The Drama Triangle: Part 4
Updated: Jan 6
This is the final in a series of four blogs about how the Drama Triangle* can be used as means of identifying the kind of thinking we are doing when things aren't working well for us. Since our thoughts drive our behaviours, awareness of the drama roles we might be playing can help us to understand why we are reacting to a situation in a particular way. It can also enable us to respond to situations more choicefully.
Part One covered:
the different drama roles we play;
the signs of drama;
the role our brain's limbic system plays in drama;
the reasons drama arises; and
the cost of being in drama.
Drama is an inevitable part of life, but you can support yourself to manage it.
Part Two introduced a 'drama meditation' that invites you to become aware of your experience when you are in drama.
Part Three covered three simple steps to help you come to calm in-the-moment once you notice you are in drama. They are a great way of settling yourself in moments of difficulty.
This blog covers a way of coming to calm after the event. It is, quite simply, about listening. But a particular kind of listening. The kind of listening that helps to settle our limbic system (or 'drama brain') when we have experienced difficulty. Whether we are listening to ourselves or having someone listen to us, our 'drama brain' needs to know that:
all thoughts and feelings are welcome - the good, the bad and the ugly;
it's ok to be irrational and out-of-perspective in our thinking;
we will not be judged or interrupted; and
whatever we say will be held in confidence.
Our 'drama brain' just needs a good old rant from time to time. A 'drama dump', as it were. Given time, it will start to settle and we can engage in more rational and considered thinking. But first we need to be able to express what is on our mind and in our heart in an unedited way.
In the words of the author, educator and activist, Parker Palmer:
The human soul doesn't want to be advised or fixed or saved.
It simply wants to be witnessed, exactly as it is.
I call this kind of listening clean listening. What follows is:
an explanation of what clean listening is;
a set of clean listening guidelines; and
a couple of clean listening activities for you to try.
What is clean listening?
Being listened to cleanly means knowing that our listener won't contaminate the conversation with their advice and suggestions. It means having the whole range of our thoughts and emotions accepted as we explore our thinking.
Unfortunately, this kind of listening is not always easy to find. Most people have a natural desire to help others. They feel uncomfortable when they hear us talking about our difficulties. Their inner Rescuer gets pulled into action:
They make suggestions and offer solutions:
Have you thought about doing …?
How about I do ... for you?
They show ‘understanding’ by sharing their own similar experiences:
I know just how you feel.
Something very similar happened to me recently.
They add their ‘wise’ perspective on the matter:
She was probably just trying her best.
I’m sure he didn’t mean any harm by it.
Ironically, there are times when their well-intentioned efforts can have an unintended impact:
Their need to fix things gives us the message that uncomfortable emotions must be ‘solved’ and that certain thoughts and emotions are not acceptable.
Their desire to be helpful and make ‘useful’ suggestions robs us of the opportunity to explore our situation for ourselves.
Their clever thoughts and insights can leave us doubting our own perspective, feeling that we ‘should’ be seeing things in a different way.
Their shared experiences bring the focus of the conversation back to them rather than simply allowing us to tell our own story.
But what happens if they resist the temptation to make things better for us? What happens if they listen cleanly instead?
If our listener is willing to sit alongside us in our discomfort rather than go into ‘fix it mode’, we are given the message that it’s ‘ok not to feel ok.’ If we are trusted to be capable of thinking for ourselves, we are empowered to find our own solutions to our problems.
I have a metaphor for what needs to happen to listen in this way. In order to enter this 'listening space', both listener and speaker need to wipe their feet on a metaphoric Welcome Mat. In doing so the listener wipes away any desire to fix, analyse or judge. The intention is simply to remain attentive and curious. The speaker wipes away any need to 'get somewhere', to find solutions.
Imagine you are entering a space in which all thoughts and emotions are welcomed: a space where vulnerability is not something to be feared or avoided, but rather accepted as just being part of what it means to be human; a space where there is no need to censor what is said for fear of being judged; a space where confidentiality is respected; a space in which we can allow our precious and vulnerable selves can be seen.
It can take a leap of faith for someone to listen to us in this way. This is not a space for asking clever questions or rushing in to make things better. Instead, our listener needs to trust that we make useful choices when we are encouraged to gain awareness of ourselves and do our own thinking. The less they try to help us, the more likely we are to gain insights and make changes that work for us. There may be times when we choose to talk about difficult thoughts and emotions. At these moments they may need to sit with a degree of discomfort, confusion or uncertainty and resist the pull to go into ‘fix-it’ mode.
