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Best Intentions

I have a fundamental and perhaps misguided belief that people mostly act out of good intentions. It may only be my version of the truth, but I base it on many observations over many years.

Before you write me off as a hopeless romantic, let me explain.

It is a rarity to stumble across a situation where someone’s behaviour is driven by malicious intent. An intent which is so focused on deliberately undermining or hurting another person. People can often be mortified when it is brought to their attention that this has been the effect of their behaviour.

So terrorists aside (of which you may have the odd one in your organisation), most people I encounter take the actions they take because they believe a better outcome will be the result.

Much of this behaviour is unconscious. They behave in a way that feels right to them, but they may not be consciously aware of how they are behaving or even the effect their behaviour is having.

Our beliefs, feelings, experiences and values drive our behaviour. We may challenge back when these are threatened because we need to protect them. The primary intention, therefore, is not to kill off the alternative stance, but to protect our own. It is an important distinction. However, we may see that the only way to protect our own belief system and values is to attack and undermine the belief systems and values of others. This is a strategy whose starting point is the need to protect and preserve, not to destroy.

Role-Play

I was facilitating a small group through a role-playing exercise where, working with an actor, each person was required to concentrate on a particularly challenging conversation with an employee or colleague, and explore various ways that they might be able to handle it.

Jenny (not her real name) wanted to focus on a historical encounter which she felt dissatisfied with. It later transpired that the way she had handled this situation at the time was pretty much text-book stuff, but she did not feel this.

The skill of the actor coupled with Jenny’s willingness to revisit the situation, resulted in Jenny becoming very emotional. She raised her hand as a pre-agreed signal to say that she wanted to pause whilst she recovered her composure, regrouped and tried again.

At that point, two of her colleagues ‘leapt to her rescue’.

The result was that Jenny became more overcome, angry with herself, embarrassed and unable to continue.

What was going on here? It seems that the intentions of her colleagues were to protect Jenny from harm. They equated tears with unparalleled distress; regarded this as unfair and cruel; and felt obligated to intervene on Jenny’s behalf.

I reflected on the situation for days afterwards. Maybe the action taken by Jenny’s colleagues was more selfishly motivated rather than being driven by a need to protect her. Maybe they were embarrassed by the emotional display and sought to protect themselves from it.

It’s not uncommon for people to become emotional during role-play exercises, especially when working with an actor who adds an extra dimension of reality. Neither is it something to apologize for. It’s not a sign that it’s all gone horribly wrong.  Clearly, this view wasn’t shared by the two colleagues who intervened.

Bit by bit I started to form a picture of what might have happened.And then I was reminded of the Drama Triangle, a simple model from transactional analysis first espoused by Stephen Karpman.

What I believe was happening was that Jenny, in revisiting a difficult experience, had re-entered the non-resourceful state that she felt at the time. In short, she felt she was back there. And given that she has never accepted that she actually handled the situation extremely well, her negative feelings of her own incompetence started to overwhelm her.

Before Jenny had time to regroup, compose, and experiment with a different approach, her friends reaffirmed her Victim status by leaping to her rescue (rescuers, of course need someone to rescue). So Jenny became locked in the role of the Victim – someone who lacked resources to get out of the situation on her own, who felt small and helpless and needed someone to charge in and take over.

I do not believe that the intention of Jenny’s colleagues was to turn her into a Victim, or to lock her in a non-resourceful state. But that was the outcome. And as a result they have added to Jenny’s catalogue of remembered experiences which reaffirms the notion that she can’t cope, she is weak and vulnerable, she lacks capability to manage certain situations, and she needs rescuing. Is it any wonder that Jenny freely admits to lacking confidence?

What was missed in this situation was an opportunity for Jenny to re-enter her resourceful state and play with different ways of handling the situation. The opportunity to create a more positive memory bank was lost.

It’s also possible that Jenny may begin to resent the intervention of her colleagues. She may begin to feel persecuted by them, because they are confining her (deliberately or inadvertently) to a role she is not happy to play.

Her colleagues weren’t terrorists. They weren’t bad people. They were simply doing what we see people doing every day. And we’ve probably done something similar. But that doesn’t excuse it. And there are things we can do to stop it.

What can we do about it?

If you ever find yourself in a situation where you feel like a victim: look around and see if you can spot your persecutor and rescuer. They will be there and not too far away. In the scenario described, I suppose I was cast in the role of the Persecutor for allowing the situation to arise and not stopping it. I didn’t feel too good about that.

You see, Rescuers need a Victim and a Persecutor. Victims need someone to Persecute them and someone to Rescue them. Persecutors need a Victim. The three roles become locked in a revolving triangle, and all of the roles are operating out of a non-resourceful state.

Rescuers reinforce someone’s Victim-hood. It’s an unhappy consequence. And Rescuers place other people in Persecuting roles which, subsequently makes those people feel like they are themselves being persecuted. So they become the Victim and seek out a Rescuer. In this situation, I looked to the Actor for reassurance that I had done the right thing. I wanted confirmation or support. Am I in danger of becoming Jenny’s colleague’s Persecutor?

What’s the alternative? Good intentions did not on this occasion bring about a happy ending.

  1. First, take a moment to reflect on the role you have adopted or feel you have been placed in.
  2. Second, remind yourself that if you have cast yourself (or been cast) as a Victim, Rescuer or Persecutor, you have entered a non-resourceful state.
  3. Third, expect that if you are in a V, R or P role now, you will move at various times to any one of the other two roles in an unhappy rotation.
  4. Fourth, step out of the role, walk away from it.
  5. Fifth, take a rational look at the situation from all angles whilst constantly checking to see that you are not inadvertently still looking at it through the eyes of the V, R or P.

Breaking the cycle might take practice. It can be useful to have some rehearsed statements up your sleeve so that you can call on them when the time is right.

Here are some examples.

If you feel that you are being place in the Victim role: “Thank you for your help and concern. Right now I would like to see what I can do to resolve the situation for myself”

If you feel like stepping into the Rescuer role:  “I am feeling uncomfortable with this and want to intervene, but I believe that the person best placed to deal with this situation is the individual themselves.”

If you feel that you are being placed in the Persecutor role: “My interest must be to allow my colleague to regain his/her resourceful state if I am to avoid becoming a Victim myself.”

It’s not only other people who place us in these roles. We place ourselves in the Victim role by the demands we place on ourselves and some of the beliefs we have habitually held. And in so doing we make ourselves visible to Rescuers and Persecutors.

So the best way to avoid stepping into the self-perpetuating cycle of victim-hood is to remind ourselves that we are all extremely resourceful people and that we always have the capacity to find a solution. Solutions will not be found in V, R, P states but they will be found when we call upon all that is powerful and unique within us.

We all became victims at some point during Jenny’s ordeal. How much greater if we had raised our hand and signalled that this was not a role we wanted to play.