Most of you do not know this, but I work in educational publishing. One of the more interesting projects under my care for 2015 was a new project on personal development, and when we work on these projects, we have to read and digest the material in order to understand it, before we can edit it and make improvements to it. Furthermore, we have to ensure that the right kind of graphics compliment the text in the best way.
One of the topics that stood out for me was Gary Harper’s ‘Drama Triangle’, where the people involved in a conflict often feel that they are trapped – not by the conflict itself, but by their perceived pigeon-holed roles of either the victim, the hero or the villain.
In a state of conflict
‘Conflict‘ is a serious disagreement or argument, typically a protracted one.
The Oxford Dictionary
In order for people to co-exist harmoniously, there needs to be tolerance, patience, and an attitude of give and take, among other practices. Due to the fact that people are individuals with different outlooks, belief systems, perceptions and experiences, there will surely be conflicts when they have to co-exist – live together, work together, and share resources.
A conflict is a situation where people perceive that their interests, goals, needs or values have somehow been ‘interfered with’, threatened or undermined.
A simple example of conflict: Two families lived side by side in a row of double-storey terrace houses. We will call them Family A and Family B. In front of them, there was a large strip of empty land covered with grass and a few sparse trees planted by the housing developer. Both families decided to utilise the empty land immediately in front of their own houses to plant vegetables and fruit trees. At first, everything is fine. They shared gardening knowledge, sometimes even borrowing and lending gardening equipment amongst themselves. This peaceful co-existence continued for many years. Then, one day, Family A’s extended family, the man of the house’s mother, came to visit for a few weeks. After a few days, she pointed out to her son that Family B was planting too close to their vegetable patch – they are encroaching into their space. She insisted that her son demand that Family B remove the offending vegetables so that Family A’s vegetable patch remains intact. The two families had been friends for years. The head of Family B was very surprised that Family A took this matter so seriously. To them, they thought that they had remained well within their boundaries, hence they refused to remove the offending vegetables. The two families stopped talking to each other and now view each other with distrust.
The Drama Triangle
As long as we see ourselves as victims or heroes, we automatically create villains in our conflict.
In ‘The Joy of Conflict’, Gary Harper described conflict using the metaphor of a ‘drama triangle’, where the parties in the conflict are actors playing three classic roles – the victim, the villain, and the hero.
An easy example we can use is a classic fairytale – the victim is often a helpless damsel in distress or a weak defenseless child, the villain is often a vicious fire-breathing dragon, a heartless witch, or a man-eating giant, and the hero is typically a handsome prince or a knight in shining armour.
These classic roles can be seen everywhere – in novels, in television programmes and in the movies. They are so prevalent that we do not even think about them. Furthermore, as the conflict progresses, we might change our roles!
Now, let’s look at the earlier example of the two feuding families. Family B thought of itself as the victim, while they viewed Family A as the villain. If they wanted to bring the conflict to a third party to help them resolve it once and for all, they can approach the head of the resident association of the housing area – and this person will be the hero.
The show’s over: Getting out of the roles
Conflict cannot survive without your participation.
Once we are aware of this drama triangle that we have invariably put ourselves in, we can take steps to get ourselves out of it. Firstly, we must take a step back and determine what role that we have (subconsciously) put ourselves in. Maybe we thought of ourselves as the victim (highly likely).
Now, we look at who we thought was the villain – the person we perceived to have wronged us, treated us unfairly, got us in trouble, etc. We need to drop the ‘villain’ label. We must look at this person as someone we must work together with to solve the problem at hand. Thus, there are no longer any victims or villains in this conflict.
By doing this, we can successfully move beyond this quagmire of a drama triangle, solve the problem bothering us, and then get on with our lives with the least amount of fuss.
For our example of Family A and Family B, they can actually agree to have their vegetable and fruit tree plots measured out and demarcated with sticks driven into the earth at the four corners and have lines of rope all around the plot. So each family will have a plot of identical size and shape.