Escaping the drama triangle as a customer support agent: everyone’s a winner

Catherine Heath | April 20, 2020

We all love stories. As children, we read fairy tales and watched Disney movies. Rapunzel is locked in the tower, Little Red Riding Hood is stalked by the wolf, and the little mermaid longs to walk on land.These classic stories are all structured around the drama triangle. And as much fun as stories are, when we play out these dramas in real life, conflict inevitably occurs. 

This is a particular risk when it comes to working in customer support, because you are working directly with people. Escaping the drama triangle as a customer support agent is based on the idea that as humans, we can all become involved in the ‘drama triangle’. We love our customers, and we want to help them, so we naturally want to avoid creating drama. 

Between us, we all explored our thoughts on the drama triangle. Read on for insights from Head Product & Documentation Owl & Resident Cheese Monger Kate Mueller, Head Professional Services Owl & Resident Sorcerer Stephen Zappia, Community Builder Catherine Heath, and Knowledge Goddess & Chief Executive Owl Marybeth Alexander.

What is the drama triangle?

The ‘drama triangle’ is “three roles that all of us are capable of playing whenever situations start to become more emotionally charged.” The roles are: 

  1. Victim – the victim feels victimized, oppressed, unable to take pleasure in life, unable to make decisions or solve problems, and seeks a rescuer
  2. Persecutor – the persecutor takes the role of the villain and is blaming, critical, controlling, oppressive and angry
  3. Rescuer – the rescuer wants to help and feels guilty if they don’t, but their rescuing has negative and disempowering effects on the victim

Image source

The drama triangle occurs whenever a situation becomes charged with conflict. People naturally gravitate towards one particular role on the triangle, but once on the triangle can move round into any other role. 

The drama triangle is a model devised by Stephen Karpman in 1968, and it models the connection between personal responsibility and power in human relationships. 

The drama triangle in customer support

Since customer support involves building human relationships, the drama triangle can often come into play during interactions. 

Marybeth says, “While people can play around roles, it seems like people have a default. People who are drawn to and good at customer support seem to default to the rescuer. They want to help.”

Although a naturally occurring phenomenon, the drama triangle can have extremely negative effects on both team members and customers. 

Marybeth continues, “While this is rare (few customers ever create a drama triangle), it is highly disruptive. When I was a teacher, I heard the Pareto principle used to say that teachers spend 80% of their time of 20% of their students, and that's usually the bad ones. I think this idea works in customer service too, and we have the data to back this up.

“One of the main problems in customer service/support, or any care profession, is the idea of burnout. And I think much burnout stems from playing the role of the rescuer (to the point of a martyr) in the drama triangle. I've seen it on a macro and micro level.”

We’ll examine the drama triangle in a bit more detail now, from both the micro and macro level. 

Micro level

Marybeth says, “On the micro level, you might have customers or coworkers playing the victim. And this often results in rescuers fixing the victim's problems for them (or at least trying to), often overstepping boundaries to do it. 

“It also leads to enabling customers or team members who don't do things for themselves, resulting in a higher workload for the rescuer. And this can snowball out of control, often leading to the rescuer becoming the victim or even the persecutor.”

As Marybeth says, although it may be tempting to play the rescuer as a customer support agent, the costs can be very high. This leads to emotionally charged situations arising with customers, and can ultimately lead to conflict. 

Macro level

Marybeth says, “On a macro level, the support person might either see the company/product as the victim of the persecuting customers, or vice versa with the poor customers being the victims of the persecuting company/product.”

Even though this might seem like a victimless game, the drama triangle can have damaging effects on your brand, and the team as a whole. Not to mention, customers suffer as a result. As support professionals, we have the most control in preventing the drama triangle from occurring in the first place. 

But for now, we’ll take a look at the three different roles you can play on the drama triangle in a bit more detail. 

Playing the rescuer

As we mentioned before, the rescuer is the role that seeks to save the victim from their problems. It involves overstepping the normal boundaries, and treating the victim as incapable of solving problems for themselves. 

