Rethinking your workplace roles – discover alternative parts to play

In part one of this series of articles (VT52.07), we explored the concept of the “drama triangle”, the model which demonstrates and explains the three roles people play when engaged in any disagreement, and how those three roles both feed off and influence each other, as outlined in Figure 1.

In part two, we shall explore some of the ways we can put this new-found insight to work for us, in ways that will not only help improve our own lives, but also make a positive contribution to the working relationships of those around us .

Awareness is curative

One of my favorite truisms in coaching is W Timothy Gallwey’s observation that “awareness is curative”1.

The recognition that the simple act of being aware of something is often in itself enough to start the process of making improvements.

I’ve seen this first-hand when introducing coaching clients to the drama triangle and the roles within it. It is often a real “light bulb moment” as they start to recognize themselves and others in the description of the roles and the relationships between them. With a little reflection, they are able to start to make sense of the chaos, and to recognize themes and recurring patterns in what has previously just seemed a shapeless and endlessly repeating mess.

Having introduced the model, I often leave the coachee with a simple sheet for them to capture any key phrases they recall from their next heated discussion. The objective then is for them to determine to which role they align, roughly how long each person spent during the conversation in each role and what role changes occurred during it.

It’s not an exact science, of course, but the results are often fascinating and extremely illuminating for the client as they start to see the model coming to life in front of them.

Armed with this insight, they start to automatically read the warning signs when conflict is approaching and to detect the role they themselves might be starting to adopt. This then presents the perfect moment to change tack and to take a different approach. But what could that different approach look like?

Adopting an alternative role

The good news is for each role in the drama triangle there exists an alternative, more positive and constructive role that can be taken2.

This is predicated on the belief that, although the roles in the drama triangle are often our “default settings”; they are not inevitable. During any discussion we all have a choice. Yes, we can fall into one of those default roles and watch things play out their inevitable course; or, we can take a conscious decision to play it differently.

Figure 2taken from David Emerald’s The Power of TED outlines the positive alternative role available to everyone who finds themselves in the drama triangle – should they choose to adopt it.

From victim to creator

Rather than being rooted in victim’s default position of “why me?”, The creator instead seeks the positives in the situation.

This is not an exercise in the power of positive thinking, but a realization that you always decide what you choose to take from any encounter.

Figure 2. Positive alternative roles in the drama triangle, adapted from David Emerald’s The Power of TED.

Yes, you can choose to just hear any negatives levelled at you, to assume it’s your fault and reconcile yourself to the fact that things will never change; or, you can choose what lessons you wish to learn from the encounter, to objectively assess the validity of any criticism and to think constructively about what positive changes you might decide to make.

Sadly, there is no magic wand here, nor is it an exercise in wish fulfillment. But it is a reflection that with the right “growth” mindset, it is possible to look beyond the emotion of any argument – no matter how heated or painful – and take positives away from it.

Take these two variations on the same conversation:

  • Persecutor: “You’re too slow. You should be much quicker at this by now. ”
  • Victim’s response: “I know… I must be a really slow learner. I’ll stay later to try to get it done. ”
  • An alternative creator’s response: “I’m sorry. I’d really like to get quicker at this. Is there someone I could ask to give me a few tips? ”

Whereas the victim’s response just internalises the criticism and negativity, the creator’s response looks for practical ways forward.

It still recognizes there is something they need to improve, but they are starting to take ownership of it and look for practical ways forward.

Of course, not all problems are so easy to fix. It’s not always easy, but with effort it is possible to start to take away the positives in even the most stressful of encounters.

And even when dealing with complex and deep-seated problems, it’s important to recognize it is still possible to be searching for the practical “baby-steps” in the encounter that will start taking you forward.

Take a few moments and think back over your life to identify the three people that immediately spring to mind as persecutors that you’ve had to deal with. Perhaps a teacher or lecturer from your education; a former (or current) colleague or a family member.

Now, on a piece of paper, list five things they have taught or given you. At first, it might seem a tough task, but I guarantee with a bit of time, a list of positives will emerge.

