Difficult People

by Suzanne Neville

Our part in the difficult situation

There are times when our behaviour may have created the difficult behaviour in others. Karpman’s drama triangle is a way of describing how two people might interact, without realising it, in a way that is non-productive and stressful for both.

Sometimes, parties in conflict will be entrenched in their positions and have been for years. Each will perceive the other as the problem – the difficult person.

Imagine, if you will, a triangle. At each point are roles that we may play in life. The victim stands at one corner, while the other person takes up either persecutor or rescuer position.

Each of us tends take a familiar, habitual position. So if you take up the role of victim, the other person, may step into either persecutor or rescuer mode, depending on their preference and how things progress. When this happens, it is usually out of our awareness, though it is often linked to how we learned to deal with conflict in our family.

The roles – Persecutor or Rescuer versus Victim – are portrayed in what is called a ‘psychological game’. It is called a game since both parties have to play their interlocking parts/roles and their interaction serves as a training ground for either powerlessness (victim) or being in one-up position (persecutor/rescuer).

Key point

Persecutor, rescuer and victim are all unhelpful roles that stem from learned behaviours. The game is brought to a halt when one side or the other steps out of their role and into an adult, assertive role (in other words, neither passive nor aggressive, nor responding to passivity or aggression).

This game avoids dealing with the problem in present-day reality and prevents psychological equality in relationships. In the end one (often both) parties get a ‘bad payoff’.

It’s all your fault.
  • Blames
  • Criticises
  • Judges
  • Keeps victim oppressed
  • Critical controlling parent
Let me help you.
  • Rescues when it isn’t wanted
  • Feels guilty if doesn’t rescue
  • Keeps victim dependent
  • Discounts victim being able to solve problem
Poor me!
  • Dejected
  • Feels powerless
  • Helpless
  • Looks for rescuer (so can stay victim)
  • Child behaviour
  • Discounts own ability to solve problem
I’m OK, you’re not.

I put others down to feel OK.

I’m OK, you’re not.

I take on the victim’s responsibilities to feel OK.

I’m not OK, you are.

I help others to feel OK.

There are some common features about this game:

  • It is repetitive
  • It is predictable
  • There is a negative payoff.

Why is there a negative payoff?

Whichever role you fall into, the results will be negative for you and the other person.

If you are the victim, you will suffer from one or more of these consequences:

  • Feeling unhappy at work and therefore stressed
  • Not learning much, because feedback is taken as unfair criticism
  • Career blocked because relationships with others are unhelpful and who will value and promote a victim?

If you are the rescuer, you will suffer because

  • You take on someone else’s work load
  • You are working for your staff rather than the other way around
  • Your career is blocked because you are taking on work that isn’t yours and you can’t be spared from your current post
  • You are failing to coach or give appropriate feedback, so your team aren’t learning anything
  • You feel stressed and put upon.

If you are the persecutor, you will suffer because

  • Your team will not be willing to discuss and learn from errors or receive feedback in a positive manner
  • People will try to hide things from you (to avoid blame)
  • Key point

    A game will go on as long as someone is willing to be victimised.

    Things that could have been sorted out at an early stage will tend to have grown into major problems before they come to light
  • Your career will suffer because your team will be less efficient than they should/could be
  • You will feel stressed, harassed and misunderstood.

How to use the drama triangle

The first step is to notice that the drama or game is being played out!

  • Be alert so that you don’t become involved in the drama yourself and end up taking the payoff – the complainant, objector or other party may blame you!
  • Taking a part in the drama triangle is stressful. Look out for the invitation from the other party to play this type of game.
  • Use logical, rational interventions and avoid taking up the position of persecutor, victim or rescuer.
  • Ask yourself if you want to be rescued, want to persecute or want to help the other person in a way that is inappropriate, in other words one that discounts their own ability to solve the problem.

Moving round the triangle (1)

Janet is a busy manager in a financial services company. She has a team of six people and many tasks of her own to complete. Janet finds it hard to delegate and complains to her colleagues that her team members are reluctant to take on extra work (victim).

When members of the team (and others) come to her with problems, Janet takes them away and sorts them out herself (rescuer). Janet also has a hectic home life and two teenage children. Coming home from work to find the sink full of unwashed dishes and crumbs all over the work surfaces, Janet explodes with irritation (persecutor) and shouts loudly at her partner about how lazy and uncooperative the children are and how he should be doing something about it. Janet needs to break out of the drama triangle by

  • Stopping the rescuing behaviour and giving people responsibility for solving their own problems
  • Giving feedback to team members and following a delegation plan
  • Setting boundaries with her children when in a calm state of mind

Avoiding the game

If you are aware of a tendency to fall into one of these unhelpful roles, there are pages here or in other topics that might help you:


Moving round the triangle (2)

As a customer services adviser in a call centre, Peter often has to deal with irate customers. James, his team leader, listens in to calls on a regular basis and offers feedback about how Peter can improve.

Generally, this works well, but on one occasion Peter has a particularly angry customer (persecutor) to deal with. Peter is unable to calm him down and starts to handle the situation from a victim stance, using language like ‘It’s not our fault; it was a systems failure.’ James, who is listening in to the conversation, decides to intervene (rescuer) and sort out the situation.

When the call is finished Peter (now taking on the role of persecutor) feels undermined and is angry with James (now the victim), who cannot see why Peter is so angry, as he was only trying to help.

James can break out of the drama triangle by

  • Being clear about the outcome of rescuing behaviour
  • Sometimes standing back and allowing people to learn from their mistakes
  • Giving feedback.

Peter can break out of the drama triangle by

  • Recognising triggers that cause him to handle difficult situations badly
  • Developing assertiveness skills
  • Reflecting on how he has handled situations and making changes where necessary.