Marybeth says, “In the drama triangle, I see the rescuer as having the most power over changing the dynamic. When a customer comes to us as a victim (my boss is demanding this! the product is killing me! I made this horrible mistake and I'm going to get fired!) or a persecutor (your product is bad. you broke my stuff. your service is horrible), we have the power to not play the role of the rescuer by controlling how we respond.”

Controlling how you respond 

Marybeth continues, “You can't control other people (there will always be people trying to play these roles) but you can control your response. You can help empower the victim to take responsibility and solve their own problems. You can help redirect the persecutor to take responsibility and figure out what they actually need/want.

“And I think this works for us most of the time, but occasionally there are situations when we fall into the triangle and the relationship becomes toxic.

“When I've gotten sucked into the triangle, it's because I'm playing the rescuer but really on the surface. I really hate conflict (it gives me anxiety) so I tend to find the fastest way to make it go away. And that is often for doing things for people so it stops temporarily. For most customers, this is a one-time thing. 

“However, sometimes it becomes a pattern and we find ourselves in an unsupportable situation where I'm the only person who can help someone because I've done so many one-time fixes over the years to shut them up and avoid the anxiety that comes with their role-playing.”

As Marybeth says, becoming a rescuer in order to avoid conflict can be a tempting solution, but this ultimately leads to longer-term problems. Customers have their expectations raised, and there becomes no end to the demands they make on your support team. 

Playing the persecutor

Next, we’ll look at the persecutor. This is probably the least appealing role for anyone to choose to play, due to the negative connotations of becoming a villain. Although hardly anyone intends to become a persecutor, it can happen inadvertently after playing the victim or the rescuer. 

Kate says, “I would say the persecutor is the least common role/type we see. I feel like we're more likely to see that during demos and product evaluations than from existing customers. But in my experience, we see it more when someone has had to take over a knowledge base that they don't know much about, they don't know much about what we do or how involved we are, and so on. They don't yet have a sense of appropriate expectations for what their role as an admin is, for what the product does, and what our support does."

The two sides of the persecutor

Kate says, “The persecutor mindset here seems to come from two places:

1) Awful onboarding and overwork. If they haven't been transitioned into that admin role well from within their own company, they often instinctively try to dump as much of it as possible onto our team. This isn't malicious. Usually it's that they already have a whole job and this just got dumped in their lap because someone left the company, etc., and they're just looking for the easiest solution to their problems (someone else doing it rather than them).

2) Unusual architecture/content design choices by the outgoing admin, which they blame the product for. The outgoing admin might have been the only person administering the KB and may have made decisions that made sense with what the product was, say, three years ago, but aren't using our current full feature set, or were highly idiosyncratic to how that person liked to work or thought about the world. The new admin interprets these as requirements or limitations of the product, but sometimes they're just due to someone's choices earlier on in the setup.

“In both cases, these are definitely situations where playing the rescuer doesn't truly help--if we step in too far, we basically set in stone the skewed expectations this new admin has. It's better for us to try to reset those expectations by doing a quick product/feature walkthrough, taking a look at the information architecture of the KB, asking questions about what frustrations or limitations the admin is already running into, etc.”

As Kate says, when we deal with customers in tricky situations, there is a high probability that the customer feels victimized, and consequently invites the support agent to play the persecutor. It’s a natural instinct when we want to defend our product, our company, and ourselves, from criticism. But this approach rarely has positive results. 

Avoiding playing the persecutor

There are some things we can do to stop ourselves becoming persecutors. 

Kate says, “These can seem like really adversarial situations, but I prefer to treat them as opportunities to get a fresh set of eyes on the content and the structure. Sometimes, the departure of the previous admin helps surface just how important the knowledge base is, or helps show just how many band-aids that person had put in place to keep things together.”

We can view the situation objectively, and research exactly what has gone wrong with the customer’s implementation of the product. We can also avoid taking criticism personally. 

