The Karpman Drama Triangle

Thursday 28 July, 2011

This is a beautifully simple tool which helps to highlight the kind of manipulative interactions (games) which occur on a regular basis, whether consciously or unconsciously. It looks like this:

 

The letters in the diagram correspond to the three different roles which are acted out during the psychological games we play with each other; an example of which is described in this post. The roles tie in with the roles we act out as part of our script (TA). They are:

P = Persecutor    R = Rescuer    V = Victim

 

It is important to know that the people playing these roles all have a choice to act differently. That they choose not to, or are drawn into these roles without realising, is a sure sign that a game is being played. Also, it is a natural and observable conclusion that rescuers and victims are inextricably drawn to each other.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the drama triangle and the scenarios it describes is that the roles can change at any point in the interaction. Moreover, these changes occur in an instant. Consider the following office scenario:

One person, Alan, is struggling with a problem in his excel spreadsheet. He is about to begin playing the role of the VICTIM; the kind of person who complains that things always happen to him and that it’s not fair, but does nothing to change things, relying instead on other people to help him through life. So, rather than requesting help from his colleagues, he remains seated and begins to sigh. The first sigh is barely audible but gradually they get louder and louder.

Whilst this is going on a colleague, Susan, sits in the other corner, working away. She hears the first sigh and is immediately ready for action, ready to help out. She is the RESCUER. But she does nothing, because she has been here before. Eventually, as the sighs gradually become more of a groan, the triggers become irresistible. She rises from her seat and crosses the room to help out the afflicted colleague. She is driven to fulfill her own need to help/rescue people rather than by the needs of the victim.

A third colleague, Glen, watches. He has been expecting this ever since the first sigh. He too has been here before; it is a familiar scene and one which always plays out the same way. He is annoyed. He is the PERSECUTOR

The following dialogue ensues between the Rescuer (R) and the Victim (V).

Susan (R): What’s the matter?
Alan (V): Oh, it’s this spreadsheet. I can’t do it.
Susan (R): Let me try.
Alan (V): No, it doesn’t matter. It’s not going to work
Susan (R): I’m good with these things, let me show you.

Already there is a discernible tension. The Victim clearly needs help and yet is resisting the Rescuer’s offers of assistance. As a result, the Rescuer  is almost forcing her help on him. For all those thinking the third colleague is about to get involved, watch what happens next. There is no need for our Persecutor to get involved, because the roles in front of him are about to shift.

Alan (V): No, really, it doesn’t matter. I’ll have to find another way. If there is one.
Susan (R): It’s not a problem. I’ll show you. It’s easy.
Alan (V->P): Why do you always have to show off? It’s always so easy for you. Are you saying I’m stupid?
Susan (R->V): I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.
Alan P: Well you have. And it’s not the first time. Just leave me alone.
Susan V: But I was only trying to help you…

The Rescuer walks away wondering how on earth that happened. She went over to try and help and ended up being attacked. That’s how quickly these situations can turn. And that’s why the third colleague never moved from his seat. He knows that if Alan needs help there are plenty of people who are more than willing to assist, but he has to ask in a straight, non-manipulative, non-game-playing way.

We can easily extend the dynamic by having the third colleague get involved as a Persecutor. Here, he addresses both colleagues:

Glen (P): Will you two stop arguing. Either sort it out or be quiet. I’m trying to work.
Alan & Susan in unison (P): Who asked you to get involved? This has nothing to do with you. Sit down!
Glen (P->V): What have I done now? Why are you shouting at me?

The first two colleagues are now both in the role of Persecutor. Of course Glen, instead of moving into the Victim position, could have remained in his Persecutor role and the shouting match would simply have continued.

Regardless of the initial roles the colleagues adopt, each individual can move from one position on the triangle to another in a fraction of a second. And all because they are not able or aware enough to behave in a straight, non-manipulative way.

Better behaviour would have been:

Alan should have asked for help after making attempts to solve the problem himself, rather than inviting rescue by sighing.

Susan should have waited for her colleague to ask for help. If she couldn’t wait she could have simply asked whether he needed help. If ‘yes’, then help. If ‘no’, then leave it. Don’t force it just because she will feel better by helping.

Glen was right not to get involved to begin with. When he did become involved he entered as a Persecutor when it would have been advisable to be more of a peacemaker, mediator or facilitator; not taking sides but with a clear intention to sort the problem out. The problem being the interaction, not the spreadsheet.

Related post: Training Day: Games & Drivers

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