Triangles + Conversations

 August 10, 2019

I’m the kind of guy who likes to geek out about things like conversations, so below are my current thoughts on the topic.

The Drama Triangle

I run into so many people who want to feel empowered in their relationships but keep getting caught in frustrating emotional entanglements. Does this ever happen to you?

What’s going on here? One way to think about it: even with your best intentions, you’re ending up not with real empowerment, but with faux empowerment. Instead of feeling powerful and joyful, you’re caught in the role of victim, persecutor or rescuer. The bad news is this isn’t fun. The good news is that you’re not alone, and we know a lot about this place. It’s called the Drama Triangle. Let me show you how you get into it and provide a set of paths out.

Children learn to embody the positions on the Drama Triangle (from Steven Karpman) as its their only way of accessing power, albeit POWER OVER or POWER UNDER others. Getting power this way is a zero sum game and generates negative emotion (drama). Children haven’t yet developed to the place where we can enact POWER WITH others, which comes online with the maturing of the pre-frontal cortex (around the mid-20’s). My hope is that adults can unlearn these strategies and learn to move  to the Empowerment Triangle (from David Emerald), bringing more true empowerment into the world.

Years back I had a martial arts instructor who was in the military. His platoon’s motto was, “admit nothing, deny everything and make counteraccusations.” This is an extreme version of a Drama Triangle conversation, focused on fixing the blame on others (rather than fixing the problem). Embodying the skills required to be on the empowerment triangle moves us from “fixing the blame” to “fixing the problem.”

Heaven and Hell

The Drama Triangle is the Hell I want to avoid, and the Empowerment Triangle the Heaven I want to create. Do you feel the same way? I hope you will be so excited about the Heaven you can create with others that you will use these insights, reflection questions and practices to dramatically improve the outcomes, love, conversational skill, relationship and maturity you experience in your life.

Power Over, Power Under and Power With

The fifteen conversations outlined below are both a reminder of what conversations are available and an invitation to build skill with brand new conversations, as well as those you are already familiar. Each of the fifteen conversations listed below offers the possibility of getting OFF the Drama Triangle (Victim, Persecutor, Rescuer OR Savior, Scapegoat, Sacrificial Lamb) and ONTO the Empowerment Triangle (Creator, Challenger and Coach).

Faux Empowerment

It’s easy and common to shift from Power Under (Victim) to Power Over (Persecutor) and feel empowered. Not so fast… I call this move “faux empowerment.” In the words of Jonathan Haidt, this is not the desired “integration” and subsequent move to the empowerment triangle, but merely an “inversion” of power relationships. Inverting is much easier than integrating as it doesn’t require that we develop our Wise Adult Consciousness (Nancy Shanteau).

True Empowerment

True empowerment (POWER WITH others) comes from leaving the Drama Triangle and being on the Empowerment Triangle. It involves cultivating our Wise Adult Consciousness, and standing in the positions of Creator, Challenger and Coach.

Making the Move

The key question is, how do you get from one triangle to the other? I think the missing piece is understanding that this development often happens in conversations. What kinds? See below for a taxonomy of fifteen conversations I hope will help you to:

  • Build the skill to move your intentions into actual outcomes- aka getting things done. (Action)
  • Grow into your Wise Adult Consciousness. (Development)
  • Increase your ability to connect with others and expand your scope of care. (Love)
  • Develop a toolbox full of conversations you can choose to step into with skill, depending on the situation in which you find yourself. (Skill)

Fifteen Powerful Conversations

  1. Conversation for Relationship (aka Shared Interests) – what overlap exists between our ongoing commitments, interests, immediate concerns and future possibilities.
  2. Conversation for Possibility – brainstorming. What if… Divergent.
  3. Conversation for Opportunity – narrowing to best opportunity. Convergent.
  4. Conversation for Action– making and meeting promises together. Building trust. Created shared backgrounds of obviousness. Generating satisfaction through skillful coordination of action. Click HERE for a wonderful podcast on this conversation by my good friend Amiel Handelsman who offered numerous useful insights into this blog post.
  5. Conversation for Holding a Conversation – knocking on the door before entering.
  6. Conversation About Who Needs to be in the Conversation – very useful to hold prior to a group discussion.
  7. Conversation for Surfacing and Testing Assumptions – revealing foundational assumptions and inviting others to confirm/disconfirm them.
  8. Conversation for Shared Expectations – very useful clarification conversation.
  9. Conversation for Exploring Disagreements – one type of difficult conversation.
  10. Conversation for Exploring Disappointments – another type of difficult conversation.
  11. Conversation for Impact – could be appreciative, or critical.
  12. Conversation for Healing Trauma – a healing conversation that may involve deep sharing and deep listening/reflecting back.
  13. Conversation for Declaring a Breakdown– “this isn’t working.” Often leads to a Conversation for Possibility followed by a Conversation for Action.
  14. Conversation around Creating a Shared Commitment (partnership, couple) – very useful prior to committing, or during/after transformation.
  15. Conversation for Speaking Other’s Virtues – giving a grounded assessment of a virtue/quality you observed another demonstrating.

An Initial Categorization

A list of fifteen conversations may seem overwhelming (it does to me!), so here is one way to categorize them.

  1. Business Deal – Conversations for Relationship, Possibility, Opportunity and Action.
  2. Opening a Conversation – Conversation for Holding a Conversation, Conversation About Who Needs to be in the Conversation.
  3. Clarification/Clean Up – Conversation for Surfacing and Testing Assumptions, Conversation for Shared Expectations, Conversation for Exploring Disagreements, Conversation for Exploring Disappointments, Conversation for Impact (critical), Conversation for Healing Traumas,
  4. Shifting an Existing Conversation – Conversation around Creating a Shared Commitment, Conversation for Declaring a Breakdown.
  5. Appreciation – Conversation for Speaking Other’s Virtues, Conversation for Impact (positive)

Now that we have the two triangles and fifteen conversations, here are reflection questions and practices to help you embody and enact true empowerment across a broad range of conversational possibilities!

Reflection Questions

  • Which of these conversations to you use frequently? Infrequently? Never?
  • Which of these conversations could be useful to you right now?
  • Pick one conversation you were in today. Ask yourself, was I in this conversation from the Drama Triangle? If so, which position(s)? Was I in this conversation from the Empowerment Triangle? If so, which position(s)?

Practices

  • What language, emotion, pacing or mood shifts you from the Drama to the Empowerment Triangle?
  • What language, emotion, pacing or mood shifts you from the Empowerment to the Drama Triangle?
  • Pick one conversation and practice designing, embodying and then enacting the language, emotion and mood that shifts you from the Drama to the Empowerment Triangle.

Extra Credit Practices

  • How does your Enneagram type help and/or hinder your ability to be on the empowerment triangle?
  • When triggered, which position on the drama triangle is your default entry point  (Victim, Persecutor, Rescuer)? How does this relate to your Enneagram type?
  • Try to identify in real time when you or a conversational partner are switching from one conversation to another. Practice announcing this move and seeking buy-in (Conversation for Holding a Conversation).

Understand, Embody and Enact

At Kirtan Leader Institute we share understandings and practices required to EMBODY the moves of the Empowerment Triangle and ENACT them in the world with others. In order to Chant, Lead and Serve we need to be able to have power with others, create win-win situations and generate long-term relationships marked by positive (not negative) affect. Skill in a wide variety of conversations, conducted from the perspective of the Empowerment Triangle is very useful for making this happen!

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