Episode 75: How to Escape the Drama Triangle and Stop Rescuing People with Annie Hanekom
Being in a high-pressure workplace and working in professions where our jobs are to solve people’s problems unknowingly, many of us can assume the role of the ‘knight in shining armour’ and ride in to save the day. However, being ‘The Rescuer’ in every situation is problematic and might even cause more harm than good.
In this episode, Annie Hanekom joins us to shed light on the different roles which interact in the drama triangle. She shares the pitfalls of taking on each role and how we can actively shift from these roles into something better, fostering healthier relationships at work.
If you want to know more about how you can step out of the drama triangle, have better conversations and build healthier relationships with your colleagues, make sure you tune in to this episode.
Here are three reasons why you should listen to the full episode:
- Understand how the drama triangle can play out in the workplace and affect your interactions and relationships.
- Learn why the rescuer role is problematic for everybody — including the rescuer.
- Discover how you can step out of the rescuer role and have better conversations with your colleagues.
[04:28] Enneagram Type 2 or The Rescuer
- Annie is a Certified Enneagram Practitioner. She helps people in looking at their thinking process and diving deeper into what their motivations might be.
- In its simplest form, an Enneagram is a profiling tool.
- In Enneagram, there are different types of persons, and The Rescuer is one of them.
[06:09] The Rescuer in Its Truest Form
- Annie shares that in its truest form, Type 2s or Rescuers are motivated by the need to feel accepted, loved and included.
- Even though this does not appear at the surface why they help others, it’s still a present motivation.
[08:24] What Becomes Problematic in Being a Type 2
- Annie says that the problem does not come solely from the act of helping.
- The problem lies in the form and consequences of that help.
- Helping for too long might form resentment and impatience.
- Inherent to the term ‘The Rescuer’ is a sense of superiority for the person rescuing and inferiority in those being rescued.
- There’s no empowering narrative in this setup, and it does not allow a person to step up and help themselves.
[12:00] Understanding the Drama Triangle
- For Annie, the whole drama triangle and sliding between the roles of rescuer, victim and persecutor is a confusing slippery slope.
- Any team or team member can assume any role in this drama triangle.
- Many things can trigger these roles, like stress, pressure, extreme emotions, or personal struggles.
- It’s essential to recognise the dynamics of these roles inside our minds and realise that our behaviour is a reaction to the kind of role we assume or assigned to us.
[18:39] How to Recognise the Role You’re Taking
- Take a moment to breathe and have some self-reflection.
- People nowadays have back-to-back long meetings and forget to give time to themselves.
- Create pauses in your day-to-day schedule to give yourself some ‘me time’.
- By allowing yourself to pause, you’re giving yourself a new sense of clarity in the role you’re taking within the drama triangle.
[24:04] Pausing and Taking Control
- When we’re busy, we fall into default of assuming these roles.
- By giving yourself time to pause, you can choose to step out of these roles.
- Annie reminds everyone that all of these roles happen in our mental state, and as soon as we find peace in our minds, we can take control of what’s taking place there.
- Pausing may bring about shifts in your behaviour as well.
[27:32] Stepping Out of the Drama Triangle
- The first step is to acknowledge the role you’re assuming in the drama triangle.
- Accept the fact that addressing these roles will be uncomfortable.
- Look for other options and shift the roles. Instead of being a rescuer, you can be a coach to your colleagues.
- Taking the role of a coach means you’re providing support to your colleagues and helping them find different options that they could do in their situation.
[30:07] Taking the Coaching Approach
- In the coaching approach, you help someone sort out their problems and don’t take their problems as your own.
- You’re setting up a new dynamic in which you’re helping them develop new ways of addressing their problems.
- As you’re coaching them, you’re also shifting their mindset into a more positive one.
[33:27] Language and Shifting Roles
- The ‘Protagonists’ can sometimes feel villain-like but can shift into ‘Catalysts’.
- We can change our roles for the better by the language that we use.
- There are two main categories of language that we use: pain and power language.
- Actively use power language in your decisions to make a massive change in your mindset.
- Using power language is empowering. It puts you in a position of choice instead of taking on a role in the drama triangle.
[41:29] Shifting the Mindset in Tricky Situations
- There will be scenarios or situations where you can’t do anything.
- Annie believes that taking a pause will help tricky situations because it reminds you of your choices and what you have control over.
- Annie reminds everyone that we must refrain from assessing and doing a deep reflection when we are unhappy because it won’t do well.
[45:19] Getting into That Coach Role
- Asking about other people’s ideas before you give them advice is already enough for you to get into that coach role and step out of the role of being the rescuer.
- They’ll form a habit of asking themselves the option they already have rather than taking the role of the victim and waiting for other people to rescue them.
[47:20] Resilient Team Academy
- It is a resource that will help leaders get out of The Rescuer role and support their team properly without burning themselves out.
- There’s also a discussion about the drama triangle in the Resilient Team Academy.
- It equips leaders like you to handle pressure in the workplace and helps you make a habit of giving yourself time to pause.
[50:40] Annie’s Tips to Get Out of the Drama Triangle
- Acknowledge what you’re going through and pause to give yourself time to process things.
- Don’t beat yourself up. You have the power to choose what role you’ll take.
- Watch your language, and it will have an impact on yourself and your mindset.
- Before you give advice, ask the other person what they think.
7 Powerful Quotes from This Episode
[06:57, Annie] ‘Few things seem to exist in their purest form…As a type two, it’s often driven by a deeper motivation with such behind that, which is certainly for the type two. I obviously speak from lived experience of wanting to be accepted, wanting to be loved, wanting to be included, even though that might not be sitting at the forefront of diving in to help someone…’
[10:50, Annie] ‘And so inherent in the term rescuer, is, I’m stronger than you, and I’ll fix it, and you can’t do it. And so what it leaves potentially, is a sense of inequality and how this has happened.’
[16:37, Annie] ‘…We can’t sort of draw nice boundaries around it and expect ourselves to be very clear about our role. Life happens.’
[18:42, Annie] ‘But the classic answer, which is always so painfully simple, is finding a gap, finding a pause, finding a breathing space, taking a moment.’
[28:22, Annie] ‘And so actually, if you flip the triangle, actually, you can just shift those roles that we’ve just spoken about, into something else. And so that rescuer role can shift into a coach role…It’s really just about having a coaching approach, which really just means giving someone that you wanting to support..It’s really just lending in the air in many ways, and truly listening to what it is that they might have as a challenge on their side.’
