Donkeys and Elephants

Sorry political junkies, this is not a post about Democrats and Republicans.

This is a post about egos and drama. It’s a post about meeting effectiveness. Consider, how do you tend to relate to others in meetings, while working, or even just in day-to-day life? Are there certain interactions that leave you feeling disappointed, not only in the outcome, but perhaps even with yourself?

What possible commonalities might there be between the examples you can think of? Is there some underlying pattern you could disrupt, replace with something more value-adding? It is helpful to keep some focus on such questions. You are, after all, expert at getting the results you get…whether you like them or not. The more you rehearse your strategies for outcomes you don’t like, the better you become at producing them!

Identify the patterns, raise your awareness of the dynamics at play, and change your behavior until you are satisfied with the outcomes you are producing. Doing this requires self-awareness. It requires self-control. (Working with a coach is a big help.) It requires slowing down and creating enough space in the moment to respond instead of react. This space allows for options, and this often requires you to put your ego in your pocket. Your ego, after all, doesn’t want you to create options—it just wants to procure strokes for itself.

A helpful lens when thinking about this is the Drama Triangle. The adapted image below shows Karpman’s original Drama Triangle combined with the Winner’s Triangle from The Power of TED (2016). The purple triangle shows the three roles representing “drama”. The arrows and orange triangle show the moves you need to make to stay out of drama and empower both yourself and the other person (or people).

Here’s an easy way to think about this: If your ego gets hooked, then you’re in drama. You’re likely playing one of the three roles on the purple triangle. Your ego, by the way, wants to get hooked, because what your ego really wants is drama. Your ego wants you to be triggered. That’s how it gets to kick in and strengthen itself. If the ego is playing Persecutor, it gets to use sarcasm and self-righteousness to feel superior. If Rescuer, it gets to feel indispensable by playing “If Only They’d Listened to Me”. If Victim, it gets to gather sympathy by playing “Woe Is Me”, enlisting Persecutors to justify itself and recruiting Rescuers to enable.

Now, misery might love company, but drama requires it. It’s no fun to be in drama by yourself. You need to pull others in as well! Let’s say you’re in a meeting. It’s awkward. There is an emotional undercurrent to what is being said. People are on edge. There is the proverbial “elephant in the room”. What are you going to do? Well, if you’re staying off the Drama Triangle, you should “label the elephant”. Call it out. Shift attention to the undercurrent itself. This clears the air. Emotions can be named and discussed…or influence from behind the curtain.

What emotions are at play? Label and legitimize them without judgment. If you’re in a one-on-one and someone sounds tense, say, “You sound kind of tense”, then shut up. This will shift the dynamic. It gives the other person permission to say things she wouldn’t have otherwise brought up. Naming emotions makes them “safe” to discuss, and that is important.

In terms of Transactional Analysis, this means “staying in Adult”. It requires you to cross (shut down) invitations to gossip and avoid assigning blame. It requires you to create space between people’s roles or performance and their identities. If your issue is with the person you’re talking to and it’s a somewhat combative interaction, then label how his behavior makes you feel. (“I feel X when you Y because Z.”) This removes the grounds for being argumentative—the other person can always argue with your interpretation of his behavior, but he can’t really argue with how it makes you feel!

This isn’t easy by the way. What do we tend to do instead? As Michael Grinder has joked, rather than “labeling the elephant”, we’d often rather “label the donkey”. We’d rather be dysfunctional. We’d love to play Persecutor and assign blame, look for who’s being “a dummy”, and invite others to gossip. It’s fun! We want to play Rescuer, saving Victims from their own inferior intellects! We want to play Victim, gaining “Woe Is Me” strokes. Remember, your ego wants to increase drama…just to satiate itself.

Instead of becoming a Persecutor looking for Victims, be a Challenger. Challenge the dynamic and shift everyone’s attention to a desired outcome. Instead of playing Rescuer, improve your Coaching ability, moving people from Victim to Creator, from being “at effect” to being “at cause”. Instead of playing Victim, realize your own power and responsibility.

This is doubly important if you’re a manager or executive. As Nate Regier says, leaders in drama create cultures of drama. And here’s a spoiler alert: As much as we like creating drama, people don’t actually like working in cultures of drama. But know it’s challenging. We’re all human, but if you can raise your self-awareness, then you can create space for yourself as well. When you spot yourself or others “labeling the donkey”, you can make a conscious choice not to participate.

So, what’s each sound like? Here’s an example. You’re meeting with John, who is on your team. In a team meeting earlier that day, your manager Sally didn’t handle something all that well.  

John: “Hey, how ‘bout that meeting this morning. That was crazy.”

You:    “I know, right? And what was up with Sally?”

John: “I don’t know! Maybe she’s just not cut out for this.”

You:    “Yeah. I wonder if she regrets becoming a manager.”

In this example, you’re “labeling the donkey”. You’re looking for someone who “screwed up”. Here, you accept an invitation to gossip, assign blame and pour gas on the match someone else lit. Now, below is the same open, but here how you respond is an example of “labeling the elephant”.

John: “Hey, how ‘bout that meeting this morning. That was crazy.”

You:    “What was crazy about it?”

John: “I don’t know. Sally sort of lost her cool.”

You:    “Happens to us all. You sounded pretty stressed yourself. How are things?”

Notice the difference in feeling. You cross the invitation to gossip, sidestepping it as it were. John tries a second time. You cross the second attempt and then label what you think John was feeling—and keep the focus there.

“Crossing”, by the way, is a technical term from Transactional Analysis. In this example, John wants you to join him in criticizing someone else. He wants the two of you to act like critical parents. In other words, what John wants is for you to match his ego state, to commiserate and give him strokes. By replying from Adult and not Critical Parent you “cross” the transaction, which means it will not continue. You threw in a monkey wrench and pivoted the conversation in a more fruitful direction.

So that’s it. It’s a choice. You play a facilitative role in every conversation, in every meeting. Do you want to focus on behaviors, feelings, and outcomes, or on identity labels, blame, and gossip? In the end, it’s like the old Cherokee story about the two wolves fighting inside you—the animal that wins is the one you feed more. Except this isn’t two wolves fighting. It’s an elephant and a donkey, or a jackass.

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