Chris Barbalis/Stocksnap.io
Source: Chris Barbalis/Stocksnap.io

Why is it so hard for us to listen to others with opposing points of view? What makes conflict so pervasive, painful, and difficult to resolve? And, what is it about we humans that makes us treat each other poorly?

Sadly, if given the opportunity to remove one species from the planet so the rest could live in relative peace, many of us would choose…well, us. We are conflicted within, struggling with stress-related physical and emotional problems; we are often in conflict with one another, individually and collectively; and, we are in conflict with the very planet we require for our survival. There is no simple answer to the questions posed above. However, today I want to share with you one of more powerful and obscure concepts in psychology, which may help in better understanding our challenges. It’s called The Drama Triangle:

Robert Maurer
Source: Robert Maurer

The Drama Triangle was developed by Dr. Steve Karpmann when he connected two important concepts. First, he noted that all cultures have stories and story tellers; second, he understood that all stories are invented and processed (heard, seen or read) in one organ of the body…the brain. Since storytelling is universal and it occurs exclusively in one part of the body, he surmised that there must surely be a biology to storytelling.

Dr. Karpmann believed that all stories fit into the diagram above. They have a persecutor (or villain), a rescuer (hero), and a victim – who often becomes the story’s hero. It seems impossible to tell a story without these components. Consider Star Wars, which began with Luke Skywalker (victim) and the Death Star that destroyed his family and home (villain). Luke and Hans Solo (rescuers) chase the villain and save the Princess (another victim-hero). Nearly every show on television and every political commercial demonstrates this triangle as well. In an effort to grab our attention, political ads usually begin by portraying the other candidate or party as a villain and you, the voter, a victim. The candidate is the hero…vote for me and I’ll rescue you.

There really is no other way to tell a good story. This is what makes conflict in our personal relationships so difficult. Imagine for a moment that you’ve had an argument with a close friend or lover. What position are you fighting for sole possession of? The victim of course! You want the other party to believe they have wronged (persecuted) you and to apologize or make things right (rescue the situation). The only problem is, what position is the other person fighting for sole possession of? The victim, of course. They are trying to persuade you that the situation is actually your - the villain’s - fault. As a result, no one is focused on repairing, resolving, or even understanding the other person’s point of view. Instead, both parties are trying to get the other to see the virtue and righteousness of their own position. There is no place for curiosity, open-ended questions, or compassion for another’s point of view within this triangle.

So, why are our brains organized this way? One possible reason harks back to our “hunter-gatherer” beginnings. We humans have spent much of our history roaming across the savanah in small tribes. As hunter-gatherers, when we encountered unfamiliar others, our brain’s first priority was survival. We had to assess whether the stranger was a potential friend (rescuer) or a foe (persecutor). A second possible origin is human emotion. If you and I are friends and I open up, sharing my secrets and regrets with you, my greatest fear is that you may judge, hurt, or betray me (persecutor), while my hope is that you will be understanding and accepting (a rescuer). In the past, a hard-wired drama triangle was probably essential to our survival as a species. It helped to keep us safe. However, in today’s world, the drama triangle is often limiting, keeping us from seeking to understand others and from taking responsibility for making a situation better, no matter who or what caused the problem.

To step outside the triangle when we are in conflict with others is possible, but clearly is not easy. Learning to be curious, as described in last month’s blog, and compassionate in the face of challenges is one of the hardest and most crucial skills for sustaining positive relationships and for our future as a species. In an upcoming blog, we will take a closer look at compassion, and identify strategies to enhance this actively in our own lives and others.

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