[35:55, Annie] ‘And as the simplicity of this, and the power of this is that, power language has two options. I will or I choose.’
[50:54, Annie] ‘So it’s so easy to get defensive and wanting to make it someone else’s fault. And we do that. So naturally, it’s such a human thing that happens. Don’t beat yourself up, but do turn inward to go actually, what do I choose now, and really recognising that the choice that’s with you as frenetic as an external circumstance might be.’
Annie Hanekom is the Director of Proteus Leadership. She is also a Leadership and Team Facilitator, a coach and a Certified Enneagram Practitioner. She advises people about the various strategies a team can adapt to ensure development. Her personal goal is to help teams and individuals have clarity about how they operate.
Annie has already spent more than 16 years in the consulting and leadership development field. She is currently based in Cambridge, United Kingdom, where she coaches and advises teams to have better leadership skills and develop a better sense of self-awareness.
You can connect with Annie through LinkedIn, or you can send her a message directly at email@example.com.
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In today’s high-stress work environment, you may feel like a frog in boiling water. The pan has heated up so slowly that you didn’t notice the feeling of stress and overwhelm becoming the norm. You may feel that it is impossible to survive AND thrive in your work.
Frogs generally have only two options — stay and be boiled alive or jump out of the pan. Fortunately, you are not a frog. You have more options, choices and control than you think.
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Dr Rachel Morris: Question: when you think about your colleagues at work, do you consider them passive and needing help? Or as a persecutor, who just doesn’t know how difficult they make your job? Or as a hero and knight in shining armour, who you rely upon to rescue you? If the answer is yes to all three, you’re not alone. In any relationship dynamic, we can easily fall into the drama triangle, where we see people as either a helpless victim, and evil persecutor, or a heroic rescuer.
In healthcare and other high-stress organisations, with colleagues, clients or patients, all too often we can fall into the role of rescuer, which is exhausting for us and profoundly disempowering for others. The only answer is to step out of the drama, and take on another role.
In this episode, I’m joined by Annie Hanekom, executive and team coach and leadership development expert, to discuss how we can so easily take on one of these dysfunctional roles and how to get out. So listen if you want to know why the rescuer role is so problematic for everybody, if you want to know how to be less rescuer and more coach in your interactions with your colleagues, and why simply changing your language and using two simple phrases can dramatically change your mindset.
Welcome to You are Not a Frog, the podcast for GPs, doctors, and other busy professionals in high-stress jobs. Even before the coronavirus crisis, many of us were feeling stressed and one crisis away from not coping. We felt like frogs in boiling water overwhelmed and exhausted. But this has crept up on us slowly so we hardly noticed the extra long days becoming the norm. And let’s face it, frogs generally only have two choices, stay and be boiled alive or jump out of the pan and leave. But You are Not a Frog. And that’s where this podcast comes in. You have many more options than you think you do. It is possible to be master of your own destiny, and to craft your life so that you can thrive even in the most difficult of circumstances.
I’m your host, Dr Rachel Morris, GP turned executive coach and specialist in resilience at work. I work with doctors and other organisations all over the country to help professionals and their teams beat stress and take control of their work. I’ll be talking to friends, colleagues and experts, all who have an interesting take on this. So that together, we can take back control to survive and thrive in our work and lives.
I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted at the moment even though my job isn’t as physically demanding as it used to be. Staring at a screen all day and interacting mostly online is exhausting. But I’ve discovered some hacks that have drastically reduced my virtual fatigue. So I’ve created a Virtual Fatigue Buster Toolkit, which shares these tips, techniques and resources and useful links with you and even includes a three-minute video in short team building activity that you can use with your team to beat virtual fatigue. It’s available completely free to listeners. So click in the link in the show notes to get your free download. And while you’re at it, why don’t you get off your screen, get outside for a walk or move around in some way whilst you listen to this episode.
It’s really great to have with me on this episode of You are Not a Frog, Annie Hanekom. Now Annie is an executive and a team coach. She’s a leadership development expert. And she’s the co-host of our membership for busy leaders, the Resilient Team Academy. She’s also an Enneagram Two and a self-confessed-rescuer.
Annie Hanekom: I am, I am.
Rachel: It’s great to have you here. We’ve had a recent podcast episode called Passing the Naughty Monkey Back with Dr Amit Sharma, which has got hundreds and hundreds of listens, it’s been one of our most popular ever. And it’s really interesting, it was all about not leaving with other people’s burdens, being able to sort of pass that back and not taking on other people’s other people’s stuff that isn’t ours. And that’s one of the things that causes professionals in all sorts of organisations to get stressed and burnt out. So that was one of the reasons I thought it would be really good to have you on the podcast, to talk about this. Because I know you’ve been doing a lot of work in this area. And you’ve got a real deep understanding of it not just from your leadership development and team coach stuff, but also from the lens of the Enneagram, which we talked about on a previous episode. So first of all, when we say you’re an Enneagram Two, what do you mean by that?
Annie: So that really is just a lens at which to look at what our thinking process or deeper motivation might be. And so Enneagram is just a personality profiling tool at its very simplest form, but it really is around looking at, how are we motivated? What are we drawn to? What possible blind spots might be lurking, even when we know what type we are? Those can still emerge in what I would call your defence mechanisms. If something happens, you might have a reaction of some sort, and then we automatically default to a certain reaction. And so in Enneagram, Type Two being the considerate helper or the supporter or you know, there various different terms you might see in different schools of Enneagram. But it really is the classic rescuer, where it’s wanting to go in to help others, to support, to pick everything up for everyone else to make it better for them.
And of course, there are consequences to that. So how, what am I left with them? How am I feeling about the fact that I’ve actually picked stuff up for others, becomes a slightly more subconscious thing that starts to happen. And so with all types, whatever angle you’re looking at this from, it really is so interesting to think about, ‘where do I stand in this’? Because the element of rescuing is definitely familiar to all of us? We just come at it from a different point of view, I think.
Rachel: Yeah, I think it’s interesting because you know, when I hear about an Enneagram number Two being called the considerate help, I think, ‘Wow, that’s such a lovely thing to be’, you know, ‘you’re helping other people, you’re supporting people, you’re picking people up, that sounds very altruistic, it sounds like something we should all be aiming for perhaps’.