Kate continues, “I've had new admins basically tell me that our product is awful because their readers can't find xx, and then we discover that they can't find xx because the previous admin hid it, or only made it available to a specific reader group, etc. But in these situations, I always have to remind myself not to take the persecution personally. 

“There's a much larger organizational context behind what that person's been handed in taking over the admin role, and a lot of that frustration has nothing to do with KnowledgeOwl--we are just an easy punching bag. And if we can use that support interaction to reset expectations, make the person feel like they have ownership to change the things they don't like, and then they discover that KO has the functionality they want...that's a much more positive interaction.”

Kate’s approach to avoiding becoming the persecutor has a lot in common with turning customer support lemons into lemonade

Playing the victim

Since the company seems to hold all the power in a customer support interaction, it’s unbelievably easy for customers to feel victimized when the product doesn’t seem to do what they want. 

Kate says, “I would say [the drama triangle is] unusual for us, and we address it promptly and effectively. But in general, I would say if we see anything, it's folks who might tend toward victimhood because they aren't tech savvy or confident, and we generally do a solid job of teaching them to fish so that they never become victims. 

“Persecutors are way less likely, and I can only think of a couple cases where that was true. I think we have culturally had to work at not defaulting to a rescuer role, of not making people dependent on us. In general I think we do this well, and have only improved at it over time.

“I would say for the majority of customers, we defuse these situations before they actually turn into drama triangle things. But the couple of cases where we haven't make me appreciate that all the more.”

As Kate says, customers who become victims often feel intimidated by technical difficulties and can simply be looking for someone to help. By recognizing when this is happening, we can teach customers to solve problems for themselves, so they are empowered to be more effective next time. 

How to step out of the drama triangle

Marybeth says, “There's the idea of the winner's triangle, which is how to break the drama triangle. Victim becomes the vulnerable creator, persecutor becomes the assertive challenger, and rescuer becomes the caring coach.”

The winner’s triangle was devised by Acey Choy in 1990, with the intention of showing people how to change social interactions after entering the drama triangle. It’s not easy, but you can change your perspective and your response in favor of a more empowering stance. 

  1. Vulnerable creator – victims can accept their vulnerability, become more self-aware, be more caring, and problem-solve
  2. Assertive challenger – persecutors can ask for what they want in an assertive manner, without becoming punishing or judgmental
  3. Caring coach – rescuers can become more caring and show concern, but stay mindful of boundaries and avoid solving problems for others

Our team has even more suggestions for avoiding the drama triangle in customer support. 

1. Take responsibility for your actions

Marybeth says, “I think we mostly avoid the drama triangle here because we take responsibility. While we do sometimes "save the day", the role we more often play is the coach who helps people save their own day.”

By taking responsibility for our own actions, and having strong boundaries, we can empower customers to solve their own problems. We provide effective and helpful support, but we don’t become rescuers. 

2. Be aware of the drama triangle

Just being aware of the drama triangle can significantly reduce the chance of getting sucked in. We’re more conscious of situations before they have a chance to build up steam.

Kate says, “Being aware/conscious of it even as a concept makes a difference in most interactions, but being aware of it specifically in situations where someone seems to tend toward those roles makes it even easier to take a step back and evaluate how you can step outside of that dynamic, and still address the situation.

“It actually relates to a lot of Buddhist teachings about interrupting established habitual patterns, how recognizing when you're engaging in the pattern allows you to at least interrupt it, if not step outside of it.”

3. Avoid calling your support team “heroes”

Be mindful of the language that you use when referring to your support agents. When we feel under-appreciated, it can be tempting to think of ourselves as “heroes”. 

Marybeth says, “At [a previous company], we called our support team support heroes and over the years I've heard that idea criticized. I think in a similar way to how nurses/doctors/essential workers are being labeled as heroes is sometimes seen in a negative light. 

