Karpman’s triangle

Here’s a little thought provoker for those involved with people – whether it be leading, counselling or communicating. Karpman’s triangle is a diagrammatic analysis of human transactions devised by – you guessed it – Stephen Karpman back in the late 60’s.

Originally it was applied to the classic ways in which stories are told with a victim, a persecutor, and a rescuer. For the communicators out there – this is still a great way to weave a story.

But quite quickly people realised this applied not just to fairy tales, but to real life human interactions. Leaders and counsellors listen up. The ‘game’ usually begins when a ‘player’ adopts the role of persecutor or victim. A third ‘player’  – the rescuer – is required for resolution. Often a transaction is not simple and players switch roles – for example when the persecutor feels like a victim at the hands of the rescuer (who is now persecutor by the way). Incidentally this isn’t really addressing situations where people really are victims or perpetrators of terrible things – I’m really thinking of situations where people adopt roles as part of a transaction ‘game.’

Here are a couple of examples to be aware of. If you’re a team leader and someone disagrees with your decision/leadership they will often play victim and cast you persecutor seeking a rescuer somewhere. If the ‘victim’ seeks rescue from someone else, casting you as the persecutor, it’s your job to cry foul and end the game. Another example would be in counselling a marital breakdown – you will be seen by the victim (often the wife) as the rescuer, but beware – the husband is now playing victim and casting you as persecutor. Don’t be surprised – make sure early on to be explicit about not taking sides. The key as a leader/counsellor is not to fall into the trap of playing the ‘victim’ card yourself. You need to remind yourself it’s a game people play – it’s not personal. Just an interesting little tool to be aware of – once you are aware of it, you’ll see the ‘game’ being played everywhere.


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