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  • Writer's pictureJonathan E. Pearl

Don’t make a Drama out of a Crisis!

I am often drawn to psychology to help me in my conflict resolution practice. Especially when parties seem to be “stuck”. The Drama Triangle is a social model that was first written about by Dr. Stephen Karpman, 40 odd years ago. According to Karpman, people in conflict play one of three roles: Perpetrator, Rescuer or Victim.

So, how do you identify the different players?

The Victim: The Victim says, "Poor me!". The Victim feels victimized, oppressed, helpless, hopeless, powerless, ashamed, and seems unable to make decisions, solve problems, take pleasure in life, or achieve insight into their condition. The Victim can’t or won’t see the way forward and often lives in the past. They are always looking for reasons why the mediation will not succeed. They often don’t recognise that they are playing the Victim, because it’s always someone else’s fault. The Victim, if not actually being persecuted, will always seek out a Perpetrator. The Victim will also seek out a Rescuer who will save the day, but who will also perpetuate the Victim's negative feelings about themselves.

Ironically the Victim is actually at the centre of any conflict. Without the Victim the Perpetrator and the Rescuer have little or no reason to ever meet.

The Rescuer: The Rescuer's line is "Let me help you". But the Rescuer feels guilty if they don't go to the rescue. And their rescuing the Victim has negative effects: it keeps the Victim dependent on the Rescuer and gives the Victim permission to fail. The Rescuer perpetuates the Victim’s helplessness and prevents them from being accountable for their own action.

The rewards derived from the rescue role are that the focus is taken off of the Rescuer themselves. When the Rescuer focuses their energy on someone else, it enables the Rescuer to ignore his/her own anxiety and issues.

The Perpetrator: (a.k.a. the Villain). The Persecutor insists, "It's all your fault". The Persecutor is controlling, blaming, bullying, critical, oppressive, angry, authoritarian, rigid, and superior. Interestingly, many Perpetrators justify their behaviour on having been Victims at some point in the past.

Characters can change their roles

The Drama Triangle players take on roles that are not static, and various scenarios can occur. For example, the Victim might turn on the Rescuer, and the Rescuer then switches to being the Perpetrator.

In the nursery story The Pied Piper of Hamlyn, the hero begins as the City’s Rescuer and Persecutor of the rats. Then, when his fee is withheld, he becomes Victim to the Persecutor-mayor’s double-cross. In revenge the Piper switches to the Persecutor of the city’s children. The mayor switches from Victim (of the rats), to Rescuer (hiring the Pied Piper), to Persecutor (double-crosser), to Victim (his children are taken away). The children switch from Persecuted Victims (of the rats) to Rescued Victims, to Victims Persecuted by their Rescuer.

In the George Bernard Shaw play “Pygmalion” (later made into the Broadway Musical “My Fair Lady”) a linguistics professor enters into a wager with a friend that he can pass a working-class flower girl off as a duchess. He takes the flower girl into his house and gives her extensive lessons on elocution and how to behave in polite society. In the process the girl blossoms into a beautiful and attractive lady. The Professor falls in love with the woman he has created, but this is not reciprocated by his protégé. Professor Higgins goes from Rescuer to Perpetrator to Victim. Eliza Doolittle starts in the play as the Victim but ends up as the Perpetrator when she refuses the Professor’s love.

These stories are so enduring because things like this happen all the time in real life.

How is the Drama Triangle relevant to Mediation?

Doing a quick analysis of who is who in your mediation Drama Triangle is sometimes helpful in unpicking the conflict. I often like the Perpetrator to speak first in any joint session. Why? Firstly, if the Victim speaks first they generally say too much and can make the other party (or Perpetrator) immediately defensive. Second, I have found that if the Perpetrator speaks first they quite often admit to things, and even apologise for things, that they wouldn’t otherwise do if they were responding to the Victim’s opening statement. I have seen situations where the Perpetrator completely deflates a difficult situation by making an abject apology up front.

Watch out! The parties can change their roles – just like in the movies

In one dispute I mediated the party who initially appeared to me to be the Victim, and who willingly took on that role before the meeting, soon began to bully the alleged Perpetrator – and tried to bully me as well as the day wore on. As a mediator it’s relatively easy to avoid being the Perpetrator – although I have witnessed mediator-bullies. It’s also fairly easy to avoid becoming the Victim. But it’s relatively easy to fall into being the Rescuer. We do genuinely want to help solve the conflict. But as mediators we should avoid being IN the conflict in any of the Drama Triangle roles, especially that of the Rescuer. The parties need to be in control of their own destiny.

I was recently involved in negotiating the logistics of setting up a mediation meeting, and it was amazing how easy it is to get sucked into the Drama Triangle. In this case one of the parties, who was then playing the Victim, asked me to contact a third party to make something happen before the mediation meeting. I wanted the meeting to go ahead and I could see that what they wanted me to do might make that happen, but I soon saw that it was developing into more than just ‘meeting logistics’. In just making the call, as requested, I was becoming too involved in the resolution of the dispute – that’s the job of the parties. I told the Victim, politely “no – you should do that”.

Getting out of the Drama Triangle

So, given that these roles arise naturally, how do you get people to see beyond them? One way is to use the model developed in 2005 by Dr. David Emerald Womeldorff. His model focuses not on the problem, but more on how to empower those in conflict.

Victim becomes Creator

The Creator looks at their predicament and says: “this isn’t ideal, but how can I make the best of it?” Instead of focusing on what they don’t want as a Victim, the Creator concentrates on what they DO want.

Persecutor becomes Challenger

The Challenger pushes the Victim to get the best possible result from the situation and encourages them to be positive.

Rescuer becomes Coach

The Coach gains the trust of the Victim and the Perpetrator and encourages them to make informed choices. The Coach has the skills and experience to challenge the Perpetrator to see that there may be a different way to get what they want, which doesn’t involve victimising anyone. The Coach also assists the Victim to see that their situation is salvageable through their own efforts.

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