Annie: And so that’s such an interesting point, you’ll say considerate help with Enny Twos. In fact, I’ve worked with one recently, I was coaching her and she said, ‘What am I, a Christmas elf or something?’ It’s not always the term that people want. Again, it’s just a level right? But absolutely…. And so what you’ve picked up on there, Rachel, are almost the gifts that we all carry. And so there is this absolutely a beautiful aspect of being there to support others, being in service of, we talk about servant leadership all the time. How do we serve others in such a way that it really is serving the needs that you see out there, not by way of my own gain, or wanting to do this with some ulterior agenda? So absolutely, there’s beauty in that in its purest form.
But of course, as we all know, though few things seem to exist in their purest form, there’s always kind of an underlying narkiness or a message or something, or maybe there is even some form of agenda. It’s not often that we can really say we’re doing something in its truest form, even as a Type Two. It’s often driven by a deeper motivation with which behind that, which is certainly for the Type Two, and I obviously speak from lived experience of wanting to be accepted, wanting to be loved, wanting to be included. Even though that might not be sitting at the forefront of diving in to help someone, if you really dig down as to why one’s doing it, that is definitely a motivation that is present.
Rachel: Liked, accepted that sometimes. It’s just your job, right? And that’s, so it gets tricky. So I’m thinking, well, if you look at the job descriptions of most of us, and many of our colleagues, even as a team case, in a case, you’re there to help teams and you know, they are definitely trying to stay out of the whole doing it for them and stuff. But certainly as a doctor and you know, another healthcare professional or a lawyer or, you know, any of these high-stress professions, that is what we’re paid to do. We’re paid to help people. So is it the helping that’s wrong? Or is it the motivation that’s wrong? Or is that, is it the way that we’re doing it? that that becomes difficult, problematic?
Annie: Yeah. And that’s such an interesting topic. And I would go, yes. There’s elements of all of those, right? Because it does depend on where you come from. But I guess it’s that latter one, mostly, of how are we doing it? And therefore, what’s the consequence of it? And so, for instance, you know, if we just stick them to for a moment, and you know, I might be going in to help, I’m rescuing, I’m really being there in service of someone. And yet, if that carries on for too long, if I’m doing too much of that, I start to build up some form of resentment. What about me?
Suddenly, I’ve got all these questions around: ‘Well, hang on, you know, what is the impact of me? Isn’t anyone seeing me?’ And then that, as you can well imagine, starts to have its own consequences. Where there’s resentment that builds up, there’s a shortness, there’s an impatience that might build up. Now if you look just to, literally for poor old Enneagram, to unload for the moment and look at, there might be types, and I won’t necessarily speak into specific types here, but some might be helping because it’s the right thing to do. Then, Rachel, you almost touched on that there, you know, the strict perfectionist might be going well, I’m paid to do it. It’s the right thing to do. And so therefore, I will do it, and certainly are not doing it for love or appreciation or being included. They’ve been paid, and it’s expected of them. And so they will do it with no questions asked.
Other types might come in and step into rescuer because they just see it’s all falling apart and you can’t have things that are falling apart. Though actually, I’ll be the, I would imagine part of the narrative might be the knight in shining armour. Look at me. I’m going to save the day. I’m going to come fix all these pieces, because everyone around here is just not able to do that clearly. And so that’s up to me. And there’s very different narratives sitting underneath that motivation that might come in about: ‘I need to be strong. I’ll bring in a safe pair of hands. Don’t you worry, I’ve got this’.
Rachel: That’s interesting. So there’s lots of different motivations behind being the rescuer. But fundamentally, what is the problem of being a rescuer? Why do we talk about it like it’s not so good?
Annie: And again, it’s such a great question. Because there’s—it’s a complex answer there. Right? It’s, there’s no one straightforward answer.
Supporting someone, being in service of their needs, is absolutely what we want to be doing. The challenge comes, and I think you alluded to this earlier Rachel, in how we do it. And so inherent in the term ‘rescuer’, is ‘I’m stronger than you and ‘I’ll fix it’ and ‘You can’t do it’.
And so what it leaves potentially, is a sense of inequality in how this has happened. And so I’m coming from a point of being able to do something that you can’t. There’s no empowering narrative in that; there’s no empowering language in that. And so on both ends of the rescuer being the one who’s saving the day, and the person being rescued, is seen therefore, almost as a victim to, ‘Well you couldn’t help yourself, let me do that for you’. And again, with different angles coming in, that is still part of the narrative that sits there. And that’s problematic if we really wanted people to think for themselves, after themselves, step up, and to have equality in how we are leading others. Certainly, there might be hierarchical relationship in terms of someone managing someone else. But that certainly doesn’t mean that the empowerment needs to bring about some form of inequality where someone can’t step up and help themselves.
Rachel: Yeah. And so what we’re starting to talk about is that dynamic that you get into where you have a rescuer. And then in order to have a rescuer, you’ve got to have someone who is the victim, who is completely helpless that needs to be rescued by the rescuer, who is a knight in shining armour, a complete hero. But in order for that to happen, what do you, what else do you need? You need a persecutor don’t you? You need someone who is causing the problems. And then you’ve got the classic drama triangle that Steven Cartman talked about in the 1960s. I think a little bit of background for those of you that not heard about the drama triangle before. Steven Cartman was Eric Bernstein. Eric Berne wrote the book Games People Play. Eric Berne was the father of transactional analysis, which is all to do with adult-to-adult adult-to-child, parents-to-child interactions. And a lot of us would have learned about that when we learn to consult or see clients, things like that.
For me, the drama triangle is one of the most powerful shapes that we talk about in any of the sort of resilience training that I do with teams, particularly for managers. Because the minute you start to talk about the dynamic and you talk to describe what goes on and he talks, start to talk about the rescuer, you can just see the light bulb going off in people’s head go, ‘Oh, yes. Oh, yes, that’s me’. Particularly when you sort of describe a dynamic of, so a manager with a team, and the team are overloaded with work and having a bad time. So the team comes to the manager, as the rescuer says, ‘Will you do this for me?’ And the manager goes, ‘Yes, of course I will. Because I’m a good manager. That’s my job. I’ll do it’. And then, one by one, more people come to them and say, ‘Well, will you do this? Will you do this?’ As soon the manager is just overwhelmed with work, and she stops being able to do everything for the rest of the team who are seeing themselves as victims. But because she can’t do anything to help anymore, the victims keep demanding that she helps. And so, how does the rescuer feel? They don’t feel like a rescuer anymore? They’ve gone straight into victim, they feel like the victim now, and they feel like the team have become their persecutor almost. And then if the manager can’t get the team members what the team members need, the team if they will, they’re the persecutor now because ‘They’re being a bad manager, blah, blah, blah’. And I see this happening time and time again, in organisations where teams or staff expect certain people to sort things out for them. And if they can’t sort them out, they’re suddenly into being put in the persecutor rather than the rescuer role.
