How Emotional Intelligence Can Help Leaders Exit The “Drama Triangle”

In good literature, there is always conflict. Sometimes the conflict is direct (i.e., a husband and wife are fighting about where to go for vacation) and sometimes it is less so (i.e., a man is struggling with his inner demons). But no matter the particulars, in order for there to be a good story, the protagonist must face challenges. Here’s another way of putting it: There must be drama.

However, what is necessary in good literature is often a problem in real life. Most of us would rather have as little drama as possible. One of the ways you can reduce the amount of drama in your professional life is through the use of emotional intelligence. Not only will acting in an emotionally intelligent way reduce the amount of drama, but it will also make you a more effective, engaging and successful leader.

Why live without drama?

Reducing drama in our lives is worthwhile because, for most people, drama uses energy unnecessarily and is a distraction from what we should be concentrating on, to say nothing of the ill feelings and disharmony it causes.

Some people, however, feed on drama. They can even become addicted to it. They may seek and create conflict or escalate relatively insignificant disagreements in order to add more significance to their otherwise boring lives. For those who have to work with these people, this can be draining and upsetting. Despite the fact that some people enjoy the feeling they get from conflict, drama is not healthy, productive or essential.

What is the "drama triangle" and how do we escape it through EI?

To understand behavior and drama better, we can think about drama in terms of a triangle, each point of which represents a role: the persecutor, the victim and the rescuer. Developed by psychologist Dr. Stephen B. Karpman, the drama triangle explains how we can get trapped in one (or even more than one) of these roles, thus perpetuating the drama.

• At one point of the triangle is the persecutor, who attacks, blames or manipulates others for their gain or advantage. Most likely considering themselves a victim, they believe they are fighting to protect themselves.

• At another point is the victim, who believes the actions of the persecutor are personally directed at them and are often shaken by it, perhaps negatively internalizing it and taking things personally. Sometimes the victim actually comes to believe they are at fault and that the persecutor’s actions are justified.

• The third role is that of rescuer. The rescuer, seeking to save the victim, gets involved in other people’s conflicts gratuitously and without invitation or permission.

These three roles are dynamic and can switch back and forth, depending on developments. For example, as the conflict continues, the victim can come to believe that they have gained the upper hand and become a persecutor.

Thinking of Dr. Karpman’s drama triangle can be of assistance in looking for and labeling these roles, and possible switches among them, during any workplace conflict—whether you are one of the participants or not. Once you have identified exactly what is going on, the road to conflict avoidance and resolution should be much less fraught.

Escape the drama triangle with emotional intelligence.

Remembering that adopting any of the three roles contributes to conflict, here is how you can escape the drama triangle:

Be conscious of how you react to conflict.

Have you ever thought about this? Do you simply withdraw? Join the fray? Are you reacting in the best possible way? The ways people behave during conflict are often learned at an early age, and perhaps the reaction you’ve been practicing for years is not the best one. It almost certainly is not the only way.

Consider how the way you behave during conflict is affecting your life.

Do you get tangled up in workplace disputes? Are they sapping your valuable time? Do you feel depleted afterward? If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, or any other negative consequences, you need to learn a new way to deal with conflict.

Look at conflicts from other perspectives.

How is each participant thinking of themself and their interests? One who perceives themself as a victim is going to require a different approach than one who thinks they are acting as a rescuer.

Consider how your behavior is making others feel.

Think about what behaviors trigger intense emotions and destructive behaviors in you. Is there anything you are doing that is triggering conflict?

Take responsibility for your choices.

Ultimately, as a leader, you must choose whether to create or perpetuate drama or whether to try to lessen and resolve it. By being conscious of how you interact with others and taking responsibility for your part in any conflict, you can reduce drama and facilitate solutions for everyone. How can you do that? By starting to coach the participants rather than attempting to become a rescuer. This is done by helping the victim see that they might be responsible for at least some of the conflict so that reliance on a rescuer to solve the problem is misplaced responsibility.

It can also be done by temporarily taking on the persecutor role in order to challenge both the rescuer and the victim. When you approach a workplace conflict from the coaching perspective, you are not taking responsibility for solving anyone’s problem. Instead, you assist the antagonists to take ownership of the situation and use their own abilities and resources to reach a resolution. You raise their awareness and facilitate the process of change without judging and hold them capable, creative and resourceful instead.

Be compassionate.

Compassion, which includes empathizing with others, putting yourself in their shoes and wanting the best for them, is key to resolving drama. With compassion, you can have more productive and positive interactions, both professionally and personally.

This article was originally published in Forbes.

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