Every day, to a degree, we are involved in a victim-villain-hero triangle. It’s a gripping and dysfunctional dynamic that creates polarization and conflict. In order to get rid of the victim and the villain dynamic, we first need to get rid of the hero and replace it with a mediator looking for a win-win solution. This post aims to get out of the victim-control dynamic.
What is the Victim-Control Dynamic?
In the victim-control dynamic, there is a villain who does an injustice to a victim, who in turn needs a hero to intervene to restore justice. The problem with this dynamic is that whether someone is a victim or a villain depends on your perspective. Siding with the victim creates yet another triangle, this time with the villain as the victim, the one perceiving the action to be unjust.
The villain, of course, doesn’t think they are wrong. From their perspective, they feel unjustly treated. Most people, however, never see how they were treated unjustly. They only see the consequence. Yet, it’s a cycle, and the more you fuel the one, the more you fuel the other too.
What’s really happening is that there’s a conflict in needs, not an injustice. What if both are right in feeling unjustly treated? What if playing the hero continues the cycle rather than resolving anything?
Whether you’re choosing the side of the victim or the villain, you’re contributing to a bigger conflict when you choose sides at all.
It’s All About Perspective
Let’s look at a practical example most people can relate to. On the one side, there is Andrew, the victim. He is soft-spoken, smaller than the rest of his class, wears glasses, and enjoys learning.
He is the teacher’s pet as he always does his homework, offers to help with classroom tasks, and is eager to learn. He grew up in a home where his parents nurtured him, giving him everything that he needs. When he was in distress, they immediately protect their vulnerable little boy. He learned when there is a conflict when it comes to his needs, going to an authority figure – whether it is his parents or a teacher – will validate and resolve the injustice in his favor.
On the other hand, there is Billy, the bully at school. He grew up in a home where his brother pushed him around and his parents did nothing to protect him. He learned that the world is unsafe and you have to fend for yourself. He is a sensitive child. Used to being attacked without reason by his older sibling, he expects people to hurt him without reason. Whenever someone looks at him he perceives it as an attack, even when there was no intent to attack.
At home, the only way to get attention is to be disruptive. He has no one who sits with him while he struggles through his homework and it is simply too hard for him. When he goes to school he is shamed and punished for not being able to complete the homework and judged as lazy. He is judged as an underperformer and a disruptor and is ostracized by his classmates. He is unable to voice his frustration as his home situation is not taken into consideration.
He takes out his unvoiced anger and frustration on Andrew. He doesn’t understand what is wrong with him and why he can’t get the attention and praise Andrew gets. He feels powerless to get the praise he is starving for.
He behaves in the only way that his family has taught him to handle these negative emotions – push other people around. The only way to feel a sense of power is by bullying those less powerful than him.
Then there is Carl, the school principal, and hero. When he calls Andrew and Billy into his office yet again because Billy pushed Andrew around, Andrew exaggerates in great detail what happened and how it was wrong, while Billy keeps quiet, unable to express his emotions. The principal punishes him as he is clearly in the wrong being the one who pushed poor, innocent, Andrew around. Andrew walks away unscathed as the victor.
Carl gets satisfaction and feels he did an excellent job at maintaining discipline and justice at school, protecting the victim from the injustice done unto him. He feels like a hero.
The snowball gets bigger
But Billy walks away, even more, hurt and angry than before, having suppressed his emotions. The resentment grows and the snowball gets bigger.
His emotions, however, erupt like a volcano without warning when Andrew is playing teacher’s pet again while he is reprimanded for not doing his homework. The pain and anger is simply too much for his little body to carry and needs an outlet. In the only pattern he knows, he pushes Andrew as he walks past without doing anything, and a fight breaks out yet again.
The cycle repeats
The more Billy is treated like the villain while the hero sides with the victim, the more villain-like he behaves. It’s a snowball that gets bigger and bigger.
