The Drama Triangle – The Roles We Play in Conflict

What it is and how to use it

By Ken Norton

10 min read • Jun 14, 2023

Ken Norton

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[Drama Triangle]

In the last newsletter, I introduced the concepts of Reactive and Creative leadership. I want to continue to explore that today.

As we saw last time, the majority of leaders and organizations operate from a Reactive mindset most of the time. When we’re operating from a reactive posture, we see everything as a problem or threat. We’re motivated by fear, blame, or wanting to be right. This is a natural place for humans to operate from—our brains are instinctually hard-wired for survival. Although reactive leadership can be effective, it comes with a cost—to our happiness, to those around us, to the system itself. Those costs multiply as the complexity of our environment increases and as our responsibilities grow.

When we shift to operating from a place of openness, love, possibility, and curiosity, we move into a Creative mindset. We move from being oriented primarily toward safety to being pulled by purpose and vision. We let go of needing to be right, wanting to be liked, and vulnerably accept the risks associated with that. When a leader operates from a creative mindset, they’re more effective, more inspiring, and happier.

Three Dramatic Roles

The first key to making a shift—like so much of what we work with in coaching—is awareness. “Where am I, right now? Am I anchored to my own security, driven by fear, suppressing my emotions, and seeing everything as a problem and threat? Or am I in a place of openness, vulnerability, possibility, and purpose?”

When we’re operating reactively, we often respond to the environment by taking on one (or more) of three different ways of seeing the world. Psychologist Stephen Karpman was the first to describe this in the 1960s. Karpman loved the dramatic arts and was a member of the Screen Actors Guild at one point. Recognizing that these are roles we are playing, he called it The Drama Triangle. FInding yourself playing one of these roles, like a stage actor donning a mask, is a first step toward building the awareness we seek.

The Hero

The Hero (or Rescuer) wants to jump in and relieve the situation. Temporarily. The hero is often motivated by wanting to be right and therefore optimizes for a quick fix that makes the problem go away. The Hero’s actions often result in esteem and acceptance from others, but their heroics are limited in effectiveness and don’t confront the underlying challenge. In fact, since the Hero wants immediate relief, their internal motivations and beliefs can steer them away from even recognizing the real problem.

If you’ve ever had an acquaintance interrupt you with pithy advice before you’ve even finished describing your situation, you’ve met the Hero. If you’ve ever had a boss grab the work out from under you to do it themselves, you’ve met the Hero. A Hero also loves to jump into the middle of a dispute and “smooth things over” in a way that merely cools the situation without confronting or even acknowledging the real differences of opinion, allowing them to simmer and explode again at a later date.

The Villain

The Villain (or Persecutor) operates from a place of blame. They want to figure out who is at fault and point the finger their way. Sometimes they blame themselves (usually guided by their saboteurs or inner critics). Most of the time they throw somebody else under the bus. In other cases, there’s a vague and undefined “they” who is behind everything (see: extremist movements around the world).

If you’ve found yourself in the middle of an “us versus them” situation at work, you’ve met at least one Villain and possibly more than one. If you find yourself on the receiving end of gossip about someone else, you might be talking to a Villain. If someone constantly blames “leadership” or “the higher-ups” or “engineering” for every conceivable problem… you guessed it.

The Victim

The Victim is motivated by fear and is at the effect of the world around them. They are pursuing safety and security above all else. There are a million reasons why they are the real victim of a person, circumstance, or condition. There’s not enough time, nobody listens, it’s impossible, nobody will help me, or I was never shown how. The Victim operates from a place of powerlessness and helplessness.

“I was set up to fail from the beginning… We’re never given enough data… I’m not allowed to talk to customers… I’m asked to do the impossible”

WARNING! I want to pause here to make a really important point. The Victim role isn’t meant to describe someone who actually is powerless, being manipulated, or abused, but rather someone feeling or acting as if they are when they are not. In fact, accusing someone else of “playing victim” or gaslighting them is a classic Villain move!

The Drama Triangle is best used as a tool for understanding one’s own perspective in a self-development or coaching setting. It shouldn’t be introduced to teams or organizations without a lot of psychological safety and an experienced hand guiding the process. It can easily be misued or even weaponized against vulnerable populations.

OK, back to the program…

Making the Shift

Living in The Drama Triangle, like anything we do from a reactive mindset, is costly: It’s ineffective over the long term, exhausting, demotivating, and endlessly limiting. Yet, accordingly to some estimates, 90% of people spend 90% of their time operating from this place.

