Drama Part 3: Nine Ways to Deal with Drama

In Part 1 of this series we discussed Karpman’s Drama Triangle. In Part 2 we looked at the roots of this concept in Berne’s Transactional Analysis. In this, the final post in this series, we’ll discuss nine(!) ways to help you steer clear of drama and games and their negative effects. This will be a longer one, so let’s dive right in.

Increase Your Awareness of Drama and Games

Increasing your awareness of the game dynamic will help you get better at spotting games as they’re happening. It will help you create options in the moment and discover better, drama-free ways of behaving. Remember from the last post, games need a con + gimmick to get off the ground. Games are played to meet underlying psychological needs, what Berne (1972) described as collecting psychological “stamps.”

Learn to pause in the moment and consider the difference between what a person says and what his underlying psychological need might be. Is he congruent? Do the social and psychological messages line up? As Weinberg (1985) would put it, “Do the words match the music?” Do the same for yourself. What is the difference here between meeting your psychological needs and doing what’s best for the situation?

In general, try making fewer statements and asking more questions. Ask fewer WHY questions and more WHAT and HOW questions. Consider questions explicitly aimed at exposing the dynamic. Below are some great ones adapted from John James (1973).

As you consider these, learn to trust your gut. You can often feel when there’s an ulterior motive in an interaction. Pause and consider, what else might be going on? What might be a healthier way to get the “strokes” the game provides?

Change Your Perceptual Position

Step out of yourself, what you’re feeling, however tense you might be, however invested you might feel (what’s sometimes called “first position”). Consider the other party, what he might be feeling, how he might see the situation differently from his POV (second position). Consider what a detached observer would see, like you’re in a theater projection booth watching the interaction on a screen (third position).

As you move from first, through second, to third position, as you take a “helicopter view” of the situation, how does that change how you see yourself? Do you like what you see in this scene? How would you change it? How would you want the character that’s you to act differently?

Tame Your Advice Monster

This tip is from Michael Bungay Stanier’s (2016) excellent book, The Coaching Habit. First, if you’re a coach and you’re giving a lot of advice, you’re doing it wrong anyway. That’s not what coaching is. You’re there to connect the client with her own resources, to help her generate options, to, as Tony Mayo would put it, help her take appropriate action in service of her own possibilities (image from Barry O’Reilly and Kate Leto).

Second, you’re likely involving yourself in an unnecessary amount of drama. Even solicited advice should be handled with care. Unsolicited advice typically shouldn’t be handled at all. This might shock you, but if you feel a need to dole out lots of advice, then you’re probably the one introducing the con.

I’m just as guilty. I need to feel wise, and that’s the real reason I dive in with the unsolicited advice. Perhaps I’m projecting some insecurity onto the other person. Whatever the reason, it can be hard not to slip into playing Rescuer. But an easy way to avoid this trap is to…

Improve Your Self-Concept

Remember, if you participate in a lot of drama and games, then either the con or the gimmick is coming from you—either way you’re not an innocent victim. Virginia Satir (1976) notes we primarily meet our self-esteem needs in four ways: We placate to appease others into making us feel OK, blame others to feel superior and safe, act “super reasonable” and dump lots of information without feelings, or make irrelevant comments to gain attention.

This discounts the needs of the self, the other, both self and other, then both in addition to the wider social context. All four are forms of incongruence—the words and music don’t match. As Satir put it, you’re giving your power away to get your needs met (image adapted from Satir, 1972). An important change then is finding more congruent ways to meet these needs.

As Steve Andreas (2002) argues, blanket attempts to “raise self-esteem” are largely wastes of time. Instead, he says, you need to take a look at your behavior, self-concept, and values. If your behavior is not aligned with your self-concept, then you’re delusional. He points this out with a joke where a psychiatrist says to her client, “The good news is your self-concept is much improved. The bad news is you’re losing touch with reality.”

If your behavior is not aligned with your values, then you won’t feel good about your self-concept. In other words, you’ll have poor self-esteem. The aim, then, is to explore what you value and its gap with your behavior and self-concept.

Instead of meeting your self-esteem needs by being in drama and playing games, work on a self-concept that is true to what is important to you and will help you achieve your life goals. If one of the things you value is being drama-free, then part of your self-concept should be that you do not play Victim, Rescuer, or Persecutor to get your needs met.

You can then use this as a beacon to keep checking your behavior and changing your habits. As you move the change from one of behavior to the level of identity, your self-esteem will also improve.

Cross the Transaction

So far we’ve discussed ways to increase your awareness of games and to decrease your need for drama. Now let’s discuss a few ways to shut down games as they’re happening. Remember from Part 2 in this series, a complimentary transaction can continue indefinitely, whereas a crossed transaction cannot.

One way to shut down a game dynamic then is to cross the transaction on purpose. For instance, if you find yourself in a game of “Why Don’t You—Yes But,” then following the “yes but” move, you can switch roles and respond, “Really? Well I’m sure you’ll figure it out” (Mountain & Davidson, 2016).

The con here is that she’s trying to trigger your advice monster. By crossing the transaction, you’re denying the gimmick.

Respond to the Ulterior Message

This is similar to but slightly different than the tactic above. If you detect an ulterior message, responding to it instead of the social message will also shut down the game dynamic.