“It's like how yes, they could help save your life, but it's much better if you listen to them, isolate, and don't get sick in the first place. Being the hero sometimes feels good. Having to be the hero every day is draining and not scalable. As a company/product, if your support team is constantly having to "save" your customers, what the heck is wrong with your company or product?”

As Marybeth says, we are not heroes who must swoop in to save our customers. If we have effective products and services, then we can teach our customers how to problem-solve and be independent. 

4. Communicate effectively with customers

Another chance to avoid the drama triangle comes when customers are offering us their thoughts and feedback. We should listen to what they have to say, but try to take an objective stance. 

Marybeth says, “During another discussion [at a previous company], we were discussing how we find out what a customer really needs or wants by listening and asking questions. And this is the exact same way we break the drama triangle. Rather than jumping in to solve what we think is the problem and make it go away, we can help guide our customers to figure out what they really need/want and often help themselves.”

That’s why it’s so important to hire support agents with strong communication skills. Being able to deduce the correct meaning behind a customer’s question is crucial. We dealt with this concept in the Disney 3 o’clock parade question.

5. Train your support team properly

At KnowledgeOwl, we truly value our support team and everyone is very experienced. This means that each team member is on a strong footing when dealing with customers, and we avoid creating the drama triangle in our own interactions. 

Marybeth says, “I think it helps that our team is small, experienced, and mostly on the same page. You can't have the triangle without 3 right? On larger teams different team members, managers, other teams, the company, or even the product can play one of the roles. And by not having that dynamic internally, we don't get sucked into it with customers.”

We also have good relationships between each member of the whole company, including those working in development. We’re all working from the same playbook.

Marybeth continues, “It's easy for support to be versus the product team, management, or even the customers. It's easy to create us vs them. Then add a third and you get the triangle.”

6. Remember that you need three for a triangle

As Marybeth has mentioned, you always need three people to create a drama triangle. 

Catherine says, “I think [Marybeth] made a really good point about there needing to be three people for a drama triangle to take place, and that third person could actually be a product or a company. 

“So that could come back to the idea of not making an interaction about “winning”, but simply striving to empower the customer to be successful on their own terms. We view them as capable and competent, so we don’t “rescue” them, and as you said we are “caring coaches”. I like that! And also not taking things personally can really help.”

Be alert for situations in which there are three entities, and examine which role you might be playing in the triangle. 

7. Look out for emotional manipulation

Due to the nature of the drama triangle, situations can often become very emotional. Sometimes without meaning to be, people can be manipulative in an effort to get what they want. 

Stephen says, “I think the biggest weapon we have here is in fact the knowledge that emotional manipulation is happening. When you know what the person is like, their MO, you're more capable of recognising those behaviours, and avoiding them.”

Catherine says, “My idea on this point is when you recognise the signs of what could be seen as “emotional manipulation” (probably just someone trying to achieve their goal in a negative sort of way) we can allow ourselves to process the reaction we have when we feel attacked. 

“If possible, we can take a moment to evaluate the situation and figure out a compassionate and understanding response. If you don’t react to someone’s behaviour, it’s impossible to become a persecutor, but you still need to resolve the situation. It can also be a godsend to work remotely, since you always have that distance to be able to consider your response.”

Always speak directly about what you want, and avoid becoming sucked in by manipulative tactics. 

8. Learn from past experience with the triangle

Ultimately, it’s impossible to avoid getting trapped in the drama triangle. But with a bit of experience, you can become more skilled at preventing this type of situation from happening. 

Stephen says, “I have been in the drama triangle with a few customers over the last 12 months, but I think I am the exception to the rule. 99% of our customers would not fall into this triangle (or pull us into it). Last year, I was pulled into the drama triangle in the role of the rescuer. I saw the customer being persecuted by their senior, and took it upon myself to do what I could to help. That was a bad decision. 

“I started as the rescuer and became the victim, and sometimes even the persecutor I fear. Had I known about the drama triangle back then, I would definitely have made different decisions! The other more recent experience put KO as an entity and multiple team members in the position of victim, the customer the persecutor, and me the rescuer. 

