The Drama Review (March 23, 2018)
Dear flummoxed-by-the-drama readers,
I was asked recently to consult with an organization making good faith efforts to handle one of its members—a drama person. I’ll spare you the gory details but this guy had acted unethically, covered up his transgressions, and denied involvement right up to the time when the evidence became too overwhelming to deny. He then admitted to it but only begrudgingly.
Wanting to give him every benefit of the doubt, the organization had assembled a small committee to oversee his restoration—if such a thing was possible. “If we can help him reestablish his position of good-standing, we’d like to do so,” was their thinking. I genuinely admired the nobility of their objective.
But several months into it, things had not gone so well and they asked if I would sit in on one of their committee meetings to make some observations and recommendations, me being The Drama Review person and all. (Do you call that a drama king?) I’d like to share with you some of what I shared with them.
These dear folks were spent, exhausted. As I’ve said before, doing something that’s tiring but observably productive gives back more energy than that expended. But if your efforts produce few results, you end up exhausted. All of their hard work had come to naught and they were tired. As I pointed this out to them—that they were working harder than the person they were trying to help—they wholeheartedly agreed. Like trying to push a rope up a hill, they’d been attempting to reason with an unreasonable person—and failing. And were worn out by the wasted effort.
These dear folks were confused. One of the first things they told me was, “If he were to walk into this room right now, you’d instantly like him. He’s charming, engaging, and seemingly sincere about everything he says.” Indeed, there were many times when he appeared to be genuinely contrite. He would hang his head in shame and say things like, “This was all my doing and I feel really bad about the damage I’ve caused.” But at other times, he was defensive and dismissive, wondering why we couldn’t all just “move on.” So, who was he? The sorrowful penitent or the arrogant rationalizer? That was confusing.
These dear folks were being exploited. These are people who value kindness and eschew harshness. And from what I could glean, this guy had figured out how to exploit their niceness in ways that often got him off the hook. Niceness is a strength but it can also make you vulnerable. I pointed out that the actions necessary to handle this situation well would probably make them feel like they were being, well, mean. Their stance would have to be: Here’s what we expect you to do and here are the consequences if you don’t. And if they followed through with the consequences, they weren’t being mean, they were simply being clear. But he’ll then interpret their clarity as meanness. So, be ready for it.
Handle him as you would a child. As I’ve said many times before, drama people are children in the bodies of adults. They’re chronologically older than their developmental ages. Like a child getting Mom to say yes after Dad has already said no, this guy would try to split the group, getting them at cross purposes with each other. They had to be aware of that and make sure they always stayed on the same page. If he “misbehaved” so to speak, don’t ask him why he did it for that would only invite justification. Just apply the consequences. Whatever you might do with a child throwing a temper tantrum, I told them, do the adult version of that with him.
Avoid giving him a checklist of good behaviors. They had done this—defining change in such a way that he could check the boxes and say, “See, I’ve done what you asked.” The problem was that his change always felt superficial, like he’d done it only because there was a metaphorical gun to his head. It would be better, I told them, to leave the change evidence more vaguely defined. Their stance needed to be: “You’ll need to convince us over time that your change is genuine as evidenced by patterns that are tangibly different. It’s your responsibility to convince us.” If he actually did that, it’d feel less like box-checking and more like a change of heart.
Let him go. When I first arrived, they told me about the written agreement they’d made with this guy. Here’s what he’s agreed to do, they told me. I then asked what the consequences would be if he failed to keep the agreement. “Well, we haven’t actually spelled that out.” They had unwittingly left the consequences for his lack of follow through undefined. And without clear consequences, he had no incentive to change. As “mean” as it sounded, one of those consequences had to be the “right foot of fellowship.” He might be required to dissociate himself from the group. That’s the bad news. The good news would be that they could get back to raising their own children and stop raising this one.
Sometimes one or two people in a group may recognize the drama person who is trying to split. They may remain the only people seeing what is going on as the turmoil ensues.
I was thinking of my manipulative, alcoholic “adult” son while reading this and realized that this applies to me. He has had many consequences brought on by my not rescuing him, but he will brag about how he made his bed, saying it’s a small step in the right direction, and I lavish praise on him. After reading this, I will no longer praise a 50-yr old man for making his bed. I will praise him when he actually does something to improve his life!
Good thoughts, thanks.
Hi Alan, I am looking at this and thinking about applying this in some sort of fashion to couples counseling when one is dealing with the after-effects of an affair and is trying to rebuild trust. I tell the victim and the offender that this will take complete openness followed by the offender being willing to change his/her behaviors to build trust (whatever the victim feels will help increase trust – ie. let him/her view cell phone daily, look at computer/ put tracking on computer, etc). There has to be a “consequence” if the affair continues – such as a possible separation or the victim may decide he/she is done.
Cheryl ( I was at your talk in Pittsburgh – it was great!)
I agree with you, Cheryl. If there is no consequence, there is no incentive to change. Hopefully, the change will eventually sustain itself without the threat of consequence but, early on, it may be essential.
I have evaluated people whose profiles come out as “normal” and that is because they are super clever and know how to provide the proper answers.
That is certainly often the case.