This is the kind of listening that allows our 'drama brain' to settle. It lets us know that we have been seen and heard. That it is ok to feel the way that we feel. That we don't need to be fearful of our thoughts and feelings. This is the kind of listening that helps us to restore a sense of calm and perspective.
Guidelines for listening cleanly
There are some simple guidelines to follow in order to listen cleanly. But before you begin, you will need to find some uninterrupted time together.
Set aside any desire to make things better, resist the urge to interpret and analyse, put to the back of your mind any clever thoughts and insights you feel the other person ought to hear, slip into your back pocket all those experiences you want to share so they know just how much you understand their situation, switch off your ‘nosey brain’ and suppress any temptation to find out the juicy details. You are creating a space for the person to tell their story in their own way.
Make it clear that anything that is said will be held in confidence.
Bring your full, undivided attention to your speaker.
Allow them to be as irrational and emotional as they need to be. Over time their 'drama brain' will settle and they will find a more balanced perspective.
If you feel a pull to rescue, do an internal 'press pause' and remind yourself that you have wiped your feet on the Welcome Mat.
Bring a sense of ease to your listening. If your speaker pauses and you see that they are still deep in thought, wait patiently and hold the silence around them. Even though you might find it uncomfortable to do so, they will be grateful that you haven't rushed them.
You may want to give a reassuring nod, smile or 'uh-huh' every now and again to let them know you are listening.
If your speaker comes to a halt, you can gently encourage them to say some more:
Do you want to say some more about that?
With a little bit of practice, listening cleanly actually makes your job as listener easier. You can let go of a need to be 'helpful'. Your undivided attention will be all the help that is needed. In my experience, listening in this way can be the greatest gift that you can give a person.
Know that this will be a space for you to explore your thinking, rather than having to come up with solutions.
It might feel uncomfortable to speak at first, but this is your space to be as irrational and out of perspective as you need to be.
If you find that your inner Persecutor starts giving you a hard time:
You shouldn't be thinking these things.
You ought not to be feeling this way.
... then gently remind yourself that this is a space for allowing your 'drama brain' to let off steam. You can speak the unspeakable and feel safe in the knowledge that what you have said will not be shared with others.
This kind of listening can feel unfamiliar, uncomfortable even, at first - for both listener and speaker. But it gets easier with practice and people are often surprised by just how profound an effect this simple practice can have.
ACTIVITY: Partnered listening
Find a trusted listening partner.
You will both need to read and follow the clean listening guidelines above.
It can work well to do this activity when you are out on a walk together.
Decide who will be listener and who will be speaker.
Speaker: think of a recent situation in which you experienced difficulty.
Listener: set a timer for 10 minutes (or whatever time you have available) and let your partner talk freely ('drama dump') about the situation they have in mind.
Once they have come to a finish, switch over roles.
Clean listening for one
Don't worry if you don't have someone available to listen to you. It's perfectly possible to listen to yourself by journalling - simply writing your thoughts down and reflecting on what you've written. All you need to do is set aside some uninterrupted time with a pen and piece of paper. Let your pen flow freely as you capture any thoughts that arise for you. Try not to censor what you write. This is about giving your 'drama brain' the chance to have its say.
Alternatively, you might want to speak your thoughts into a voice recorder.
A word of caution: you'll probably want to make sure that your words don't fall into the hands of others. It can even feel therapeutic to rip up your piece of paper once you have reached the end of your 'drama dump'!
You will be following the clean listening speaker guidelines above as you 'drama dump' what is on your mind at the present moment.
You can choose whether you use pen and paper or voice recording to capture your thoughts.
Set a timer to three minutes.
Start the timer and write freely about what is on your mind. Let the words flow without giving too much thought to them. You may find you write in full sentences, or isolated words. What you write may not even make sense to you.
When the time is up, read over what you have writtten and ask yourself the following questions:
What do I notice about what I have written?
What do I know now about all of that?
What difference does knowing that make?
You might want to take care that your words remain 'confidential' and don't end up in the hands of others.
Some people find it therapeutic to end the activity by taking their piece of paper and tearing it up.
So, there you have it. Clean listening - a beautifully simple but effective means of helping to settle your 'drama brain'.
You might want to find someone who is willing to exchange clean listening with you on a regular basis: a trusted friend who could be your 'drama buddy'. It's a great way of attending to your 'brain health' and finding more calm in your life.
Do let me know how you get on :-)
* The Drama Triangle was created by Stephen Karpman.
(illustrations by Lucy Monkman - www.lucymonkman.com)