For example, say you have a history of games with someone. He comes to you and says, “I have this situation,” wanting to launch the Victim + Rescuer dynamic. You reply directly to the psychological message with, “I hear you. What would you like me to do about it?” In doing so, you keep the ball in his court and invite him to step out of the Victim role (Mountain & Davidson, 2016).

Seen in this light, the common executive stance of, “Don’t bring me a problem without a solution,” can be seen as a wise safeguard against drama.

Confront the Game

If you notice a game and you’re not likely to be in this situation again, you can always choose to ignore it and refuse to pick up the negative feeling that typically results. If the game is a pattern you’re likely to repeat, then it can be a good idea to explicitly call it out. (As Randy Pausch famously said, “When there’s an elephant in the room, introduce him.”)

This should be done in a caring, congruent, and helpful way, making future interactions more fruitful for both parties. An example would be a manager/employee or coach/client relationship: “I’ve noticed we get into this pattern and I’m wondering what we could do differently to prevent this from happening in the future” (Mountain & Davidson, 2016).

Counter with Ground Rules

If you run a meeting and are noticing drama, you can always counter by establishing some ground rules that nullify the problematic dynamic. If the meeting is a stage for the same few people to play Rescuer, it’s not value-adding. If it’s a single person “holding court” and playing Persecutor, it’s a waste of everyone’s time (including the Persecutor). Try using parking boards or switching to a process like Lean Coffee, which was designed so that no one person controls the agenda.

Set up simple rules such as, “One conversation at a time,” “Everyone speaks no matter what,” and “Soft on people but not on ideas” (Wilkinson, 2004). If the meeting is a recurring brainstorm replete with peer pressure, groupthink, production blocking, and premature agreement, introduce alternatives to open conversation, such as Liberating Structures or freelisting, affinitizing, and dot-voting.

Learn to Spot the Discount

When attempts to solve a problem descend into drama, it is often because the parties involved have become attached to some form of discounting. “Discounting” is akin to losing the path that could lead to an effective resolution of the issue at hand. This is typically due to ignoring certain realities for psychological reasons, thereby keeping one “at effect” instead of “at cause.”

Those in drama are often unaware of, on some level, either the existence and relevance of needed information or data, the generating of viable options, and/or the need to take and/or delegate responsibility to action certain items. Macefield and Mellor (2006) have created a model to work with this dynamic, called the “Awareness Discounting Matrix” (“ADM” for short).

The “prompt” is the cue that there is a situation, something that needs to be changed or resolved. The group or individual in question has failed to resolve this because something has been discounted at one of the six “I-Levels.” The aim with the ADM is to move the group or individual through the I-Levels to a set of agreed tasks that will resolve the situation.

Say, for example, a team must spend around six hours a week in a recurring meeting they don’t think is a good use of time. They have to spend an additional six hours a week prepping for these meetings. They talk about the issue a lot, but primarily as an unsolvable burden. It causes drama and tanks morale.

In consulting with them, you learn they’re aware of plenty of information about the purpose of the meeting. They also know there are options, different ways of achieving what the meeting is intended to achieve. Maybe where they’re stuck is how all this pertains to them; i.e., they are discounting the significance of these alternative courses of action to their situation. In a way then they’re stuck on I-Level 2, since a discount at any level also discounts everything horizontal to and beneath it.

To break through this, you need to find where on each I-Level they have the most awareness. Work with this awareness to open a path through the discounting to an effective resolution.

In this example, if they don’t see the significance of the options available, maybe they can increase their awareness of data specific to their situation and then realize if they don’t own the responsibility for taking action, the situation will never change. The breakthrough is effected by finding where they’re most aware in order to create an “Awareness Action Sequence” (AAS) through the Discounting Matrix:

It might be that they don’t have the authority to enact the changes needed. (In fact, that will often be the case.) That still doesn’t mean they don’t have options and responsibility.

If they have significant, prompt-specific data about why continuing with current practice might not be the most value-adding option, then the agreed tasks might include escalating, finding out who the decision makers are, keeping the pressure on from multiple angles, and/or mapping the political landscape to identify the right people to influence first and have approach the decision makers in question.

There are always options. The challenge is thinking laterally enough to see them.


Andreas, S. (2002). Transforming your self: Becoming who you want to be. Moab, UT: Real People Press.

Berne, E. (1972). What do you say after you say hello? The psychology of human destiny. New York: Grove Press, Inc.

James, J. (1973). The game plan. Transactional Analysis Journal, Vol. 3, No. 4, 194-197.

Macefield, R. & Mellor, K. (2006). Awareness and discounting: New tools for task/option-oriented settings. Transactional Analysis Journal, Volume 26, Issue 1.

Mountain, A. & Davidson, C. (2016). Working together: Organizational Transactional Analysis and business performance. New York: Routledge.

Satir, V. (1976). Making contact. Berkeley, CA: Celestial Arts.

Satir, V. (1972). Peoplemaking. Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books, Inc.

Stanier, M. S. (2016). The coaching habit: Say less, ask more & change the way you lead forever. Toronto: Box of Crayons Press.

Weinberg, G. M. (1985). The secrets of consulting: A guide to giving & getting advice successfully. NY: Dorset House Publishing.

Wilkinson, M. (2004). The secrets of facilitation: The S.M.A.R.T. guide to getting results with groups. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

2 thoughts on “Drama Part 3: Nine Ways to Deal with Drama

  1. thanks for sharing. This series of articles just made me more aware of the rapport with some of my clients. I must change habits!


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