The first step to moving away from the Drama Triangle is awareness. There are many different ways to notice you’re operating from a reactive mindset, and more will become accessible with practice. Often there’s an unprocessed negative emotion, such as resentment, apathy, or anxiety.

Once you’ve noticed, acknowledge it: “I’m in the Drama Triangle.”

Now, get present. “Presence” is one of those hippie-dippie terms that years ago I would have dismissed as woo, but now understand to be simple yet powerful. Presence simply means being consciously aware of the here and now. “What is here, at this now moment?” Presence is a non-judgmental state of acceptance, welcoming whatever might be here. Take a few intentional breaths. Meditate. Walk outside and listen to nature. Pause. Change your posture. Get curious. Laugh.

Once you are fully present, take a moment to examine the Drama Triangle and try to understand which role you might be taking. It might be immediately obvious, or you might be wearing multiple hats. Another good question to ask yourself at this stage is whether wanting approval, control, or security might be backing you into one of these corners.

During a coaching session, I’ll occasionally set a timer for a minute or two and ask my client to “just vent” about a circumstance that has them sad, angry, or scared. While they’re complaining, I’ll hold up note cards depicting which roles they are taking on (I use colored highlighting below). I encourage them to really lean in and act the parts. It can be a cathartic release that often ends in laughter:

I can’t believe my CEO has dumped this marketing director on me. This clown is completely incompetent, seems to know absolutely nothing about marketing, and has decided to make my life a living hell! I don’t have time for this, I barely have enough time as it is. It’s my own stupid fault for nodding away rather than pushing back on the CEO and saying no. Honestly, I should probably just let the director fail and spend my time with my high-performers. Or maybe I should dedicate every last minute to teaching this person Marketing 101 and let everything else fall on the ground. Maybe that would help my CEO see how wrong they are.

There you have it, one dramatic scene with all three roles: Victim (poor me getting dumped on, with not enough time), Villain (I count four things being blamed—the CEO, the marketing director, myself, and… time?), and Hero (get relief by ignoring the problem with the high performers or drop everything and save/‘teach’ the marketing director). It’s not a stretch to imagine how the CEO and marketing director might also see themselves as Victim, Villain, and Hero in their own little first-person interpretations of our play.

When we stop reacting and become present, we begin to lead from a place of openness, curiosity, and acceptance. That’s creative leadership. When this shift happens, we break the cycle and each of the roles can transform. David Emerald calls this The Empowerment Dynamic or “TED*,” but I prefer Empowerment Triangle.

In the Empowerment Triangle, each role shifts to a corresponding “above the line” perspective.

[Empowerment Triangle]


As David Emerald describes it:

For Victims, the focus is always on what they don’t want: the problems that constantly seem to multiply in their lives. They don’t want the person, condition, or circumstance they consider to be their Persecutor [Villain], and they don’t want the fear that leads to fight, flee, or freeze reactions, either. Creators, on the other hand, place their focus on what they do want. Doing this, Creators still face and solve problems in the course of creating the outcomes they want, but their focus remains fixed on their ultimate vision.

The Victim stops complaining and takes responsibility for their own life, becoming the Creator. They reframe their response to the world from happening “to me” to happening “from me” and “through me.” The Creator leans on authenticity, learning, collaboration, and selflessness.

Victims focus on scarcity, consider themselves powerless, resist their emotions, defend their beliefs, and don’t see choices. Creators claim personal power, focus on possibility, see themselves as powerful, see multiple options, and are comfortable with the unknown.

Here are some questions to ask yourself when making the shift from Victim to Creator:

  • Where are there choices in how I see the world?
  • What wants to become known?
  • Where might my saboteur or inner critic be guiding me?
  • What personal values need to be honored or taken a stand for?
  • Where might there be opportunities here for my own growth and learning?
  • What old stories am I telling myself, and how might the opposite be true?
  • If there were no obstacles or infinite time, what might I do?
  • Where is there fun to be had, allies to be made, and awe to be experienced?


Here’s Emerald:

A Coach leaves the power with the Creator and seeks only to help facilitate her personal progress. A Coach is the embodiment of a Creator’s desire to share power with another. Coaches don’t regard those who turn to them for support as somehow broken or in need of fixing, which is the Rescuer’s [Hero’s] viewpoint. Instead, a Coach helps others see new possibilities, helps them to dare to dream.

