Escape the Drama
A body technician walks into your office: “Hey, boss, you got a minute? I don’t think it’s fair that Rob gets all the good work. I’ve been here longer but he keeps getting all the little easy jobs with lots of hours!”
A customer service rep stops you in the hallway leading out to the shop, “I’ve been meaning to ask you something. Why do I have to stay late all the time when Julie, our new estimator, seems to be able to bounce out of here by 5 every night even if there’s a late delivery on one of her cars?”
And just like that, you are thrust into what one writer calls the “Dreaded Drama Triangle.”
The Drama Triangle is a simple concept that was developed by Stephen Karpman. Karpman taught that people deal with conflict and anxiety typically by taking on one of three roles: victim, persecutor or rescuer. In the examples above, the manager is being asked to be the rescuer.
The three roles can be seen almost anywhere. Think about all the fairy tales you’ve ever heard. Or even your favorite movie. There’s typically a victim—someone who needs to be rescued. And there is, of course, a persecutor, the one who is victimizing the victim. And then there is the hero or rescuer who comes in to save the day and relieve the victim of their anxiety or danger through some heroic act.
Now, this is all well and good for fictional stories. But it’s not so good if this scenario plays out day in and day out in your shop or family. There’s a reason it’s called the drama triangle. When you are constantly made out to be the rescuer, it’s exhausting.
At first, this role can feel flattering and strokes our egos. We feel important—needed, even. You might be tempted to think, “How could these people get on without me?” But, as you can imagine, over time, if you get stuck in this role repeatedly, it is exhausting and you start asking that same question but with a different, defeated tone: “How could these people get on without me?”
So, how can you determine if you’re a rescuer? And, more importantly, what can you do to escape the “Dreaded Drama Triangle”?
Rescuers like to be heroes. They like to solve other people’s problems. They like to be the one in the room with the right answer and are quick to share it. But really, who doesn't like those things? There is nothing wrong with wanting to help. The problem comes in when we do this to feed our own ego and to make ourselves feel good. And, typically, if we’re not self-aware enough to realize we’re doing just enough that the ones we want to help will start to resent us. And guess what that does: it typically makes the helper (the rescuer) into a victim. This is where we start to hear things like, “Well, I gave them the right answer but nobody around here ever listens to me!”
What is needed and most helpful for both the organization and the one being helped is for the rescuer to make the journey from being the hero to being the coach.
There’s a popular old saying that applies here and you’ve probably heard it many times: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
In this context, we might alter that a bit to, “Give a person the answer and you solve their problem today. Empower them to solve the problem themselves and you’ve helped them for a lifetime.”
If you find yourself being drawn into the dreaded drama triangle as the rescuer, here are a couple of things you can do to make the journey to being a coach.
First, slow the train down. Have patience. Don’t rush to a solution just so everyone can feel better. Take the time to sort out what the perceived victim is going through.
Secondly, ask really good questions. Get the person who feels like the victim talking. Help them sort out what they really think and feel. Often it has little to do with the problem they are presenting and more to do with something else going on in their lives. Of course, this doesn’t need to turn into a counseling session. But, get them talking to find out what the core issue is. You can use tools like the “5 whys” and the AWE question (“And what else?”) to keep them talking, diving deeper into the root causes of why they feel the way they do. Stay intensely curious. Whenever they say something that strikes your interest or sounds like they are getting somewhere, follow that thread with another question.
Lastly, through listening and asking good questions, try to get at what they really want. All victims experience deep emotions like frustration and even anger because there’s something we want that is unfulfilled. Half the battle is discovering what that is.
As a recovering rescuer myself, I can tell you that making the journey to being a good coach is not always easy. Sometimes it feels like it just takes too much time and there are too many unnecessary steps. Wouldn’t it be easier to just give them the answer or relieve the tension they are feeling and move on? My to-do list isn’t getting any smaller! The truth is: It’s worth it. Take the time now to coach people, rather than rescue them, and you will have an empowered team, confident that they can solve their own problems with just a little help from you, the coach.