In the very early days of Northbound, we learned the lesson that relationships matter. People stepped out to offer support, advice, and their belief in us, and that made all the difference in our success. It is people who run businesses, form teams, and make stuff happen. In our work, if the team is maximizing their strengths, supporting one another, and seeing goodness in our clients and in each other, the right outcome is not far behind.
So we knew as we began to scale, articulating how we wanted our culture to grow – and what we needed to be most vigilant about fostering within ourselves as leaders and team members – would be key to being able to sustain our business.
A few months ago, I wrote about the charter we created to guide our behaviors with one another and with our clients. As we have rolled that charter out and embodied it in how we treat one another, and how we approach working together, I have come to realize that the way we view conflict or tension is the key to better relationships, and thus better outcomes, every time.
Karpman’s Drama Triangle (also known as the “Triangle of Terror,” if Drama weren’t motivating enough to change) provides a framework for what we DON’T want in our client relationships, our team relationships, or even in our personal relationship. The Drama Triangle sets forth a model for recognizing and understanding the role you and others play when dysfunction appears. Essentially, it’s the overlay of an artificial power structure to conflict that involves three roles: a Victim, a Rescuer, and a Persecutor. Each of these roles is a common, but ineffective, response to conflict.
- Many people identify as Victims in all kinds of relationship conflicts – yet very few people are truly victims as all in most relationship conflicts. It’s more common that everyone involved played a contributing role. Seceding power or agency in conflict, or shutting down or avoiding conflict altogether, is often a sign you may be creating a Victim narrative for yourself.
- Additionally, many people function in organizations as Rescuers, or Heroes, stepping in to solve problems for seemingly helpless co-workers. And yet, the basis of needing to rescue someone is believing you have more power, knowledge, and agency than they have. Ultimately, rescuing is a well-intentioned but disrespectful stance and a power grab.
- Lastly, there is the Persecutor. You’ve likely heard people say, “I hate to be the bad guy…” or “I just tell it like it is, and I know it doesn’t land well sometimes.” You know the phrase “someone has to be the bad guy?” Turns out, that’s wrong. In conflict, when no one plays the bad guy, then we are able to create a more even, and thus a more collaborative, power structure.
We know from brain science that language doesn’t just reflect reality, it creates it. With that in mind, here are a few ways to use language and perspective to reframe conflict and step out of Karpman’s Drama Triangle. We can use conflict or tension as a productive means of developing a better understanding of each other and getting to a solution that serves the greater good and best outcome.
- People are not problems, problems are problems. Thus, problems are best solved when people share their unique and varying points of view on what happened, why, and what to do about it, and then they work together to solve the problem from a holistic perspective. How can you define the problem without personalizing it to the other person or role? Start with defining your problem as a problem, not a person, and see where it takes you.
- In either/or situations, the best answer is often “yes”. Contrary to popular belief, there are three sides, not two, to every conflict: yours, mine, and ours. Constructive conversations don’t have others, just us. When we can find a way to say yes to both perspectives, not making anyone wrong, but making both viewpoints valuable and instructive, we are able to come up with the best solutions. This is as true for content as it is for conflict.
- Everything good is behind door number hard. I use this one often with my teenager, to great eye rolls. If every time you hear yourself say “this is too hard,” you shut down or give up, or if you’re not having tough conversations, you likely aren’t building resilient and joyful teams. Bringing up hard topics honestly and kindly helps build trust. Avoiding them only reinforces fragility and distrust. Be brave and have the courage to trust your team to be able to hear and engage in tough or uncomfortable conversations that make everyone grow.
- Things happen with you, not to you. If you find yourself describing something that happened to you, you likely should check yourself. Rarely in reciprocal relationships are we truly the victim. If there is a great power divide between you and the person you have a conflict with, it’s possible there is an abuse of power that creates a true victim. But it’s worth checking for other possibilities. Often, people have good intentions and poor delivery. When it feels like something uncomfortable or hurtful is happening to you, see what happens when you reframe your narrative to be about something uncomfortable or hurtful happening with you. By acknowledging you are in the conflict, not a victim of it, you may begin to see new possibilities for growth, self-advocacy, mutual understanding, repair, and building even better outcomes together.
- Make sure there are no triangles, only straight lines. The solution that serves the greater good or best outcome. Be a culture that talks to people, not about people. And be a culture that has a curious conversation – not an email, text, or message – when conflict arises. Personal narratives are strengthened through written communication, as the other party only projects their own beliefs and experiences onto what they are reading. When all members of the conflict seek dialogue, they are seeking understanding. Curious conversations mean asking clarifying questions, realizing your story is not the story. You get the additional benefit of learning what personal narratives you bring to situations that may be preventing you from being your best self.
Recently, I heard a new way to recast the Drama Triangle so that it becomes an Empowerment Triangle instead. Rather than as a Persecutor, think about yourself as a Challenger. Instead of Rescuer, be a Coach. And, instead of Victim remind yourself that you are the Creative, and an active maker of your experiences. By following the five linguistic and relational reframing above, you can help shift the Drama Triangle to a place of Empowerment, so you grow, you and your teammates thrive, and you achieve even greater outcomes, together.