And it’s just a very demoralised, demoralising place to be because the person who has been cast now as a persecutor never feels like the persecutor. They end up feeling like the victim. They’re like, ‘I was just trying to help’, but I just think back to the time when with patients, I just thought to myself, ‘I was only trying to help’, or with colleagues, ‘I was only trying to help’, and then oh, gosh, then you just keep moving around the drama triangle. I don’t know. Is that an accurate depiction of what can happen in some organisations?
Annie: Yeah, absolutely. And that sliding between roles is just—it’s such a slippery slope, because as you talk there, one almost loses track of where someone’s at and where someone’s going, and who’s where, and. And you can see how—what happens then is that the line of communication gets confused. Because now, ‘Are you the bad guy here, or I wonder, you were helping me. But now you’re being an ass. So what’s going on now? Because you’ve got all cross’. Am I—where do I stand? And you can see the confusion, and then ourselves! We go, ‘Oh, yes, actually, I did offer to help. But then it all got quite confusing’. And so the problem is that this is a mental space, it can happen quite quickly, it can happen, you can take up three roles in one conversation, it can happen slowly over time. And so this is something that you see in micro versions are happening quite quickly in a conversation, but you can see it play out in almost the lifecycle of a team. It might be a newly formed team; it might be a team under pressure because a new project landed. There’s no one way of how it happens.
But also, what we need to be clear of is, things can trigger it as well. So I’ve got lots going on at home. And I might have had a really funny conversation with my partner this morning. And then I had a bad trip into the office in the days we used to do that, or we used to, or at least dropping the kids at school and something went wrong. And then I had some bad news about something else. And now I come into a team engagement, that’s all there, right? And it’s playing, it’s playing into this situation. So we can’t sort of draw nice boundaries around it and expect ourselves to be very clear about our role. Life happens. And so what’s so interesting in this space, Rachel, because I think what you outline there is such a classic scenario in many different interactions, where we you know, even in our friendships, I think that you know, particularly as women, dare I say, that I just think about how emotions play a much bigger role in my relationships that I think, they used to when I was, I think, times when I’ve been stable, but then I, you know, it depends what I’m dealing and I can find, I can stir up in emotion. And suddenly that triangles at play again, and I’m really struggling with some of that for myself.
My husband can be much more rational than me, except there are times, I’m glad you’re not stopping to think how you might be coming across. And so you know, then we get into the gender debate. And so you can throw in all sorts of dynamics here. The point is that actually, what we want to do is just recognise it, I think what’s so important here is just to recognise that these roles we take up, these protagonists that we might be playing, or these roles we assigned to someone else existed in our mind. And yet we start to behave in reaction to them. And that’s where the, to come again, to your question about, ‘Well, what’s the problem with all of this?’ It’s when we start to behave in reaction to where we are mentally going with something. And so that place I think he can well appreciate, can start to create all sorts of dynamics that are not useful, personally, in our teams, or in our organisations.
Rachel: So presumably, one of the first ways of sort of escaping the drama triangle is, trying to get out of this and say, ‘Well, we aren’t going somewhere with this, folks, we will, we won’t leave you hanging as rescuers and victims, we’re going to talk about how you can get out of this’. One of them is actually recognising you’re in it in the first place, and what role you’re taking, how can people do that?
Annie: Yeah, and so again, this is gonna differ for different people. But the classic answer, which is always so painfully simple, is finding a gap, finding a pause, finding a breathing space, taking a moment. Actually what I’m seeing now and again, Rachel I know you’re seeing a lot of this as well, is the back, when you know, back to back meetings used to mean something. Now, they literally are, you’ve got no-seconds break, meetings overrunning, it’s one Zoom to the next Zoom. So you literally are getting no space to even breathe between meetings, there’s way more of this restless back-to-back-ness. So the pause is just absent so often.
Certainly, one of my quick hacks for people has been, actually if you’ve got meetings in your diary, I bet many people have a default of an hour-long meeting, is to catch yourself and to go, I wonder if I could cover what I needed to cover in 15 minutes. And then I’ve got a 10 minute break. The challenge with doing 30-minute meetings is you’re just gonna fill the other 30 with another with another meeting. So a 30-minute meeting should be a 25-minute meeting. No one’s gonna steal those five minutes from you. It’s create, you see, we’ve got to work quite hard at creating the pauses that sometimes there’s the mechanic of actually having shorter meetings and then using—valuing those 10 minutes. So those five minutes for what you’ve put them there for, not to say, ‘Oh, I’ve got five minutes to check my email, let me quickly do that and check my messages’, and do a whole lot of stuff and be late for the next meeting. So recognising and valuing what those 10 minutes are for, to pause, to stop, and go.
How do I go in that meeting? How am I operating? What am I carrying with me? What is something I need to catch myself in? And how do I want to show up for my next meeting, my next engagement. Just to self-observe.
Rachel: That’s so important. So I’m thinking here, throughout the whole of the pandemic, I’ve been running late to the podcast, webinars and everything on well-being, right? Telling people to take breaks, and not just it’s not just about meetings, but if you’re seeing clients or patients, you know, people have got patients, then they literally just got a list on the screen of people they’ve got to call, and there are no natural breaks in that. Whereas before, you’d have a natural lunch break or whatever. But I’d been talking about the importance of scheduling your breaks and deciding what you’re going to do with those breaks.
But there’s that—it’s not just well-being, is it? It’s not just for well-being, it’s for reflection to think ‘Okay, how am I myself? Am I in any of these funny roles? Where’s the pause button? What stories are going on in my head about this’? So yeah, it’s so important. It’s just dawning on me now that breaks are to do with more than just getting your sugar levels up and going to the loo and rehydrating. They are also about mental decluttering and housekeeping.
