The drama triangle in diversity training
Updated: Feb 14
What if diversity training could be more than a guide to the do’s and don'ts of interacting with marginalised people?
A lot of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training focuses on providing information about the experiences of certain groups, and guidance on acting considerately towards members of those groups. I call this 'information-based DEI training'. I think it is necessary to share this kind of information. However, it is also vital to create a context in which the information can be taken on board by participants.
The worst example of information-based DEI training that I have personally experienced left me with only one impression: a phrase repeated several times by the trainer during the session:
"You have to be very, very careful what you say, or you might [...dramatic pause] offend people!"
I observed the wide, scared eyes of some of the participants by the end. Noone was brave enough to ask questions when given the opportunity. I'm pretty sure they left feeling less equipped than ever to interact with people they perceived as different from themselves.
I’m not convinced that this kind of instruction will make the world a more inclusive place. I think there’s a risk it will to do the opposite: increase polarisation.
I have noticed that information-based DEI training unintentionally plays on people’s insecurities. It hooks people who worry about making mistakes, as well as those who worry about hurting other people. It repels people who don’t like to be told what to think or who are worried they will suffer as a result of ‘positive discrimination’.
I find it useful to consider this in light of the drama triangle. The drama triangle (created by Stephen Karpman) is a model of human behaviour. It is typically used in psychotherapy to help people understand the roles they take in conflict situations.
Most of us tend to identify with one of these roles more than the others: we may feel comfortable assuming the role of rescuer at work or at home, or perhaps we see ourself as a victim, continuously at the receiving end of others’ bad behaviour (the victim does not refer to an actual victim but to the mentality of someone with a 'poor me' stance).
The problem with the drama triangle
The drama triangle is a codependent dynamic: each point of the triangle is reliant on the others to maintain itself. If the victim were effectively helped, there would be no need for a rescuer anymore. Likewise, a victim cannot claim to be victimised unless they can point the finger at a persecutor.
People who feel at home in one of these roles will, therefore, seek out or attract people who fulfil the other roles. The personal tragedy is that, if those identities feel safe to us (usually because they are familiar from early experiences), the drama triangle will keep playing out in our lives, even though noone objectively thinks it is good to be a victim.
The social tragedy is that the dynamics of the triangle tend to spiral, pulling more people into conflict with each other. Typically, both rescuer and victim feel justified playing persecutor in relation to their perceived persecutor, shifting the original persecutor into the victim role. New rescuers will be recruited for the original persecutor, who will turn on the original victim and rescuer, and so it goes on.
In my view, this played out in reaction to the #metoo movement: many 'average' men have come to sympathise with extreme 'men's rights' movements, because of the persecution aimed at men by some of the supporters of #metoo. Men feel victimised, so they feel justified in fighting back. Similarly, many 'ordinary' women have developed sympathy for the views of Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists, who have been the subject of vocal hatred by supporters of trans rights. Seeing the persecution of women who appear similar to them, they take sides, and positions are entrenched.
When so much energy is going into conflict, little is done to address the underlying issues.
How is this relevant to DEI at work?
In the face of systemic persecution of black people, trans people and other marginalised groups, it is not surprising that there is a strong urge to create rescuers: to train people how to protect those who are at risk of suffering.
After years of being in this field, I believe that relying on rescuers to champion victims' rights and condemn persecutors is counterproductive. The roles in the drama triangle dehumanise participants: we lose a belief in our own agency, and we lose a sense of the common human nature that we share across all divides.
The drama triangle played out in my experience as the trans lead and then chair of a workplace LGBTI+ network. While there was a tiny number of 'out' trans people among 1000s of colleagues, we had substantial asks of the company. Changing a system created for the majority of people who feel comfortable with the gender on their birth certificate to accomodate those who don’t is an expensive business.
I found it was very difficult to have an honest conversation about the pros and cons of creating gender neutral toilets, for example. It was easier for people, including me, to fall into the drama triangle and claim, as victims or rescuers, that this had to be done, to protect trans people from suffering. This put us in conflict with those who controlled the resources of the company, who we regarded as persecutors who didn’t care about trans suffering. Unsurprisingly, such discussions did not lead to satisfactory outcomes.
This is just one personal story. If you spend time getting beneath the surface of people’s views on diversity, equity and inclusion in their workplace, you are likely to find a range of strong feelings that fall somewhere on the drama triangle.
For instance, forced to attend information-based DEI training, people who resist being told what to think by their employer may well refuse to step into the rescuer role that is offered to them. Consequently, they may fear being labelled as persecutors, and may think of themselves as victims. This increases polarisation and unhappiness in the workplace.
What is the alternative to the drama triangle?
Luckily, wherever we find ourselves on the drama triangle, there is an alternative we can step into. My favourite model is the Empowerment Dynamic.
Anyone can shift from their typical drama mode into the corresponding empowerment role: if you are drawn to rescuing, try coaching. If you find yourself persecuting, how about constructively challenging? The most important transformation is that of victim to creator. However, even if someone continues to see themselves as a victim, it is open to those cast as ‘rescuers’ and ‘persecutors’ to refuse to continue the codependent spiral.
So, to return to my example of gender neutral toilets (believe me, thousands of hours have been devoted to this subject!): a coach might have supported me to find out the facts about the constraints on getting the facilities I wanted, and a challenger might have encouraged me to do something about those constraints.
The Empowerment Dynamic has its own virtuous spiral, pulling more people into taking an active role in creating what they want to see in the world. If one of the barriers to gender neutral toilets was that some people would be uncomfortable with that, then I could coach others into speaking up about that discomfort and what they might do about it.
Sooner or later, we will come up against systemic barriers to positive change which may take a lifetime or more to remove. But getting that far, and being able to identify those barriers, is a huge improvement on getting stuck in drama and conflict forever.
So how do people make that change?
Doing DEI training differently
There are many factors that can support a shift from drama to empowerment, and one of them is better diversity, equity and inclusion training. How can we provide training that empowers instead of polarises?
For me, the guiding question is: ‘What will support the participants to treat people in marginalised groups as fellow human beings, as potential creators and not victims?’
I have 3 keys in my training. They are:
Improving listening skills so that participants become better at hearing the experiences and needs of others.
Increasing self awareness so that participants gain understanding of their motivations and impact.
Creating a safer space for discussion so that there is room for complex responses, and doubts and confusion can be expressed and perhaps resolved.
As I said at the beginning of this post, I think it is important to educate each other about the experiences of marginalised people in the workplace, and highlight ways in which we can be better colleagues and friends. I hope I have convinced you that we need to do more than that in order to achieve lasting positive changes. If you have any reactions, please send me a message or post a comment!