In conflict, everyone has a story—or at least their side of the story. To better understand these stories, try prefacing them with the words “Once upon a time.” Fairy tales feature three main types of characters: the victim (often represented as a damsel in distress or an innocent youth); the villain (a witch, giant or dragon); and the hero (the white knight or young prince). We encounter these same character types on the front page of our newspapers, in our favourite television shows and on movie screens everywhere.
Not surprisingly, we relate to these larger-than-life characters in our conflicts. Most often we see ourselves as the victim—innocent and powerless. Sometimes we play the hero and risk the danger of conflict to right a wrong and see justice done. Occasionally we may slip into the role of the villain, attacking the other person with anger or sarcasm. Each role limits our understanding of conflict; together they form a “drama triangle” that traps us in confrontation. This explains why people in conflict refer to feeling “stuck”. Once we become aware of this pattern and our role in it, we can choose more constructive approaches. Instead of labelling the other person as a villainous adversary, we can acknowledge that they feel victimized and can seek to work with them as partners against the problem. In doing so, we shift from confrontation to collaboration.
Roles We Play
In conflict, we experience being attacked, judged or threatened in some way victimized. In victim role we are convinced of our innocence and wallow in a sense of powerlessness. We might withdraw—the “flight” part of “fight or flight”—or even freeze like a deer caught in the headlights. Other times we wait for something to change or for someone to rescue us. (Remember Rapunzel, trapped in her tower.) Although some of us suffer in silence, most of us freely share our frustration, often attributing the conflict entirely to the personality deficiencies of the other person.
Sometimes we react by shifting to hero mode: we protect ourselves, stand up for our cause and seek to even the score with our adversary. The hero ventures forth to do what must be done—justice will be its own reward. This role embodies courage, selflessness and nobility. It represents the part of us that will step forward and risk taking a stand, despite our discomfort or fear. There is a darker side to the hero role, however, when righteousness becomes self-righteousness. In the pursuit of justice, the hero slays or captures the villain. When we agree that the hero’s cause is just, we condone and even applaud these aggressive behaviours. We justify our own aggressive, hurtful behaviour by telling ourselves “They had it coming.”
Based on actions alone, a hero is simply a self-righteous villain. In a different context, Robin Hood would have done five to ten years of hard time for extortion and armed robbery. Instead, his actions are not only excused, but revered in legend because of his noble cause and earlier mistreatment by the evil Sheriff. Similarly, Jack (of “Jack and the Beanstalk” fame) made his reputation through trespass and burglary, though these acts are seen as heroic because the giant was mean. You get the drift.
Villains manipulate, control or deprive the victim for their own ends. This role represents the part of us that can be mean-spirited and vindictive (what Star Wars calls the “dark side” of the Force). This dark side is selfish, controlling and fearful. The villain has no concern for the others and uses threats, aggression and deprivation as tactics to control the situation. And when we experience someone controlling us, we quickly cast them as the villain in our conflict story.
In fact, the behaviours of the villain are similar to those of the hero, distinguished only by how we judge them. Internationally, acts of violence we condemn as terrorism are seen as the selfless deeds of freedom fighters by other ideologies. Looking strictly at behaviour in conflict, a villain is simply a misunderstood hero. Even people who act inappropriately or antisocially have their story, in which they see themselves as victims and in which they justify their actions as “evening the score.” One person’s justice is another’s revenge.
Stuck on the Drama Triangle
These roles are interdependent. A victim requires a persecutor; a hero needs a cause. Neither can exist without a villain. And when we treat someone like a villain, they in turn feel victimized by us—and see us as the villain. Behaviours they consider self-defence, we experience as attacks and further evidence that we cannot trust or work with them. And the walls of judgement and justification thicken on both sides. The drama triangle and its roles inevitably produce a win-lose approach to conflict. One person wins; the other must lose. No one likes to lose, and we will battle ferociously to avoid defeat. Even if one person loses the battle, the war is seldom over. The loser continues to seek justice and retribution. The cycle of revenge persists and traps both people in a downward spiral.
Casting New Roles
How do we escape the drama triangle? Firstly, we can accept the role we have played in the conflict. Secondly, we can acknowledge that our adversary has, in their eyes, an equally valid perspective. And thirdly, we can strive for resolution instead of victory and seek possibilities that allow both sides to get what they need. Let’s start with the role of victim.
From passive victim to assertion
To set aside the role of victim is easier said than done. We can begin by taking responsibility for our feelings and reactions in conflict not to deny or devalue our feelings or needs, but to accept them as our own. After all, whose problem is it if you go home frustrated with your boss at the end of a workday? Who “owns” the problem? (Hint: Your boss may be sleeping like a baby as you lie awake endlessly replaying the events of the day.)
