Working with difficult people – Part 4: Our part in the difficult situation

My previous post in this series explored the different behavioural styles that people exhibit, and offered tips on how best to communicate with each type of individual. Today’s post explains how certain types of behaviour can create difficult behaviours in others, and suggests ways to stop this from happening.

There are times when our behaviour may have created the difficult behaviour in others. Karpman’s drama triangle is a way of describing how two people might interact, without realising it, in a way that is non-productive and stressful for both.

Sometimes, parties in conflict are entrenched in their positions – and have been for years. Each will perceive the other as the problem – the difficult person.

Imagine, if you will, a triangle. At each point are roles that we may play in life. The victim stands at one corner, while the other person takes up the position of either persecutor or rescuer.

Karpman's drama triangle

Each of us tends to take a familiar, habitual position. So if you take up the role of victim, the other person may step into either persecutor or rescuer mode, depending on their preference and how things progress. When this happens, it is usually out of our awareness, although it is often linked to how we learned to deal with conflict in our family.

The roles – persecutor or rescuer versus victim – are portrayed in what is called a “psychological game”. It is called a game since both parties have to play their interlocking parts/roles and their interaction serves as a training ground for either powerlessness (victim) or being in a one-up position (persecutor or rescuer).
This game avoids dealing with the problem in present-day reality, and prevents psychological equality in relationships. In the end, one of the parties – and often both – gets a “bad pay-off”.

Table showing feelings in Karpman's drama triangle

There are some common features about this game:

  • It is repetitive.
  • It is predictable.
  • There is a negative pay-off.

Why is there a negative pay-off?

Whichever role you fall into, the results will be negative for you and the other person.

If you are the victim, you will suffer from one or more of these consequences:

  • Feeling unhappy at work and therefore stressed.
  • Not learning much, because feedback is taken as unfair criticism.
  • Career blocked because relationships with others are unhelpful, and who will value and promote a victim?

If you are the rescuer, you will suffer because:

  • You take on someone else’s work load.
  • You are working for your staff rather than the other way around.
  • Your career is blocked because you are taking on work that isn’t yours and you can’t be spared from your current post.
  • You are failing to coach or give appropriate feedback, so your team aren’t learning anything.
  • You feel stressed and put upon.

If you are the persecutor, you will suffer because:

  • Your team will not be willing to discuss and learn from errors or receive feedback in a positive manner.
  • People will try to hide things from you (to avoid blame).
  • Things that could have been sorted out at an early stage will tend to have grown into major problems before they come to light.
  • Your career will suffer because your team will be less efficient than they should/could be.
  • You will feel stressed, harassed and misunderstood.

How to use the drama triangle

The first step is to notice that the drama or game is being played out!

  • Be alert so that you don’t become involved in the drama yourself and end up taking the pay-off – the complainant, objector or other party may blame you!
  • Taking a part in the drama triangle is stressful. Look out for the invitation from the other party to play this type of game.
  • Use logical, rational interventions and avoid taking up the position of persecutor, victim or rescuer.
  • Ask yourself if you want to be rescued, want to persecute or want to help the other person in a way that is inappropriate – in other words, one that discounts their own ability to solve the problem.

My next and final post in this series will deal with the fact that your ability to deal with difficult people effectively starts inside you. It will explain how to start from a strong place, so that you are more likely to get a positive result and less likely to encounter difficult situations in the first place.

In the meantime, for more advice on how to interact with difficult people in your organisation, email me or call me on 020 7099 2621.