle model was developed by Stephen Karpman . It is one of the best-known models within Transactional Analysis (TA), a theory of personality and a psychotherapeutic treatment method. 

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