The hero, unconsciously and unknowingly, creates the reinforcing feedback loop that perpetuates the victim-control dynamic.
No more heroes, Please
In order to stop this dysfunctional cycle we need to remove the hero from the triangle. The hero has to stop choosing sides and to take on the role of mediator in order to change break the cycle. The intent has to be to resolve the conflict by finding a win-win. If there’s one person walking away a loser, you’re perpetuating the cycle and making it bigger.
So how do we stop the cycle?
1. Start with a positive Intent
Start with the heart.
Crucial Conversations outlines how to have high stake conversations, with the first step being to start with the heart. This means that rather than expecting one person to be right and the other person wrong, start with a focus on mutual resolve.
People tend to live up to your expectations. When you approach someone already believing they were wrong, you will find evidence that they were wrong. When, however, you start with an open heart and no expectations, you can listen for understanding and find resolve.
2. Go Direct
In order to resolve conflict and find mutual resolve you have to go direct. Never rely on an interpretation. It’s like playing Chinese Whispers where each person softly whispers a sentence to the person next to them, only for the message to come out distorted on the other side.
Get everyone affected in the room and have an open discussion. Allow each person to describe their perspective without judgment.
Speaking to people separately might set an expectation that you are on their side. They might also exaggerate their experience to get their point across. When, however, both victim and villain is present, you can immediately address any conflicting views as they arise, getting a more accurate reflection of what really happened.
3. Remove any judgments
Give each person an equal opportunity to express what happened and how they experienced it from their perspective. Allow them to express themselves fully. Once they have expressed their part of the experience, probe for evidence to start questioning underlying beliefs.
People experience life through their individual emotional lenses (also called the ego). This is a judgment or belief rather than reality. They might, for example, perceive someone to be aggressive based on their expectations when the other person had no intention of being mean.
Ask the accuser to explain what makes them believe the person was aggressive by asking a simple question: “How do you know?”.
Are they making a situation or event mean something that might not be true?
4. Validate both sides
Validation is key to moving forward when you’re stuck. Validation, however, does not mean you have to lie. Validation is acknowledging someone else’s experience. Validate the emotion rather than any judgment around whether it was right or wrong.
If, for example, Billy expresses his anger that the homework is too hard and he has no one to help him, validate that he is right to feel angry about this. His emotion is valid. However, that doesn’t make not doing the homework right or valid.
Next, validate that Andrew felt he was confused because he didn’t understand what he did wrong. Both are valid experiences.
It is very important to allow both sides to express their emotions. When people feel heard they don’t need to act out their suppressed emotions.
5. Find a third option
Finally, look for a win-win solution that will enable both villain and victim to walk away feeling like a winner. Whenever there is one loser, you are perpetuating the victim-control dynamic and possibly making it bigger.
In the example above, don’t side with the more overt and obvious victim Andrew. Rather, focus on the covert victim that acts out as a villain. Is there something that can help Billy from acting out before he reaches his emotional threshold?
Maybe you can help him with his homework, or assign a learning buddy. Or maybe you can give him extra resources that might explain things more simply to him.
Similarly, you can help Andrew find a strategy to resolve the conflict directly without needing to call in a hero to resolve the conflict on his behalf.
Focusing on the victim is focusing on the symptom. The root cause of the problem, however, lies in focusing on the villain. When you can meet the conflicting needs of both the victim and villain you will break free from the victim-control dynamic.
There’s no winner if one person loses. In order to change a dysfunctional system you have to look for win-win outcomes or a third option. When you judge one as right and another as wrong, you’re maintaining the dysfunction.
Image courtesy of Depositphotos
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With more than 20 years experience in the software development industry, Kate specializes in helping teams get unstuck, communicate better and ultimately be more productive. She believes in efficiency through fun implementing lean, agile and playful design as tools for process improvement and organizational change. Her goal is to create more happy, healthy and whole workplaces where each person thrives and productivity soars.