They could be simple and practical (“I’ve never shared my password with anyone else since”) or deep and character changing (“I stuck it out until I was able to leave on my terms. Perhaps I’m more resilient than I realized ”).

These are the kinds of insights that can help turn the passive victim in any situation into the proactive creator – a far healthier and more productive place to be.

Some questions to help you move from the victim role to the creator’s include:

  • What is the lesson this person (or situation) is bringing to my life?
  • How and what can I learn from this?
  • What insights have I gained from this?

From persecutor to challenger

Making the conscious change from victim to creator also has the additional bonus of helping to shape the behavior of others.

As soon as you start taking the emotion out of how you receive negative opinion, so their power to act as a persecutor starts to wane and morph into something more positive. They instead move to become a challenger: someone who can act as a catalyst for change, learning and growth.

They may still push you, but in ways that ultimately make you a better and stronger person.

It may be an uncomfortable thought, but what if it is you who is acting as the persecutor?

If we are being honest with ourselves, it is a role we all find ourselves adopting at some point in our lives (as a parent, I know I certainly do).

If you can, try to honestly reflect on what your real intention is at that moment in time. If you are being brutally honest with yourself and conclude that your motivations are primarily to “look good” or “be right” or “to get one up on them”, then there is every chance you are starting to adopt the role of a persecutor .

Be honest. It may not be your finest hour, but hey, you’re only human. Once again, awareness itself is a massive step forward. Time to stop, reset and think about how you can make the transition from persecutor to challenger.

Trying the following may help:

  • Stop. Apologize. Restart the conversation.
  • Before you speak, ask yourself: “Is what I am about to say going to be helpful?” If not, find a more positive approach. You’ll be amazed how many times the answer to that question is a “no” and trouble can be headed off at the pass.
  • Try asking: “How can I best help you here?”

From rescuer to coach

As we saw in part one, for all their good intentions, adopting the role of rescuer does neither the rescuer, nor the person they are attempting to help, any long-term good.

But this good intention can be put to much more effective use if more effectively channelled into adopting the role of a coach.

It is worth noting that this is not about becoming a professional or qualified coach to adopt this role, although both are based on the same core values.

Rather than trying to take the problem away and solve it themselves, the coach recognizes the problem must remain that person to own and solve themselves.

The coach helps the person to clarify what it is they (not the coach) is trying to achieve; what options might be open to them to achieving it; and to encourage the taking of whatever first, baby steps might be needed to get them moving in the right direction.

Key to this is recognizing it is always up to that individual what decisions they choose to take; for as soon as the coach takes umbrage that their “great advice” has not been acted upon, so they risk slipping back into becoming either the persecutor (“That’s the problem with you, you never listen… on your head be it!”) or the victim (“why does nobody ever listen to me?”).

Reading any literature on coaching principles or spending time with your own coach or as part of an Action Learning Set will certainly help cement these principles, and to reinforce the power of asking questions rather than providing answers.

The kinds of question the coach might find themselves asking someone in need are:

  • “What are you trying to achieve here?”
  • “What have you tried so far?”
  • “What options do you have?”
  • “Who could help you with this?”
  • “What’s the first step that you need to take here?”

These are all questions that help the individual to find their own answers and, in the process, help them to make their own transition from victim to creator.

Decisions and consequences

Although we’ve only scratched the surface over these two articles, hopefully it has been enough to outline the main principles at work in both the drama triangle and its more positive alter ego.

Permeating both models is the notion that arguments and disagreements are not just random acts that play out in unscripted and chaotic ways, but are actually far more structured and predictable than they might first appear – more akin to a dance where one person follows the lead of the other while in turn playing their own role, determining the direction of the overall performance.

In this interpretation, choice is key. Yes, we can still choose to play out the roles defined in the triangle drama, but if we do, let’s not pretend to be surprised when the outcome is less than positive. Instead, we can choose a different a different path.

We can use this new-found awareness to adopt a different, more constructive persona, one that not only benefits us individually, but also starts to realign communication flows and behaviors across the practice.

  • Rethinking your workplace roles – understanding the drama triangle (part 1 in this series)


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