The Drama Triangle
Identifying and defusing psychological games in companies

« Yesterday’s victims are tomorrow’s persecutors. » Victor Schoelcher (West Indian politician)

The drama triangle is a well-known model that is widely used in coaching and micro-coaching interventions to spot common relational dysfunctions. It has been described by Dr. Stephen Karpman (an American psychologist) in the field of transactional analysis in 1968.

Experience has shown that many interactions between 2, 3 or more human beings reproduce this ancestral though often damaging pattern. The scenario of most novels, plays, movies and television series are based on the drama triangle. This article tends to propose ways to identify when a drama triangle takes place in a relationship and how to get out of it. It is based upon recent research done by Dr. Peter Davies (UK).

What is the drama triangle?

The Drama Triangle Model

The drama triangle model illustrates a power game that involves three different but tightly bound together roles:

·         Persecutor: this player acts as an attacker, an aggressor. In a wider context, the persecutor can be an innovator, an initiator, or anyone who disturbs the equilibrium.

·         Victim: this player is subjected to the attacks of the persecutor. In a wider context, the victim can be the one undergoing the change, struggling against the change, or the one whose equilibrium is disturbed.

·         Rescuer: this player acts as a protector, a servant-knight. In a wider context, the rescuer can be seen as the one who strives to restore the equilibrium.

Typical examples of common triangular situations are:

-          criminal, victim and police

-          father, son and mother

-          teachers, children and parents

-          illness, patient and therapist

-          colleague, me and manager

-          drawback, me and the rest of the world

-          situation, coachee and coach.

Most of us are neurologically programmed to play the three roles. Depending on the context, we will consciously or unconsciously choose one of three roles. For instance, many people like the role of victim. It is a convenient way for them to draw attention. In face of a victim, we often act as rescuers, then as persecutors. A drama triangle can take place with two players only. When there are more than three players, several people play the same role. The drama triangle is usually not static. It is in motion. The players move quickly and reactively from one role to another. They swap between their roles.

Therapists, coaches and managers have regularly to cope with the drama triangle. As illustrated in some of the above examples, not all triangular situations are bad. Some of them are even necessary. However, it is important to identify when a drama triangle takes place in order to decide whether it is useful or should be broken out.

When is a drama triangle bad?

If the triangular situation is healthy and serves all players’ interest, there is no reason to leave it. Likewise, some situations may cause some temporary discomfort in order to achieve better results. But if you feel uncomfortable versus a situation and there is no hope for improvement if things keep going on as they are, it is worth to break out of the triangle. Drama triangle situations are power games that can be very damageable for the people involved and can generate long-term resentments, bad performance, conflicts, absenteeism, etc.

Which player should induce the change first to get out of a drama triangle? Actually, it does not matter. All three players are so tightly bound together that change in one will automatically provoke a change on the others. Hence, as soon as one of the players feel deeply dissatisfied with the situation, he should make the first move to end the drama triangle.

How can we detect it?

As soon as an interaction between two or more persons is based on an appreciation imbalance (“I’m OK / You’re not OK” (persecutor and to some extend the rescuer) – or – “You’re OK / I’m not OK” (victim)), a power game can take place. As soon as one of the protagonists feels inferior and the other feels superior, there is a drama triangle going on.

How can we avoid it?

The best way to avoid being trapped in a drama triangle is by being watchful not take one of the three roles. Don’t take the role of the passive victim waiting for others to take care of your problems. Let us not start persecuting other people around us even if sometimes they really work on our nerves. Furthermore, it is not useful to act as a rescuer and take care of other people’s business if we haven’t be asked explicitly, if we don’t really want it, if we don’t have the means to help them, or if we feel we are about to make most of the job.

How can we get out of it?

Of course, one might simply leave a bad triangular situation by running away. Though it may sometimes be necessary in violent situations, this escape attitude seldom solves the problem which will keep occurring again and again in the future.

There are various ways to get out of a drama triangle in a constructive way depending on the situation and our own personality. Regardless of the method we are going to use, it can be summarized in five steps:

-          Step 1: First of all, we need to be aware that we are in a dysfunctional triangle. We must also feel enough dissatisfied about the situation to find it worthwhile to react and provoke a change that will cause a temporary discomfort in our own and the other players life.

-          Step 2: We must take some distance vis-à-vis the situation in order to clearly identify the role each player is currently playing. In coaching jargon, we call this the “meta-position”. We observe the situation, the players (including ourselves) and the interactions from a certain distance.

-          Step 3: We mentally analyse the situation by using the method we prefer: humour, expression of our feelings about the interaction, search for positive intentions behind behaviours, symbolisation of the players and their interactions by placing real objects on a surface, etc.

-          Step 4: We clearly express our analysis of the situation to all other players. This is called “meta-communication”: we communicate on the interaction itself rather than on its contents. We should meta-communicate until everybody begins to agree on some facts. We emphasize on the areas of agreement and thank each player for his contribution to the restoring of a well-balanced relationship.

-          Step 5: We check if everyone feels comfortable with the areas of agreement, we intensify this resourceful state to an appropriate level and then we anchor it in order to maximize the lasting effects of the agreement.


Many interactions between human beings are based upon the drama triangle model. Although not necessarily bad, we must be watchful when such a situation is damageable in order to avoid them. The best way to detect a drama triangle situation is by analysing each player’s intention versus the other(s). If there is an imbalance in the intention, one should try to get out of the situation in a constructive way by taking some distance and encouraging other players to do the same. This will help everyone concentrate on positive aspects and restore a well-balanced relationship.

For more of information: http://www.mdwservices.com

About the author:

Marc De Wilde was himself an entrepreneur and executive during 18 years. He knows therefore the necessary requirements to run a business. Throughout time, he developed coaching techniques that he successfully applied to his teams. He now coaches business owners, entrepreneurs and corporate managers in Belgium.

Contact : marc.dewilde@mdwservices.com ou +32 (0)473 94.21.47

Written on 5-May-2003