Diffusing the Drama: How the Karpman Triangle Can Help Us Move Past Conflict with Evaluation Stakeholders

Whether it’s intended or not, our role as evaluator can trigger a power dynamic between us and other stakeholders. At its worst, this dynamic can cause feelings of frustration, resentment, and helplessness for those involved. We’re Yael Gil’Adi and Elizabeth DiLuzio, and we’ve been there. Today, we’ve teamed up to share a tool we find helpful for understanding and shifting this dynamic. 

The Karpman Triangle, more commonly known as the Drama Triangle, is a social model that offers a map to relationships experiencing conflict. There are three distinct roles in the Karpman Triangle: the Victim (person feeling helpless and oppressed), the Persecutor (person feeling entitled or angry), and the Rescuer (person feeling like the hero for stepping in, or feeling resentful and unappreciated). Let’s turn things over to Yael to show us an example of how the Drama Triangle recently played out in her work. 

Yael: As an internal evaluator, I tend to move between victim and rescuer when tension arise for program staff due to funder deadlines, operational demands, and data entry constraints. My go-to way of helping is leaping in to solve the problem, often taking over someone else’s responsibilities. Even though I do this with good intentions (I’m just trying to help!), we all end up paying the price with me exhausted and them frustrated.  

A perfect example is when quarterly funder reporting approaches. Before I begin my analysis, I meet with program to close gaps in missing data. This often prompts program staff to share their data entry challenges as the reason for the backlog. Feeling badly, I will often slide into the rescuer role and extend their deadline, sometimes even offering to help with their data entry. Closer to the deadline, I will quickly shift into the victim role, blaming program for not giving me enough time to finish my analysis.  

Not only is this pattern emotionally taxing, I know that by jumping in and taking responsibility that is not mine, I’m limiting staff’s opportunities for autonomy and growth. Learning about the Drama Triangle has been a strong first step in breaking this pattern. By understanding my triggers, I can start to reshape the habit. As I continue to work on this, I look forward to challenging assumptions, holding people accountable for their work, and sparking learning. 

So, how do we move forward? 

As Yael’s story beautifully demonstrates, sometimes the first step to undoing conflict is an awareness of everyone’s role in it. In addition to being a self-reflection tool, the Drama Triangle can serve as talking point to explore tense dynamics with the people involved. If it’s a particularly tricky dynamic, sometimes we need more actionable steps to take. Cue the Empowerment Dynamic (TED): the Drama Triangle flipped upside down with reimagined roles where the Victim becomes the Survivor, the Persecutor becomes the Challenger, and the Rescuer becomes the Coach

Rad Resource 

You can learn more about the Drama Triangle and how to shift its disempowering dynamics into empowering ones through some resources we’ve cultivated herehere, and here

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This post was originally published on February 1, 2020 in AEA365, a blog sponsored by the American Evaluation Association (AEA) that is dedicated to highlighting Hot Tips, Cool Tricks, Rad Resources, and Lessons Learned for evaluators.

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