“The situation still makes me feel gross, but I know it's a necessary evil to protect our people and our KO. I tried to remove myself from the emotion of the situation, but when the customer is so personal in their "attacks" and so emotionally manipulative, it has been difficult to not get roped in. 

Catherine says, “In the past, when I have been dealing with clients, on a rare occasion things have turned a bit sour. The first time it happened, I became defensive but tried to hold my ground, and that didn’t go well at all. In the end, the relationship ended on very negative terms. 

“A second time it happened, it felt like the client really wanted to persecute me, but I was working together with some friends of mine through an agency and I didn’t want to lose that relationship. I found that standing my ground, but being polite and firm and not allowing myself to be put down, I felt that situation ended much more positively. 

“In the end, we all agreed that the client was a somewhat “toxic” person who picked fights with everyone and was never happy. So even though things with the client ended, I maintained my positive relationship with the agency.”

Dealing with every drama triangle as a team

Marybeth recommends two ways you can escape the drama triangle as a team.

  1. Doubling down on needing three people, most of the time it happened with me it's because I didn't treat everyone at KO as the same team. Two situations come to mind from recent interactions. One is where Pete said no to a customer and I jumped in to be a rescuer. I felt like they were a victim of their own company and we weren't helping, so I took it upon myself to help. We are still dealing with that and will be for a while. Should have stuck with Pete on that one.
  2. I viewed the customer as the persecutor of our team and the company, so I also decided to be the victim and take it on myself so others didn't have to deal. And that situation is unsustainable and required Stephen to become the rescuer. He also is playing the rescuer in example 1 but I imagine he might switch to the victim with the persecutor being the actual project.

Marybeth continues, “I think the overall lesson is that we need to be on the same page to prevent the triangles from playing out. We are all in this together, and acting alone in situations like this is what leads to drama.”

Stephen says, “I really love that idea of working on these situations as a team. Though one person may take point or be the point of contact, we are all in this together, and whatever positive or negative outcomes there are reflect on all of us. I’ve definitely been in negative situations in other jobs where it was seen as “my problem to solve”. This is way nicer.”

Marybeth says, “Way nicer! And rather than being the victim as it seems when it's your problem to solve, here it's more like being the rescuer but it's self-sabotaging. I think most of us have been in the situation where we martyred ourselves for the company or team. And that's not particularly healthy. If one of us shouldn't be dealing with something, none of us should. At least not alone.

Kate says, “I think it also helps us get perspective. When a situation starts to get ugly, I think it's natural to respond with whatever response/role is most comfortable for us individually, but approaching it as a team helps us find a balanced response, and then it is a team responsibility. We've decided that KO won't do x or will do y because it is in our best interests to do that. It allows us to step outside of the cycle that's been happening with that individual customer and find a way forward that makes sense for all of us, so no one owl is left having to carry a disproportionate amount.

“And it also just surfaces a situation that the rest of us might not have even been fully aware of, and that alone seems valuable.”

Final remarks

So now you know all about the drama triangle in customer support. Escaping the triangle can be tricky, but it’s possible by remaining self-aware, understanding the dynamic, and changing your attitude. 

Instead of defaulting to rescuer, victim, or persecutor, focus on the winner’s triangle. If you feel victimized, become vulnerable and solve your own problem. If you are rescuing, change your attitude to being caring and concerned, and maintain strong boundaries. If you are persecuting, take responsibility and ask for what you want in an assertive manner. 

Good luck with your customer support interactions, and we hope you manage to create the winner’s triangle. Make sure to write your own story. 

If you’d like to try out some new knowledge base software, sign up for a free trial of KnowledgeOwl right now. 

About the author
Catherine Heath
Catherine Heath

Catherine is the Community Builder for KnowledgeOwl. She is also a freelance writer based in Manchester. She writes blogs, social media, copy, and designs owl-based images. 

You can find out more about Catherine on her personal websites Away With Words and Catherine Heath Studios.

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