The Hero stops trying to fix things and becomes the Coach. Coaches see everyone as naturally creative, resourceful, and whole, and the agents of their own lives. The Coach moves into a support role, helping others create the lives they want and evoking transformation.

Heroes fix, take over, grab hold of, or jump into. Coaches facilitate, guide, let go of, and encourage. I often see product leaders struggle with this shift when they move into management roles, or when they are expecting more from their direct reports but are unable to see a path through empowerment.

Here are some questions to ask yourself when making the shift from Hero to Coach:

  • What if I don’t need to be right?
  • Where is there an opportunity for learning?
  • Where might we write a new story?
  • Can I support others in taking 100% responsibility?
  • Where might there be an opportunity to listen?
  • What if my only agenda was supporting others in growth?
  • What questions might I ask others that will open them up to possibility?


Emerald again:

A Challenger calls forth a Creator’s will to create, often spurring him or her to learn new skills, make difficult decisions, or do whatever is necessary to manifest a dream or desire. The Challenger is a kind of teacher who points toward life’s lessons, toward opportunities for growth embedded in the living of life.

The Villain stops blaming and becomes the Challenger. Challengers bring healthy, positive pressure to others in a way that creates a breakthrough. The Challenger inspires and motivates, leans into courage and vision, and fosters play and safety.

Villains blame, defend their beliefs, judge themselves and others, and want to change the past. Challengers provide loving pressure, take responsibility, question beliefs and thoughts, and facilitate action. Challengers have the courage to be with discomfort and are willing to tap into authentic anger which clarifies and motivates. When coaching product leaders I’ve discovered how few of us have direct experience with Challengers.

Here are some questions to ask yourself when making the shift from Villain to Challenger:

  • How might I detach myself from my personal beliefs and judgments?
  • How can I face what’s no longer of service?
  • What questions or beliefs should we be questioning?
  • Can I provide loving pressure in a way that creates alignment?
  • How can I be a catalyst for growth?
  • What if the current circumstance just is, and is no one’s fault?
  • What challenges might I give others that will open them up to possibility?

Drifts and Shifts

We all drift to the Drama Triangle. It’s human-nature—our brains evolved to see threats and dangers. Presence is key to shifting out of it and into the Empowerment Triangle. When you become aware of your current state, bring your attention to the current moment, lean into curiosity, and let go of judgment, you can drop the veil of drama and spark the shift.

“Presence” simply means allowing yourself to just be in this now moment, not thinking about the past or the future. Meditation is a helpful practice for learning to become present. Even just a few deep breaths can be effective. Most of our fears begin to subside when we just allow ourselves to be in this moment, as anxiety and worry stem from a preoccupation with an anticipated or envisioned future. Perhaps my worry stems from a belief that I’ll blow this project and end up getting fired. My thinking mind is perpetually living in this imagined future, and that’s leading to my anxiety. Our primitive brains don’t know how to distinguish that perceived threat to our security from the real immediate threat of a sabertooth tiger bearing down on our campsite. When I bring myself into this present moment—and don’t allow my thinking to go into the past or the future—I can ask myself: is there really any threat to my security right here and right now?

As the Conscious Leadership Group puts it:

Presence is being aware of what is occurring in the now moment in a non-reactive state. While present, a person can make many drifts and shifts. The question isn’t how often you drift, but how easily can you shift? Do you learn in the moment, or do you continue to drift more deeply into the triangle, where suffering occurs?

Further Reading

Many of you have already heard me sing the praises of The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership by Jim Dethmer, Diana Chapman, and Kaley Warner Klemp, a book I highly recommend. There are a ton of free resources on the Conscious Leadership Group (CLG) website. Much of the language and terminology used here is adapted from CLG’s more accessible interpretations of Karpman and Emerald. Here’s a wonderful video about the Drama Triangle from CLG:

David Emerald’s book, Power of TED* (The Empowerment Dynamic) introduces these concepts. It’s a breezy read, written as a parable where a struggling narrator is visited on the beach by a mysterious stranger. (Fair warning: the format is somewhat corny and you’ll cringe at moments. As one Amazon reviewer put it, “The story is a bit boring, but the concepts are spot on.”)

[Drama and Empowerment Triangles]

Thanks to the Conscious Leadership Group for making Karpman and Emerald more accessible and putting them into a leadership and coaching context.

Originally Published: June 14, 2023

This article was originally published to my private newsletter exclusively for executive coaching clients and alumni

Ken Norton is an executive coach who works with product leaders. He spent more than 14 years at Google where he built products used by more than 3 billion people.