Annie: And actually, right, I’ve got a feeling Rachel, you’re going to have some of the neuroscience behind this. But I’m just going to give you a lovely example. As you said, sometimes we just need to even out. You’re stopping and you’re thinking you’re going, really, there’s value in this. I was building a puzzle with my family, quite recently. And I thought I was being very clever, doing a beautiful photograph we have that has sky, mountain, sea, and sand. And then my little family, you know, they’re quite small in the picture, I want to challenge any of you to build a puzzle that’s got sand, sea, sky, it’s just so hard. So I was getting in such a muddle. And I was, you can imagine mentally I was like, ‘Oh, this is so hard’. And I’m gonna persevere, I’m going to persevere. And I kept going at it. And the doorbell went and I went to go, and it was a delivery. And I, literally, it took me probably a minute? I walked out the door, got the delivery, ‘thanks very much’, put it down, closed the door, walked back to the puzzle. And within a minute, I placed three pieces, which previously I know it would have taken me 20 minutes to be able to place three pieces.
And so aside from anything else, there’s something about clarity, reprogramming, being able to see a challenge with fresh eyes, that comes with a pause.
Rachel: I mean, yes, there is loads of neuroscience behind it. One is when you’re focusing on a task you’re in, you’re in focus mode, you’re in your task-positive network, where your brainwaves are very linear, and you’re really sort of focusing on something. And then when you’re in a break mode, you go into your diffuse mode. So your brain starts connecting across hemispheres. And it starts to sort of be creative and stuff. This is completely subconsciously, you’re probably not thinking about anything. But this I think, in your diffuse mode, is where you’ll suddenly get the word ‘rescuer’ or ‘victim’ just travel across your consciousness, you get, ‘Oh, that’s what just happened with that patient. I was just with or with that client, I was just with, Oh, my gosh, I felt like a victim because they were giving me some difficult feedback, or I was in rescuer, as I was saying, ‘What can I do to you know’, and it’s about clarity.
I guess sometimes also, it’s about thinking, I feel a bit stuck in this situation. Is there an element of the drama triangle in, so almost just having a triangle or something stuck to your computer going, ‘Oh, where am I? Am I in this? Am I in this?’ And I think this is one of those models, actually just awareness of it can be really mindset shifting in itself content.
Annie: Absolutely. And and and as you know, you’ve just indicated when we’re so busy, there’s so much going on, we kind of default into these roles. And by having it visible, by having it there to question yourself, it’s, you suddenly realise the point of choice. Because you can choose to step out of that. Because again, it’s a mental state of, there’s no real rescuer, there’s no real knight on Shining Armor, that we’ve mentally taken that on. And so we can mentally drop that as well. And so, again, to reiterate, because as soon as we’ve taken that on the behaviour to support it comes with it. But as soon as we choose not to operate in that way, different behaviour can emerge.
Just to say, I’ am feeling quite cross’. There’s something here about you know, I’ve taken too much on, but actually, if I really sit to think about that, I’m trying to blame my team when actually, actually I’m the one who offered, I’m the one who took it all on. So what do I do about that? And so we start addressing A) the things we can control, because actually I had control of that. And so what do I need to do about that? But also we can get really honest with ourselves. It’s much harder to be honest with yourself when you’re busy and you keep going and ‘Look at me, I’m so busy, I’m doing stuff’.
So sometimes what we need to catch in ourselves is, we don’t pause, because it might be slightly uncomfortable, not nice realising that ‘Actually, I’ve only got myself to blame here. What do I need to do about that?’ That’s sometimes just not from where we want to go. And so recognising that a little bit of discomfort might come with the pause, it’s not a big ‘Kumbaya. This is amazing. I’ve got revelations Now, I’m gonna do everything perfectly’. Actually, it can bring some real gritty thought and shifts in behaviour that are necessary.
Rachel: When you’re talking about discomfort as well, thinking, whenever I’ve reflected on you know, what role am I in the drama triangle? I’m always a rescuer or a victim. I’m never the persecutor. Because I’m great. I am. I’m never a persecutor. That is, I came across this quote, ‘the villain plays the victim so well’, I think if you are feeling like a victim, start thinking to yourself, you know, ‘Could I be seen as the persecutor in this’? Because often you just feel like, ‘Why can’t they just do their job? Honestly, I’ve just taught them to do this. And they’re not doing that’. Actually, am I in that persecutor role as opposed to victim, and that is really uncomfortable to think that other people could be seeing us as the persecutor.
So I think we can, I think—gosh, I mean, when I’m thinking back to all the different roles I have done, and the way one just moves around between it in various different situations, whether it is with patients, or clients or colleagues, or bosses or families or children, all those sorts of things.
So right, here’s the 100 billion dollar question. What do you do about it? How do you get out of it? Because we thought we’ve already recognised that it’s not a great place to be, particularly as a rescuer, which I think most of us and most of the listeners to this podcast are probably sitting there identifying largely as a rescuer. Because I think a lot of professionals, that is our role. That is our job. Pretty much the job description help sort people out. But a lot of people in positions of leadership, they have teams, or positions of responsibility, or seeing patients or clients that are just completely relying on them. So how do we step out of it? What do we do instead of being a rescuer or a victim or a persecutor?
Anne: Yeah, and so that’s the you know, that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? And so, just to reiterate, the first step is to recognise it, to start, right? We need to just go, ‘Oof, I’m here’. And to be open to the fact that it might not be all that comfortable, that we do need to acknowledge that actually, the path through, is often through a little bit of bristle and discomfort, and, and then to go, ‘Well, what are my other options? So I think it’s easy enough to go, oh, that wasn’t great. I don’t really want to operate in this way’. But then without another option, it can feel a little bit like ‘No, I’m in no man’s land, because now what do I do about the fact that actually I haven’t been operating optimally.
