Friday, March 20, 2015

Building Bridges and the Drama Triangle

"Building Bridges" by Liz Jardine

Once a dad of a new kid in my youth ministry set up an appointment with me so he could get to know me. I can't remember how the conversation started, but I do remember immediately feeling threatened. I felt like I was on trial for something. I eventually erupted. He had no right to put me on trial!

I'll never forget his emotional response.

"Coby, you are completely missing my heart." 

I froze. We sat in silence. My heart broke. He was right. I approached the conversation out of my woundedness and never heard what was causing him pain.

When many of us are confronted with conflict or an idea that we find threatening, we stop listening and start attacking. As a result, we don't allow ourselves to learn some very valuable lessons from the other person.

Building Bridges


Building bridges is essential for thriving and growing in a world where we have such an array of ideologies. It's easy to assume the worst in a person if you do not know their story. I believe that bridge building and reconciliation are key aspects of Christian theology. Indeed, the Biblical narrative is full of passages that suggest our relationships with other people matter e.g. Matthew 5:23-24. The reality is today most of us get so caught up in arguing a point that we "know" is true, that we completely miss out on connecting with the other person. This is particularly true in conversations about politics and religion.


Politics and Religion


I spent most of my life in Texas and parts of the deep south but I currently live in Seattle. My time in Seattle and Portland has played a key role in my formation as a follower of Jesus and a minister of the Gospel. I love the Pacific Northwest. Yet, Texas is my home. Like most Texans, I have a somewhat irrational affection for my state.

As you might imagine, in my travels I have befriended people all over the spectrum of politics, race relations, and religion. When I say befriend, I don't just mean on Facebook. I genuinely love people who are on opposite ends of the spectrum of many issues. It's a combination of how I understand the Gospel and my wiring.

When I witness arguments on social media I find that...

...many people dehumanize those who disagree with them.
...many people think the other side is comprised of halfwits.
...few people think they have something to learn from people on the other side.
...few know how to respectfully dialogue with a person on the other side.

As I have been reflecting upon this reality I realized that many of the conversations or posts that I read sound a lot like I sounded when I was confronted with the parent. They sound pointed, annoyed, and defensive.

If we don't change how we handle these conversations we will not learn and grow. If we do not learn and grow we will not make progress as a diverse society.

The best tool I have encountered to help me deal with conflict and situations where I feel threatened is called Karpman's Drama Triangle. I think the Drama Triangle has much to say about healthy ways we can approach divisive conversations around politics, race, and religion.

The Drama Triangle


The idea behind the drama triangle is that we all tend to approach conflict from a position that will lead to victimization. Here is an in depth explanation of how it works. The best way to explain it is to tell a story.

My natural tendency is to approach conflict from the angle of the "rescuer." This is how it plays out in my family. I mean, this next example is totally hypothetical.

My wife gets on to my son for something. In my limited understanding, I see her as the "persecutor" and my son as the "victim." I enter into the conversation as the "rescuer."

 I unwisely say, "Perhaps you are over reacting. He didn't do anything that bad." I move from "rescuer" to "persecutor" as I confront my wife. At that point she becomes the "victim."

 I hurt my wife's feelings. Having overstepped my boundaries, my wife responds in a way that hurts my feelings. She shifts from the "victim" back to the "persecutor." This time, I'm the "victim." 

The drama triangle is this vicious cycle of victim hood. Nobody feels heard. Nobody feels validated. Everybody feels hurt.There is never progress in the conversation or in the relationship.

Where do you tend to start on the Drama Triangle? Are you a "rescuer" like me? Or do you automatically start as the "victim"?

There are a few things that we can do to step outside the Drama Triangle and pursue reconciliation. 

1. Know that the other person is expressing legitimate concern. Even if you don't understand, they deserve to be heard.
2. Recognize your place on the Drama Triangle. Familiarize yourself with your triggers that send you into defensive behavior.
3. Recognize your contribution to the dysfunctional conversation.
4. Know that you cannot control other people. You can only control your response to other people.
5. Stop the blame and shame game.
6. Recognize that you are not perfect.
7. Know that the end goal is not necessarily for everybody to know you are correct. The end goal is productive movement. As a Christian, I think the end goal is also reconciliation.


The Drama Triangle theory applies to many situations at home and work. It can also be applied to conflict around really difficult topics like politics, race, and religion. However, this theory only works when the parties involved share the power equally. 

In a system of oppression, people need to step in and speak on behalf of those being oppressed. That isn't being a "rescuer." That is simply being a decent human being.

In a system of inequality, the systemically oppressed group should not feel guilty when they speak up. They are not being the "persecutor." They are calling out injustice.

Thus, this post applies to situations where the power is shared equally or to people who hold the power. 

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