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Are You a Persecutor, a Rescuer, or a Victim: How this “works” in coaching

The Coaching Academy Blog

Posted: February 2023

We asked Claire Cahill, one of our fabulous coach trainers on the Corporate and Executive Coaching Programme, to share with us how an awareness of the tool ‘The Karpman Drama Triangle’ and the ability to spot the characters and roles it identifies (‘Persecutor’, ‘Rescuer’ and ‘Victim’) is used within coaching, and how she personally uses this model in her own coaching sessions.

This is what she told us….

The drama triangle is a psychological and social model of human interaction and potentially toxic relationships developed by Stephen Karpman in 1968. It models the connection between personal responsibility and power in conflicts and the destructive and shifting roles people play.  

As a tool, it is frequently used in psychotherapy, especially in transactional analysis and is not often thought of as a tool or a model used in coaching.

However, it supports the awareness-raising journey that clients travel and can be a map to show us or our clients where they are or what roles they might habitually take in given situations.

Karpman used the triangles to model conflict or drama in intense relationship transactions. He defined three roles in the relationship: Persecutor, Rescuer (the one-up position) and Victim (the one-down position).  

Karpman placed these three roles on an inverted triangle and referred to them as being the three aspects or faces of drama. Karpman chose the term ‘drama triangle’ rather than ‘conflict triangle’ as the Victim in his model is not intended to represent a victim of violence but someone experiencing the victim state.  

It’s easy to spot the roles in well-known stories such as “Little Red Riding Hood” where we see the wolf as the persecutor, and the rescuer as the Woodsman, and also in traditional Walt Disney movies such as Snow White, where Snow White plays the role of the Victim, the witch or wicked stepmother as the role of the persecutor and the “handsome prince” as the rescuer.

These roles however also show up in many other areas of real life, in our personal and professional relationships too.

How might you spot the characters coming out to play in coaching?

As coaches, we actively listen to what our clients are saying, the values and the beliefs that they hold to be true about themselves. When we hear these phrases, coaches have a great opportunity to explore them further with questioning and raise awareness of which character they may be playing out.

  • The Persecutor insists, “It’s all your fault”. They are controlling, blaming, critical, oppressive, angry, authoritative, rigid and superior.
  • The Victim is, of course, persecuted. The Victims’ stance is “Poor Me!” They feel victimised, oppressed, helpless, hopeless, powerless, and ashamed, and seem unable to make decisions, solve problems, take pleasure in their life or achieve insight. The Victim, if not being persecuted, will seek out a Persecutor and also a Rescuer who will ‘save’ the day but also perpetuate the victim’s negative feelings.
  • The Rescuer has the line: “Let me help you”. A classic enabler, they feel guilty if they don’t go to the rescue. His or her rescuing has negative effects, though, as it keeps the Victim dependent and gives the Victim permission to fail. The rewards derived from the rescue role are that the focus is taken off of the Rescuer. When he or she focuses their energy on someone else, it enables them to ignore their own anxiety and issues. This rescue role is also very pivotal because their actual primary interest is really an avoidance of their own problems disguised as concern for the Victim’s needs.

What role does the coach play in these situations?

It’s vital that the coach doesn’t fall into the trap of “rescuer” and instead flips the triangle changing it to become the Empowerment triangle where there are roles of; • Creator: Focuses on vision and desired outcomes • Coach:  Empowers people through inquiry to help them gain clarity • Challenger: Sparks learning through challenging assumptions and holding people accountable for taking action

The role of the coach is to help the client detach emotion from the situation by having adult-to-adult coaching conversations that have no judgement and can help the client gain clarity to then be able to move forward with clear actions. The coach’s role is to encourage the client to come out of the game and move to the centre of the triangle through questioning, listening and reflecting back on the shift in behaviour as a result of the move.

Examples of coaching situations where this model can be helpful; 

  • Conflict coaching
  • Relationship coaching
  • Career development coaching
  • Imposter syndrome/identity coaching
  • Leadership development coaching
  • Parent or family coaching
  • Behaviour/habit change coaching
  • Wellbeing coaching

I’ve been working with a Senior Leader in a large insurance organisation. It is very male dominant and she came to coaching because her confidence was being impacted by her thoughts and feelings.

During one of the sessions, I repeatedly heard phrases such as  “not worthy”, “I’m not good enough”, “I keep getting overlooked”, “X has already told me that he is the next in line for the promotion” – These were phrases that the “victim” would use.

When she described the relationship with her peer she described all of the persecutor traits whilst using victim language. “He’s always got an answer”, “He’s always got an opinion”, “He’s got a big ego”

As the coach, I made the decision that I was not going to rescue her, instead shine a light on her language, behaviour and subsequent actions. She realised through this experience that she was the one giving her power away and she was the one that had to change.

As a result of the actions she took and this awareness of the Karpman Drama Triangle, she has now created more opportunities than she could ever imagine where she can demonstrate her leadership skills and share her knowledge with her team when she sees this behaviour.

She consciously does not get into the game instead chooses to have adult conversations that can be challenging whilst pushing her outside her comfort zone because she knows this is where she grows.

Where can you learn more?

This is one of the tools covered in the Coaching Towards Conflict Resolution module which is part of the Corporate and Executive Coaching Programme where delegates are placed in breakout rooms to consider recent conflict situations they or their clients have experienced and how this tool can be used alongside the GROW model.

This tool is also helpful for team coaching or in coaching leaders in raising awareness of where they or their team might be within the drama triangle from the behaviour they display.  

 

See our downloadable “Action Learning Sheet”  to accompany this article: Karpman Drama Triangle Worksheet Coaching     

 

Recommended Resources 

  • This 4 minute You Tube video also provides a great explanation of how the rescuer is actually the hero who becomes the coach operating from purpose & presence: The Drama Triangle & The Empowerment Dynamic
  • A Game Free Life -  Stephen B Karpman M.D
  • The Games People Play - Eric Berne
  • The Karpman Drama Triangle Explained - Chris West

 

 

Claire Cahill is an award-winning Executive Confidence & Leadership Coach and published author of Empowering Employee Engagement – How to ignite your team for peak performance specialising in Employee Engagement. She is a graduate of The Coaching Academy and one of our inspiring trainers on our Corporate & Executive Coaching Diploma.  She loves creating a safe psychological space to enable busy stressed-out leaders to step out of the hamster wheel and have time to get their creative juices flowing.   She ‘ignites’ leaders’ potential for them and their teams to be their best selves, shining in all their glory by playing to their strengths, whilst challenging the status quo to implement and embrace change.

 

If you are feeling inspired and would you like to have a coaching business you can run from the comfort of your own home, or add coaching skills to your existing role, then do join us on our Introduction to Life Coaching webinar - choose from available dates  

Are you already qualified as a coach? Our wide range of coaching training events, webinars and courses will enable you to upskill in your career or grow your coaching business – view booking calendar

 

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