And so actually, if you flip the triangle, actually, you can just shift those roles that we’ve just spoken about, into something else. And so that rescuer role can shift into a coach role. So I’ve talked there about empowering and about allowing other people to step up and to have a response to you rather than just being helped by someone. And so if you shift into the coach role, and many of us, being a coach, this is not about being an accredited coach, you got to now go off and do that. It’s really just about having a coaching approach, which really just means giving someone that you’re wanting to support, you realise that where you might have stepped in as a rescuer, you go, ‘Well, what if I was to offer support by way of helping them think through how this could look different? What options do they have available to them? How might they be thinking about this?’ It’s really just lending an ear in many ways, and truly listening to what it is that they might have as a challenge on their side. Does that make sense, Rachel, just as a…
Rachel: I just thinking so practically, if you had a team member and and I’ve had this in a coaching situation recently, this manager was saying to me, he was saying two members of his team really didn’t get on. And so one of them would come to him and he would then have to go to the other one and sort it out constantly. So for him, that would mean rather than saying to the one who’s feeling like a real victim, ‘Yeah, okay, I’ll sort that out for you. I’ll go and have that conversation’. It would be him saying, ‘Right, okay’. How could you have that conversation with that other person? What do you need to think through before you do it, what do you think they respond well to all those sorts of things? So it’s helping them solve their own problems, rather than just doing it for them.
Annie: So by taking on that role of being—having a coaching approach, asking questions, seeing what options might be available to them, rather than diving in and taking it on saying your, and literally taking on whatever challenge, issue, workload, there might be, of just being with them in it and going well, what options do they see? What’s the view from their perspective? What might they have as options to them to address whatever challenge they might be facing? You’ve automatically set up a new dynamic.
And so what might become an option for them and their role of maybe feeling more like the victim and feeling like they’ve got the world on their shoulders, is being more of an activator. So they actually go, ‘Well, actually, what could I do about this? How could I get a different result? What are the other options’? You can see that that’s, again, it’s a mindset right? Just as victim was, ‘Oh, it’s all on me. It’s the world on my shoulders’, you know, ‘poor me’, that actually can shift to, ‘Oh, I have options here. What can I do about this? What could I activate so that I could have a different outcome here?’ And so starting to get someone to think differently, and then of course, we’re going to behave in different ways.
Rachel: And I love that it’s not dependent on the victim thinking, ‘I’ve got to change this’. It’s dependent on how you, as the coach, and now seeing victim not as someone who’s completely helpless and useless and can’t do anything themselves, but someone who’s got a lot of potential to solve their own problems.
Annie: So as soon as I’m going, ‘I’m not trying to help them because they can’t help themselves. I’m supporting them, because they can help themselves’. And so then emerges the activator, who goes, ‘Oh, great, I can help myself, what do I need to do about that?’ And that’s suddenly, they’re stepping into you supporting them into shifting themselves into a mindset of ‘I’ve got this. I’ve got this. I really can make something look quite different’. It might be handing off my workload to somewhere else, someone else, but it’s done in a different way. And so again, I think that’s going back to your initial piece, Rachel, is around, how am I going about this? How is someone handing off their work?
Are they doing it from a point of helplessness? Are they doing it, you know, victim? Are they doing it from a point of, ‘Actually, I’m going to activate something here, because how does this set up is not working for me right now, how best do I do that that’s useful for everyone?’
Rachel: Yeah, and getting someone to, or have, sorry, supporting somebody to act in a role of activator as opposed to victim is really good for them. Because we know that if you solve your own problems, you’re much more likely to have a good solution. If you make a decision to do something yourself, you’re much much more likely to do it. I’m just thinking in the sort of the doctor-patient dynamic, where some patients that don’t have a huge amount of resources. And you do need to do quite a lot more than that actually, even just putting the ball back in the court. And this is very similar to what we were talking about on the Naughty Monkey episode, you know, saying to them, ‘What are you going to do next to help yourself? What are your top three things that you want to do?’ Or even, ‘What do you want? What’s the most important thing that you’d like to achieve from the medication or something like that?’ So they’re just a bit more empowered to take responsibility for themselves?
Annie: Absolutely. And so just to sort of close the triangle, obviously, the protagonists, which can feel villain-like and really as an unfavourable character, that we can switch to catalyst. They’re really just looking at what does the catalyst need to be in really shifting this given that I could play various roles on the triangle if I start shifting into, ‘Actually, yeah, I just need this to happen. How can I be a catalyst?’ Which has got a coach like quality to it. So those two are not far apart? But what I just want to pick up on Rachel, what, that really, you had a, you started saying, How can I help and then you shifted your word to support. And what I want to pick up on there is how important language is. Just our own language, our own speaker, ‘I’ve got to go and help one of my team’. Do you? Do you need to support someone in your team? To be, just to use the language you were using there. But Susan Jeffers wrote a book called Feel the Fear… and Do It Anyway. And she’s—it’s the only place I’ve seen this example. And it’s actually wonderful and powerful thinking to bring particularly when we’re thinking about shifting how we are thinking about our role in something is the language that we use, or the language we encourage for others. So what Susan Jeffers talks about is you either have pain language, or you have power language. And it’s very interesting to note that most of our language falls into pain language: ‘I ought to, I must, I should, I can’t, I have to, I wish I could, if I could, I’ll aim to, I’ll try’. All of those ways of saying things. And we said almost apologetically, we don’t want to over promise. And so that’s where some of it comes from.
And yet, it’s always got an option out, because actually, the word she uses is victim. ‘So I’m the victim here’, ‘I wish I could’, ‘I wish I could, but I can’t’, ‘I’ll try to do that. But I can’t’. There’s an inherent victim-y-ness in it. So victimhood.
What we want to be very clear about is actually if we can shift our language, we can actually start to mentally—because remember, again, this is all in our mental make-up. If we can mentally shift out of that, you can actually do that purely by the language that you use. And as the simplicity of this, and the power of this is that power language has two options. ‘I will’, or ‘I choose’. And that’s it. There’s nothing else in there. You could say I will not is an option, but I will, I will not, and I choose.
And so, a classic example, when I’ve got good rapport with people in a training room, and someone says, ‘Oh, sorry, I’ve got to leave. I have to fetch my kid from school., And I’m like, ‘Do you have to?’ ‘Oh, yeah, I have to’. ‘What would happen if you didn’t over there’? ‘They’d be sitting outside on those steps. They’d be—you know, it’s cold today. They’d be sitting’. ‘Yeah, but you don’t have to’. ‘Well, no, I do have to’. ‘Who’s making you do that’? And people suddenly start to unravel. If you’ve done this work, they realise, ‘I’m choosing to fetch my child and I will be late there, so I’m leaving the session early’. I’m like, ‘Great! Good to go’. But choose that you’re going to fetch your child. And be clear about that. Because otherwise, there’s inherent apology of victimhood, even in going to fetch your child after school.
