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I have three daughters: Two teenagers, three with cell phones, three driving and two with boyfriends. I have my share of drama.
Drama is easy to sense, harder to diagnose and treat. Gossip, passive-aggressive behavior, cliques and stirring the pot can lead to strained relationships, mental drain and even physical illness.
Yet everyone plays the game. If you’ve ever avoided conflict to keep the peace, given unsolicited advice, or shut down a conversation to avoid accountability, you’re a culprit.
Drama is a three-ring circus
Nobody likes to be alone in drama. A psychiatrist by the name of Stephen Karpman identified three roles people play in drama. The Persecutor attacks, believing they are OK and others are not OK. They feel justified in berating and intimidating others to get what they want.
Victims are just the opposite. They believe others are OK, and they are not, so they put themselves down by compromising and assuming they are the problem. Rescuers make their living trying to solve everybody else’s problems to stroke their ego. They have no scruples about nonconsensual helping.
These three roles are co-dependent. They need each other to feel justified and avoid accountability. If my 14-year-old daughter can make me out to be the villain for grounding her, and if I can make her out to be an irresponsible teenager, then both of us get to feel justified. The end result is that nothing changes in behavior or attitudes. The circus repeats night after night. Sound familiar?
Recruiting drama allies and adversaries
The only way not to be alone in drama is to recruit others to join you. Drama adversaries recruit someone to play a complimentary role that justifies their behavior. For example, a victim will start a sentence with an invitation to be attacked by a persecutor; “I hope this doesn’t sound stupid, but I’d like to say home tonight.” Victims recruit rescuers by being needy; “I can never figure this out. What would I do without you?”
Rescuers recruit by imposing with their suggestions. Sensing trouble, they swoop in with statements like, “You know, if you tried my filing system you’d be able to find things quicker.” Victims who take the bait will give in, say they are grateful, but feel resentful and incompetent on the inside.
Drama allies are two or more people playing the same role, commiserating with each other or ganging up against another role. This is gossip! Victims commiserate about how bad they have it, how nobody likes them and how they are powerless. Rescuers stroke each other’s egos about how smart they are and wonder why people don’t appreciate their help. Persecutors gang up on victims, reinforcing each other’s belief that people are lazy, stupid, boring and uncommitted.
How to recognize drama invitations
Once you know what to look for, drama is easy to spot. Three leading indicators tell you that you, or someone else, is heading toward drama.
- Giving in: 72% of nearly 3,000 people we’ve surveyed say that they compromise to keep the peace. Healthy compromise is fine. But giving in on boundaries or principles undermines your dignity and self-respect.
- Giving unsolicited advice: If you see someone doing something that you think could be done better, and you just know you could help, it’s tough to resist the urge to jump in. Keep in mind that while you may have a different, or even better solution, the real issue is about self-determination, respect and free choice.
- Giving ultimatums: Nothing says “I’m running out of options and getting desperate” like an ultimatum. Drawing lines in the sand around boundaries and important rules is fine, but making threats that undermine a person’s dignity is an indicator of drama.
A healthy alternative to drama: Invite energy vampires into the light
Three strategies will help you turn the negative energy of drama into something positive. It’s called compassionate accountability.
- Get open: Transparency is the most important, and most difficult thing you can do during conflict. Sharing your real motives and feelings, or showing empathy for the other person is incredibly vulnerable. That’s the point. Getting open shows that your intention is not to struggle against this person, but to join them in finding a better solution.
- Get resourceful: Curiosity usually goes out the window in drama. So, bring it back! Instead of thinking you know best, get curious about what the other person actually wants. What problem are they trying to solve? Then, if you think you can help, share your motivation for helping, and ask permission first.
- Get persistent: Persecutors attack others for not being persistent enough. Persistent people exhibit patience, perseverance, and loyalty instead. It’s perfectly fine to articulate your boundaries. You don’t have to do it in a “my way or the highway” fashion though. Just be honest about what’s at stake and why you care enough to see things through with them.
Ideally, a combination of Open, Resourceful, and Persistent, in that order, will help right the ship.
- “I feel defensive because I’ve invested a lot in this project. What questions do you have about the details? It’s important to me to have your support and that we are a united voice with the client.”
- “It’s hard for me to see you struggling with the formatting on that spreadsheet because I can see how much time it’s taking. I have some experience with that and would be happy to show you some shortcuts if you want. The deadline is tomorrow, and I’m committed to helping you get it done on time.”
Compassionate accountability turns conflict from a distraction into a resource. How will you spend your energy today?
Take our free Drama Quiz to find out if you are an energy vampire or compassion hero.
Take our free Conflict Awareness Quiz to test your conflict smarts.
Nate Regier is the co-founding owner and CEO of Next Element, a global advisory firm specializing in building cultures of compassionate accountability. A former practicing psychologist, Regier is now a certified Leading Out of Drama and Process Communication Model certifying master trainer. He has published two books: "Beyond Drama" and his latest work, "Conflict Without Casualties."
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