Assertiveness is based on this principle. Consider the difference between the statements “You never make time for my issues at meetings” (victim) and “I’m frustrated that we didn’t discuss the budget during the meeting” (accountable). The first statement is loaded with judgement, casts the other person as the villain, and blames them for how we feel. The latter discloses our experience, takes responsibility for feelings and identifies the problem at hand.
Similarly, we can ask directly for what we need instead of complaining to others about our plight. This is uncomfortable, yet empowering. It’s uncomfortable because we can no longer blame others and refuse to change, empowering because we become an active participant in shaping our life. To reap the rewards of assertiveness, we must risk the discomfort of confronting a person or problem.
From hero to problem-solver
The role of hero can be as unproductive as that of victim. This self-righteous mindset condones our attack on the villain as justice. Attack is met with counterattack; the conflict persists and usually escalates. Our ego fuels the need to be right and we become attached to a specific outcome. At this point, the conflict becomes a power struggle.
We can address and resolve conflict much more productively if we let go of the need to be “right” and focus instead on ways to get our needs met. This uncovers possibilities we might otherwise ignore. The energy devoted to a win-lose power struggle can instead be applied to problem solving (often referred to as “separating the people from the problem.”)
This in no way advocates accommodating or avoiding an issue just to keep the peace. We need to exhibit a hero’s courage in different ways: to raise an issue directly and respectfully; to enter the uncomfortable place we experience as conflict and to stay there to see it through; to listen to viewpoints with which we may disagree; to forgo the pleasure of righteous indignation in favour of curiosity. In many ways, the hero’s battle is internal. From controlling villain to collaborator
There is a fine line between the roles of hero and villain, and in conflict we can easily and unconsciously slip into the role of villain. When we attack another person (even in self-defence) and attempt to hurt them in some way, we have become the villain. Fuelled by anger or frustration, we may come out with statements such as “I don’t care what you think” and “To hell with you.” We may even “lose it” and exhibit the very behaviours (threatening, interrupting, swearing) we find so objectionable in others. This victimizes the other person anew and perpetuates the attack-defend cycle. Although others may see us as a villain, we can change their perception if we are willing to relinquish our need to control. When we surrender our need for control, we make room for fresh and creative possibilities to resolve our conflicts and even redefine our relationships. At the same time, we have to give up our need to be right. (I never said it would be easy.)
From Adversaries to Partners
When we live on the drama triangle, we see the other person as our adversary—the villain. If only they would change, we reason, things would be fine. They stand between us and happiness. Ironically, they are usually thinking the same thing about us. To resolve conflict, we need to relinquish our roles as victim, villain and hero and work with the other person to solve the problem. If we need a villain, let it be the problem, not the person. The diagram below symbolizes this shift—from the drama triangle to the circle of resolution. Interestingly, the circle and triangle intersect not at the three corners of the triangle, but in the middle on each side. Similarly, we must meet the other person in the middle. This doesn’t mean “splitting the difference.” It means letting go of our roles, retelling our story without judgement or blame and listening to their story with curiosity. Such communication opens the doorway of understanding through which we can exit the drama triangle and enter into the circle of resolution.
The concept of the drama triangle serves me as a mediator, trainer and in my own conflicts. As a mediator, it helps me make sense of wildly divergent perspectives by remembering that each person genuinely sees themselves as the victim in the situation. Identifying the moment when each person began to see the other as the villain (the point of wounding) allows me to focus discussion on the root conflict. We can examine the intent of each party and the impact of their actions on the other, and clarify the assumptions that fuel ongoing conflict.
As a trainer, I find that workshop participants intuitively identify with drama triangle and its roles. I often ask people to share a conflict story with a partner, who in turn tells the story from the “villain’s” perspective. This simple exercise produces many “ah-ha” moments as people broaden their view of the conflict and begin (however reluctantly) to entertain the notion that theirs is not the only perspective on the situation. This fosters the curiosity necessary for collaboration.
And finally, this concept helps me stay conscious in my own conflicts by recognizing when I feel like a victim. Instead of railing against the other person as the villain, I’m able to identify when I felt “the knife go in” and respond assertively instead of aggressively. I am also more likely to remain curious about the other person’s perspective, knowing that they see themselves as a victim (or hero).
The simple concept of the drama triangle fosters a basic awareness of the dynamics of conflict. This awareness allows us to choose responses that move us beyond the drama triangle of confrontation and uncover the new possibilities that flow from collaboration.