And so it’s a nuanced difference. But it’s massive when it comes to mindset. So if I could invite any of the listeners here, just to think about what language do I use day to day, and start to notice that it’s rarely self empowering, when I can start to say, ‘Hey, I’m choosing to leave the session early as I have a commitment or prior commitment I’ve made. Thank you so much for your time, I’ve got so much promise, thank you’. And no one’s taken any offence. But we have this inbuilt apology, or ‘I’m sorry, it’s not my fault. Like I can’t help it, but I’ve got to go’. You’re a victim.
And so we just want to catch ourselves in our language is such a powerful way to really start with the mindset of ‘I choose. Coaches choose. And catalysts choose, activators choose to do things a different way.
Rachel: That’s really important, isn’t it. And using that language helps you put things squarely in your zone of power. Because I, we talk a lot about the zone of power, essentially, that’s just a circle drawn on a big bit of paper, the circle being things you’re in control of, and then stuff outside the circle being everything that you’re not in control of. If you think ‘I have to leave’, you’re saying ‘I’m not in control of me leaving, someone else has said I’ve got to, it’s out of my control’. That’s not right, it’s not out of your control, what time you leave, it’s well within your control what time you leave. What’s in your control is when you choose to leave. You can leave now, or you can leave later and miss your kid. But that is absolutely in your sign of power. When you’re saying ‘I have to, I must, I ought to’, you’re trying to put it in someone else’s control. And actually it’s not, it’s in your control. And I think that is the thing that helps people get unstuck the most, in terms of when we’re coaching if they are feeling like a victim.
And if you do catch yourself in a slight victim mentality, which I do several times a day, ‘I have to cook dinner, I have to do this’, actually, I don’t have to. That’s, it’s under my control whether I do or not. And if I choose not to, I might get some hungry winching kids, but I could choose to ask somebody else to cook. And then suddenly, stuff that I can control that. And I’m much more of an activator than a victim that everything else is happening to.
Annie: Absolutely and as you were talking there, Rachel, it became so clear: ‘I have to fetch my kid’. Oh, who’s the persecutor here? Oh, it’s a school and the headmistress said that whoever head teacher have to cook my kids dinner. By nature of saying that, you know who are the nasties here. Yeah, well, my kids because I have to do it for them. And so you can see how I’ve made someone else, that blaming them, they take up a role on my drama triangle which they have even asked for. They’re not even in the room and yet, now you can see how the engagement with someone might be under pressure or strain purely because I’ve put myself in the victim position.
And so it’s very powerful once we start to recognise that, and quite simply put ourselves into a point of choice. Which again, a mechanism is the language that we choose to use, it’s so empowering to use that language. And again, I’ll take you back to the discomfort that might create. ‘I am choosing to make dinner, even though I don’t feel like it. I’m choosing it because the consequence of not doing it—I’d rather have the discomfort of doing it now. But that all goes in my zone of power, my zone of control. And I’m good with that’. And then you can move forward, having made that decision and be—almost want to say, be clean in it. ‘I have made my choice, I’m owning it fully, might not be exactly what I want to do. Now, I’d much rather have a glass of wine with my mate. But actually, I’ve chosen this. And so I won’t be doing that, I will be doing this, I’ll schedule that for another time’.
Rachel: So Annie, what I’m wondering is how does this work if you really do feel you have no choice there? I’m thinking of a GP who’s just finished their surgery, it’s half six, and they’ve got another two hours of admin to do before, and then they’ve got another surgery starting at eight o’clock the next morning, and you’re just sitting there thinking, I have to do this admin now. I’ve got urgent stuff that needs to be done. How does one shift the mindset in those sorts of situations?
Annie: So that’s a tricky one, right? And absolutely, we all have scenarios or situations that we’re in that we absolutely can’t do anything about. And so it really is, then I’d still come back to, there’s a moment of choice you want to get to, to say ‘I’ve chosen this profession, warts and all. We’ve chosen to have children, warts and all’. Or, ‘I’ve chosen this path and with it comes some of the things that are not amazing. There’re very few things that we do in life where they are amazing from beginning to end. And there’s no aspect of that, that we just go, ‘I’d rather not have that part’. And yet it comes it’s the full parcel. And so what is useful then is to again, try and find be it a minute or two of just a pause. Get that, I was at the crossing hemispheres Rachel of just getting some different level of thinking.
And the pause that’s different for different people, be it a breath of, deep breathing exercise, theatre, a short moment of just stillness, spirit, a walk around the block, theatre, grab a cup of coffee, just recollect myself and to go, ‘Wow, these next two hours are gonna feel tough. I chose this profession, this is where I am right now. And sometimes we’ve got to grit our teeth and get through them’. It might be that if we’re having so many of those moments, that we then start to recognise that, at some point, be that the weekend, when we have a day off, or we’re able to find space of leave, reassess, and go, ‘Crikey, I’m having a lot of these moments. Am I in the right job? Am I in the right profession? Am I in the right relationship? Am I in the right you know’, so I’m not saying shut your eyes and keep going because everything will be okay in the end.
Absolutely. There are unnecessarily times for deep reflection and reassessing and course correcting where we need to what we don’t want to do is do that in a moment of unhappiness or discomfort because A) again we come back to you probably won’t do it well, even if it means you need to not be in that line of work or in that time slot, maybe. Actually that’s the shift for you that doesn’t work. You need to always try and do work earlier in the day, that’s when you’re at your best. Whatever it might be or what options there are to you is to then take that step back and go, ‘I’m here now I need to get this done. But actually I’m gonna take a moment to go, ‘Is there a way I can avoid getting to this point so often? What are my options here?’’ And maybe bouncing that off someone depending on what’s going to work best for you.
Rachel: Yeah, I certainly experienced that with either myself when I have too much work to fit in the side or some people have been coaching where they then they’ve got too much they thought, ‘Actually I choose to do some of this work on my day off but I’ve chosen to do it there, I’m gonna make it nice with a lovely cup of tea and a beautiful cake and stuff and I’ve chosen to’, then and it feels so much better than feeling forced to do it another time when they when they really didn’t want to. So it’s like you said, it’s the ‘What am I choosing here?’ I think so that’s interesting about you know, how we get out of the victim and in terms of rescuer, I mean, I’ve done this work a lot with with practice managers and they are, well they are people that believe me is every 30 seconds people come through their door and say ‘I need to do this, what can you sort this out with me? Can you sort this out’? And for some of them just learning to stop and say, ‘I’ve got some thoughts. But what do you think? What have you done? What solutions have you got? Have you got any suggestions?’ Just saying just ask them what the other people would do, what options they’ve got before you give your bit of advice is enough just to get into that coach role rather than stay in rescuer?
Annie: Absolutely. And in fact, you start to—certainly, if you’re working with a team, or I’ve even seen it in some instances with my children, they just know that they’re gonna ask for how to do something. And variably, it’s going to come with, ‘what have you thought of so far? Or what options do you have available to you’. Whatever the appropriate sort of question would be for the, for those people in your team, or those people that you interact with most, they start to get into bed and go, ‘Oh, I know exactly what they’re going to say, they’re going to ask me what I’ve thought. So let me think what I’ve thought’.
Sometimes they’ll stall, sometimes don’t become of a very different tone of ‘I’m considering these two options’. And now it’s a different issue, they’re coming to you with, not ‘Help! Don’t know what to do, make it all better!’ But ‘I’ve thought of these, but I’m not sure which would be the best one’, or ‘I thought of these and now I’m stuck. Because I’m not sure that this is the right solution here’. There might still be a question within that of go and things—or it might then be helping them grapple an issue, which is slightly different to ‘They don’t know what they’re doing, I have to come in and save the day’.
So it is around starting to create habits, which take time, right? They’re not gonna happen overnight, but starting to create habits with your team and with those that you interact with, where they starting to go, ‘Oh, actually, what might I do here?’ or ‘How could this look different? What are my own thoughts on this?
Rachel: Annie, in a minute, I’m gonna time as needed, gonna ask you for your three top tips for how to get out of the drama triangle when you find yourself in it. But I thought it might just be good to mention some resources that we’ve got available for the teens, for leaders, for managers, whether you’re in healthcare, or whether you work in another organisation, that sort of high-stress environments. And you, maybe feeling you’re rescuing your team, but you’re really worried about the well-being of your team members. You want people to be resilient, have better conversations, but you’re not quite sure how to go about it.
Annie and I run a membership called the Resilient Team Academy, and that is for leaders who want to be able to get out of rescuer, really. Who want to be able to be more coach, have better conversations, and support their teams without burning out themselves. I think the one thing in COVID that we did see was that managers were running around like headless chickens, and feeling exhausted worrying about their teams. And often they had a day job, they were delivering surgeries or client-facing stuff themselves. But also they had to look after their team. So we’ve created a series of resources using some of the shapes we’re talking about. The drama triangle is one of them.
And we are running a membership, which consists of a webinar every month as a deep dive into one of these issues. And you can join that live or listen to a recording or an audio. We also provide some team building activities which come with a three-minute bite-size video, and an activity to do with teams just to help build trust, explore some of this. And there’s also seven core content modules available when you join the membership, teaching you all about the different shapes such as the drama triangle, the zone of power, the prioritisation grid, and how you can use those with your team. So we provide handouts and worksheets for one-to-one conversations. Plus, we have coaching demonstrations, and lots of other bonus resources in there as well. So it’s really for you, if you’d like some help and support for you, as a leader, to support your teams. And how else might leaders benefit from it Annie?
Annie: Well actually as you were talking there, he was thinking and this is what we’ve seen is actually just inherent in taking the time to reflect and focus on some of those great things you’ve talked about, is the pause. And so I’ve talked about before, sometimes it’s a very short minute or two, but actually, there’s just, it’s taking that time to just give back to yourself is very hard now. And that’s what I’m seeing so much of at the moment. And we talk about avoiding burnout. Actually one of the steps towards that is really just that step back, it’s the breathe out. It’s the check back in with self, but in a space that’s not fraught and frenetic and having anyone expecting anything of you, that if you to kind of map your own path.
The challenge we face is that if you know if we don’t take control of our own time, someone else will. And then we default all sorts of tricky ways in which we just start behaving because actually, it just becomes challenging and we’re not getting to pause to think, ‘What is the best route forward now?’
Rachel: Right? So if you’re interested in that, then do click on the link in the show notes, it’s called the Resilient Team Academy. And if you have colleagues that you think might be interested in it, then do pass the news on. We’re opening just until the beginning of May. And it’s a membership that’s going to help you support people for well-being. We talked about prioritisation, we talk about the drama triangle and coaching, we talk about how we respond to stress and the different stories we tell ourselves in our heads, and we talk about how to take a coaching approach. So we’d love you to join us if you’re interested.
And just before we go, Annie, what would be your three top tips when you are finding yourself in the drama triangle? What should people do in the moment when they notice it?
Annie: Yeah, well, I guess the first one is really just noticing it through actually being okay with that, being okay with the discomfort, it’s taking the mini pause to catch yourself. And so just to recognise, then to turn inward. So it’s so easy to get defensive and wanting to make it someone else’s fault. And we do that so naturally. It’s such a human thing that happens. Don’t beat yourself up, but do turn inwards to go actually, ‘What do I choose now?’ And really recognising that the choice that’s with you, as frenetic as an external circumstance might be. And then the third one is really just watch your language. Just think about what language you’re using. And ‘I will’ and ‘I choose’ can feel hard, but try them out. That really can shift your impact on someone else. But actually, amazingly, the impact on yourself and your own mindset.
Rachel: Right? I think for me, I just, one thing, really, it’s just, before you give advice, just ask the other person, what do they think? What do they think they could do instead? And that’s just the start of being able to get out of the rescuer.
Thank you so much for joining us, Annie. That’s been a fascinating tour of the drama triangle. If people wanted to contact you, how can they find you?
Annie: Yeah, so I’m at proteus.leadership, but also at firstname.lastname@example.org by email, and I’ll be on LinkedIn as well. And you’ll find me at the Resilience Team Academy.
Rachel: Brilliant. And what we’ll do is well, we have handouts about the drama triangle. So I’ll put that for download in the show notes as well, so you can have a look at it, including how to get out of it into catalyst, activator, and coach. And if you’re interested in joining us in the Resilient Team Academy, it’s really a short amount of commitment needed in terms of the bite-sized resources coming out every month. We know you don’t have very much time as a leader. So these things are done for you. They’re short, they’re accessible, and they will genuinely help you get a happy, thriving team without burning out yourself. So I hope to see some of you in there. Thanks for joining us this week, and we’ll see you soon.
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